Everything in this universe has a life cycle – even inanimate objects, concepts, or institutions, though they may look different from that of a living being. But there’s always a beginning – a spark or an idea. There are stages of growth, life, aging, and ultimately – an end.
The Story of the Ship is a story of life cycles. In this circa 1924 series by Harry Neyland, the artist uses 5 small oil on panel paintings to illustrate the creation, life, and demise of this vessel. But there are two life cycles directly associated with this series.
I appreciate a good metaphor and whether it was intentional or not, it’s fascinating to learn that the works in this series were the first 5 oil paintings accessioned by The Mariners’ Museum. These paintings mark the beginning of the life cycle of the Museum’s collection.
Building the Ship
Building the Ship. The ship in the painting is in its early stages, illuminated by morning light. It’s surrounded by scaffolding with many people building it. In the same way, the Mariners’ collection was being built. Artifact by artifact, painting by painting. A museum was beginning to take shape.
In the second work in the series, Fitting Out, the ship waits at its pier, almost finished, eager to set sail. The quick sketch-like brushstrokes give an energy to the series. It’s an energy that brings this ship to life suggesting for a moment that it is a being with a life of its own.
The third piece, Under Sail, shows the ship brilliantly illuminated by a warm glowing sun that casts delicate purple shadows on the edges of billowing sails. The ship is proudly under way. The sea sparkles with the reflection of the vessel.
Though it’s 91 years old, this is where I see the Mariners’ today- sailing forward proudly. Taking storms, waves, and challenges one by one and charting new courses while continuing in our mission to connect people to the world’s waters. We, too are “Under Sail” in our metaphorical ship. But this isn’t the first time the Museum has been here, and it won’t be the last.
After the Storm
After the Storm is the fourth step in the life cycle of Neyland’s painted ship. It’s a turning point, one which the artist has underscored by changing the orientation of the ship, flipping its bow from right to left.
The light is low and the ship takes on the same coloration as the waves. The sails dissolve into wispy clouds in the sky. A shadow is cast on this scene, this cycle is drawing to a close.
Finally, The Derelict. The bare bones of the ship sit just past the breakers, run aground and battered for who-knows how many years, the mast and sails long gone. The scene is only illuminated by the final faint glow of the setting sun.
The Nature of Life Cycles
This might feel like an end but it isn’t. Series are many times, presented in order – in a line with a beginning and an ending. We could certainly read the series this way: the subject – Neyland’s ship – shrinks over time. Once having taken over the whole (albeit small) canvas, the vessel shrinks in size to occupy only a small portion of the canvas by the fifth work. Seeing this stylistic choice and having previously only seen all of the pieces separately, I knew that I could present this body of work in a line, but then I realized that in this series Neyland reminds us that life cycles are circular.
This was the point I wanted to underscore, and is a touch of curation that I believe Neyland would appreciate. The artist reminds us of this fact by duplicating the ship’s form in the final and first stages, creating continuity and suggesting that this is not a moment of finality, rather one of opportunity.
Although the destruction of inanimate objects doesn’t particularly give way to new beginnings, there’s a concept of forward motion. It’s in this stage that we can choose to allow the lessons of the past to foster progress in the future. We look back to our origins, not to repeat what has been done but to find inspiration in the spirit of our foundations.
A Wise and Wonderful Challenge
It is this inspiration that bolsters the museum’s metaphorical sails and propels us forward, seeking new connections, new principles, and new eras of discovery. As the winds of society, culture, and Museum practices shift, The Mariners’ Museum and Park is returning to the charge of Archer Huntington. We refuse to be constrained by the ideals of the past and instead seek opportunities in the beginning of a new cycle of progress and innovation.
A Brief Explanation:
I want to conclude with a little extra context here. These blogs are meant to elaborate a bit more on some topics and concepts that I don’t include in the episodes, and I want to especially expound on this topic of life cycles.
I believe The Derelict is not a death, or an end. By saying that the Mariners’ has encountered several life cycles, in no way is to say that the Museum has “died” or “withered away” by any means. In fact, far from it. But there are times when we have had to reinvent ourselves, for the good of the Museum and for the good of the public.
Moments like $1 Admission: Whether you’re a “Museum person” or not, I think it is known that museum visitation is down. Over the past few generations, a dark cloud of unapproachability has been growing and looming over museums. This is perpetuated by astronomical admission prices, content that is geared towards niche audiences, and label copy that is either completely non-existent or written in a way that is neither engaging nor understandable to the public.
This was a derelict moment.
So what happened? A spark, an idea – Building the ship – Admission that is affordable by all. One dollar. Four quarters. A family could come to the Museum during August 2016-18 for the change that fell between the sofa cushions. This was the testing phase, the Fitting Out, and WOW did that work. And so we adopted $1 Admission for all time. This ensures that folks of all backgrounds can come, learn, and explore.
By facing a derelict moment, we were able to shift. Not just our thinking but our metaphorical sails.
Watch the full episode here and look for new blogs and videos each month!