Back on September 13, I published The Fyddeye Guide to America’s Maritime Museums. I’m hoping people will use the book to find local and national museums that specialize in telling the story of our country’s relationship to the sea. To help you understand the “why” of the book, I’d like to publish the introduction here.
History museums serve a peculiar function. They hold fragments of collective memory, inviting us to struggle to find a whole. They allow us to suss out meaning, usually incomplete, in order to know where we are as humans. They aren’t really about the past, but about the present.
Maritime museums look at a specific facet of the collective jewel of recollection, our culture’s relationship to water in the form of oceans, lakes and rivers. They permit us to construct a present version of the past, often in the context of a journey from one place to the next, with the body of water playing the same role as the stage in a play. And because the past is created with every tick of the clock, and we change with time passing, we build new versions of the past based on different ideas or experiences, often using the artifacts, documents and art the museums preserve.
Without the history museum, our society risks losing reference points for our collective identity.
Other than their focus on water, one thing sets maritime museums apart from other history institutions: their scale. No other museum has anything as big as an aircraft carrier or a battleship as an artifact. In fact, a number of maritime museums have more than one large vessel. Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., has an aircraft carrier, a destroyer, and a submarine. Battleship Cove in Fall River, Mass., has a battleship, a destroyer, and a submarine. In terms of non-military vessels, the San Francisco National Maritime Historical Park has two large cargo vessels, a ferry, two tugs, and more. No museum on land can match this kind of collection.
Not every maritime museum can boast big boats. Some museums, such as the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, New York, preserve and display only small craft, such as motorboats or sailboats. (The Antique Boat Museum has more than 320!) However, in many cases, these smaller museums specialize in passing on boatbuilding skills, especially with wood. They call on elders to work with young people, ensuring their knowledge won’t be lost with time.
The Fyddeye Guide to America’s Maritime Museums encourage you to explore the work of maritime museums from Alaska to Florida. The Guide lists more than 250 museums that either specialize in maritime history or have large collections of maritime artifacts, documents, and art work, such as paintings and ship models. Though not all 50 states host a maritime museum, and not all museums with maritime artifacts can be called a “maritime” museum, we’ve tried to be as comprehensive as possible to give you as many choices as possible as you travel our amazing country.
What purpose do you think history museums serve?