Imagine 17 acres along the Mystic River, a stone’s throw from the beautiful eastern Connecticut shoreline. Stroll through a seafaring town of the late 1800s, where the shipsmith will teach you how to forge a harpoon over a coal fire. At the cooperage, watch barrel staves being bent. Help set a sail on the tall ship Joseph Conrad or observe a man overboard drill aboard the L.A. Dunton, a classic 19th-century fishing schooner. Take a ride on Sabino, a coal-fired steamboat, or rent one of the small craft available to visitors at the boathouse. All of this is only the beginning, the tiniest taste, of the feast that awaits you at the Mystic Seaport Museum.
I’ve been to the museum three times in the last year, and each time, I come away more in love with the place. Granted, I am a boat nut, but it’s hard to imagine even a sworn landlubber not swooning after a day exploring MSM’s bounty. The truth is, most people never get past the most obvious of the museum’s delights — and with good reason. Scratching the surface is enough to provide days of entertainment, but dig any deeper and you may find yourself looking at local real estate, scheming, as I recently did, about how you could possibly make exploring the magical Mystic Seaport Museum a routine part of your life.
But of course, life at Mystic is never routine. I want to be there when the 24-hour “Moby Dick” reading happens aboard the Charles W. Morgan, the world’s last remaining wooden whaleship. I would love to spend a few months of rainy days going through the museum’s collections of scrimshaw, Rosenfeld photography, model boats, ship plans and manuscripts. I want to know what they’re working on up at the Williams-Mystic labs — the day I stopped by, they had just found the first of an invasive species of European shrimp in a Massachusetts pond! And, perhaps I want — most of all — to slip quietly into the small-craft collection and simply gaze in wonder at the vast, dusty specimens that range from catboats to iceboats to rowing sculls to Hickman Sea Sleds, which slumber in two huge sheds, silently chronicling the lineage of recreational boating over the last 150 years or so. This treasure trove is Mystic’s attic: These boats are documented and preserved for posterity, but there are too many to exhibit, so they’re relegated to mandatory bed rest. When I toured this collection, I had to resist the warring, unseemly urges to jump up and down with excitement and kneel in awe.
Right now, Mystic is running a series of television ads designed to lure families away from the-shopping-mall-as-family-entertainment. As a couple of kids look on in wideeyed delight while the shipsmith hammers hot metal, a salty voiceover declares, “Flames. Hammers. Sparks. Any father can bring his sons to some plastic playscape. But today you took them to Mystic Seaport, and a time when everything was approximately 1,000 percent more awesome. Today, Dad, you earned your sea legs.”
Stephen C. White, Mystic Seaport Museum’s president and CEO, who stepped into his role less than two years ago at one of the most challenging times in the institution’s history, likes the new ads. White used to be headmaster at the Fay School in Southborough, Massachusetts, so he’s an educator with experience at fundraising. He also grew up sailing aboard his family’s Friendship sloop, and he cares deeply about the mission of Mystic Seaport Museum.