Jailee, OHNY’s program coordinator, went to visit the recently reopened South Street Seaport Museum two weeks ago. The museum closed in early 2011 due to financial difficulties and was launched anew through the help of a one year partnership with the Museum of the City of New York. Sixteen new galleries have now been reopened and filled with a collection ranging from ships in a bottle to contemporary furniture design and fashion. The location of the museum at 12 Fulton Street is just as exciting as the work displayed inside. Its low ceilings and exposed rafters play tribute to the site’s rich history.


I must confess that I never had a chance to see the old version of the South Street Seaport Museum, but I can say that I was truly struck by both the building and the exhibition displays of this reborn institution. I tend to gravitate toward art museums, not history museums, but I enjoyed every minute – so much so that I believe I came close to getting locked in when I realized that it was 15 minutes past closing time and I was still wandering around in the deserted galleries alone (although I’m sure a docent would have shooed me towards the door eventually).

Much of the objects on view are from the museum’s original collection. I first stepped into a room that had a stunning display of ships in bottles. I think I share with most people a fascination with these creations – there are many of these delicate works of art on view and a small display case demonstrating their building process. I won’t spoil the magic and tell you how it’s done – you’ll have to visit the museum to see.

A number of galleries feature design objects that have been manufactured in New York – a means to remind visitors that New York once did (and still does) build and manufacture things. The most striking aspect of these displays is that they are not meant to be strictly didactic – they are arranged and presented more like works of art. In the museum as a whole, there seems to be more stress on the aesthetic impact of the objects and the gallery space rather than historical information.

The result, as you can see, is a dynamic presentation of amazing pieces, such as these model ships. Note the exposed original brick in the background. If you examine the wood beams on the ceiling, you can see that new beams have been added to add structural integrity to the building, but the old ones are also still in tact. You can even pick out some charred beams that must have been through a fire in the past.

There is a gallery devoted to the photography of Edward Burtynsky. These images were taken in Bangladesh where 52% of decommissioned large ships are broken apart and destroyed. The images are incredibly beautiful and also very haunting.

On temporary display is an exhibition of photographs that document the Occupy Wall Street movement. A general call for images was organized by the museum and the curators chose their best images to display in the exhibition.

Just like OWS, the images display a dynamic mix between humor and struggle. I was amazed to be reminded at how wide-spread the movement has become – stretching to all areas of the city, involving young kids and senior citizens. It may be hard to yet reflect on how OWS will shape our political and cultural future, but these documents certainly capture the spirit.

The museum presents many unique exhibition displays. In this gallery, a projection on a topographical map of New York explained how different parts of Manhattan have evolved over time. This is displayed in a dark gallery with large projected images of different landscapes of the city. Again, more beautiful than informative, but nonetheless an engaging way to display history.

One of the best parts of the experience was just being inside this historic building. You can get a glimpse of many of the old features. Rather than fully renovate the space, the museum has simply re-purposed it. I found myself staring at the walls and ceiling as much as on the objects on view.

The photo above is a glass floor panel that shows the old elevator space of the building, which used to be the Fulton Ferry Hotel from 1874-1935. This elevator shaft was rediscovered by Joseph Mitchell and Louis Morino, owners of Sloppy Louie’s Restaurant on the ground floor. Mitchell wrote about the Fulton Fish Market and the surrounding area in a number of popular stories for the New Yorker in the 1940s and 1950s. The story, “Up in the Old Hotel” was inspired by artifacts Mitchell found in this elevator shaft.

Another view of (what I think) are the pulleys and ropes of the original elevator.

The 16 newly designed gallery spaces of the South Street Seaport Museum show that this museum has a bright future ahead of it thanks to the help of the Museum of the City of New York. You can also take advantage of the partnership between the two museums: if you purchase entry to the Museum of the City of New York, you also have access to the South Street Seaport Museum (and vice versa).

South Street Seaport Museum
12 Fulton Street

1 Comment to Field Trip Friday: South Street Seaport Museum

  1. Dayrl Grimes's Gravatar Dayrl Grimes
    August 23, 2012 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    This museum looks old, but this doesn’t take away the beauty of its design and artifacts. I don’t know bout you guys, but I really appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of the different museums. I’ve seen museums with steel floor joist, or ones that have simple wooden floor. I think what interests me the most is the different themes it tries to portray depending on the artifacts they have to exhibit.

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