More Than Words: Explaining the mission of The Mariners’ Museum and Park

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You learned the mission statement. Maybe you even memorized the words, but if someone asked you “why?”, “how?” could you explain the point? School songs, organizations’ codes, institutional missions – all too often these important and carefully crafted statements are recited without much attention to what the deeper meaning is.

Recently, The Mariners’ Museum and Park underwent a major re-invention of our purpose. We do not want to stand by, stagnantly aging. Instead we aim to become a world leader through our collections and archives, their care and management, and our message to visitors.

What do we do and why is it important? We connect people to the world’s waters because that’s how we’re connected to one another. As exciting as our new mission statement is, what does it mean? How is it possible to tie everyone and everything to waterways? Finding those links sounds exhausting… and maybe it is, but we are here to share those connections with you and WE LOVE IT!

Kevin Bacon; 1984, Footloose

Ever played “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”? This thought-game posits that everyone is only six acquaintances away from the famous Footloose actor. My mother’s third-cousin has a friend of a friend who got an autograph from Jennifer Lawrence who starred alongside Kevin Bacon in X-Men: First Class…

Okay, so, maybe that last statement isn’t exactly true, but you get the point.

The game is based off the idea of “Six Degrees of Separation” in which any one thing – person, object, environment – is theoretically only six connections away from any other thing. Maritime archaeological theory (*snore*) has a parallel thought we call “Maritimity”. This theory places the terrestrial world and the maritime world in opposition, or – for short – land versus sea. There is obviously a clear dichotomy between the two. One is wet and one is dry. One supports human life and the other… would drown us. The list goes on.

But land and sea work really well together, too. Throughout human history the sea has been a transportation mechanism, navigational landmark, and food source for us “landlubbers”. It has also significantly influenced and even changed cultural worldviews. Instead of thinking about land and sea pitted against each other, think about maritimity as a scale: how maritime is an object?

Perhaps you’re now thinking, “Prove it! What can you connect to the sea?” Well, here are some examples (click the links to visit related artifacts/exhibits in our collection):

1. Just for fun, let’s see how many steps its takes to connect Kevin Bacon to the world’s waterways. Yes, I am sure Mr. Bacon has been to the beach before, maybe he’s even been on a boat, but that’s just too easy. However, he starred in A Few Good Men, a 1992 drama about a court case against some Marines. Marine units were aptly named because they were originally fighting units onboard naval – “marine” – vessels. I promise there are other Kevin Bacon/maritime connections, but for now…BOOM! Maritimity!

2. Do you like cinnamon? How about turmeric or ginger? I know you like pepper! Today these spices are used daily by hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, of people. Did you know that originally, these spices could cost more than their weight in gold? Spices we now take for granted were once so luxurious that even the European mega-rich had a hard time purchasing them. The “roads” from Western Europe to Asia, where many of these spices originated, were treacherous. Spice traders – middle men, so to speak – could charge exorbitant amounts for their wares. At one time this was the largest trading industry in the world! So, what began the decline in spice prices? Advances in maritime navigation and travel. That’s right! You can thank ships for spicing up a once bland world.

3. Did your grandmother ever tell you to “mind your P’s and Q’s”? Called someone a “son-of-a-gun” before? Have you been “bamboozled”? Or maybe you’re the “bamboozler”. Do you wear a “peacoat” in the winter? Maritime slang has significantly changed the English language, too:

– Originally, “minding your P’s and Q’s” was a term barkeeps used to tell sailors to pay their tabs. Back when many people were illiterate, bartenders would keep a tally of the number of pints and quarts (“P’s and Q’s”) a sailor purchased. On payday, that sailor would have to “mind” his bill.

One of many cannon in the Museum’s collection

– Sailors’ were, at one time, allowed to take their wives aboard ship (can you imagine taking your spouse to work with you every day? I certainly can’t). So, when these wives inevitably gave birth during a voyage, they literally had a “son-of-a-gun”, a child born alongside the ship’s broadside cannon (gross).

– “Bamboozled” started out as a pirate attack maneuver. Yep, pirate ships would carry flags from several countries and as a good-lookin’ ship approached, the pirates would raise a flag from an allied country to lull their prey into a false sense of security. Then when the merchant vessel was close enough, the pirates would attack, or “bamboozle” their victims.

Monitor Center staff examine a rare pilot’s coat recovered from the turret

– Maybe it is common knowledge that the “peacoat” started as a naval thing. But how does it make any sense that this type of coat is naval and is named after a vegetable? Short answer, the term has been bastardized over the years. Originally made of “pilot’s cloth”, it was apparently too long to say pilot’s cloth coat, so it got shortened from there to pilot’s coat, then to p-coat. How we “landlubbers” changed that to “peacoat”, I don’t know… I guess someone just really liked vegetables.

Okay, so far these have been pretty clear cut examples, right? Let’s amp-up the difficulty. What clearly does not work well with water? … FIRE! … Au contraire, mon frère. Here are not one, not two, but three(!) of the connections between the world’s waterways and fire.

Note the makeshift stove in the lower left; 9 July 1862

– Everyone likes a nice, hot meal. Even on ship’s there is very often a stove in the galley. Unfortunately, putting a fire onboard your ship also means you risk starting a bigger fire onboard your ship. Heck, fire could even spread on the USS Monitor, an iron ship with nearly no wooden structural components. During the summer of 1862, one such galley fire started and burned down the kitchen. But, still, the crew didn’t want to go without a hot meal, so they constructed a temporary stove on the ship’s deck out of brick and iron bar.

– Fire onboard a ship is clearly a dangerous thing, right? Imagine, a wooden ship has become your home and it is the only thing separating you from frigid seawater. Having your flammable, floating, home-away-from-home catch on fire was probably a pretty bad experience, but, if you used your drinking water to put the fire out, then you had to travel parched – possibly even severely dehydrated or, ya know, dying – until you got to a fresh water source, which is hard to come by in the middle of the ocean. So, how do you put out a fire onboard a ship? With buckets of pee, of course! Save that liquid for reuse!

– Fire was a boat/ship building tool, too. Some cultures used “controlled” burning to shape ship’s timbers. Native Americans even built entire canoes by burning and scraping huge logs! …It’s hard work, trust me.

I hope that you, dear reader, found a personal tie to these examples, but, if you didn’t, we have thousands of other artifacts for you to connect with, because that is what we do! I don’t want to get all “six degrees of separation” on you, but let’s just say I can easily tie a potato farmer from Idaho, the Star Wars movies, or beef jerky to the world’s waterways.

Want to see your maritime story? We want to help you find your connection.

The Mariners’ Museum and Park team is ready to help you

P.S. We’re participating in a writing contest for MuseumHack. Check out their website (https://museumhack.com/writing-contest/) for a new perspective on museum experiences.

 

One thought on “More Than Words: Explaining the mission of The Mariners’ Museum and Park”

  1. Very interesting piece. I enjoy museums and like to figure out how ‘this’ became ‘that’. Now I’m off to check my local museum – The Auckland War Memorial and Museum. Yes, in New Zealand. Our National Museum, Te Papa, has had 1st WW interactive displays complete with sound. Just the smell is missing. Each year is a new display experience appropriate for that year 100 years ago. Very sobering’

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