A friend and I took the 9:02 Metro North from Grand Central to New Haven yesterday to meet up with someone for lunch and a trip to the Mystic Seaport Museum. The morning train was packed with people heading out for their three-day weekend; the evening train was less crowded, but had its share of young folks on their way into the city for their Saturday night. To say that the party had already begun would be an understatement. More power to them.
I had never been to the Mystic Seaport Museum before and it was way more than what I expected. It was not until a few years ago as I began to delve deeper into the colonial and Early American periods that I understood how connected the world already was even ~300 years ago. Shipping lanes around the globe were tied together by merchants and the captains who worked for them, all of it underwritten by investors and insurance companies in a manner more sophisticated than many today might imagine. We don’t give the people of the past the credit that they deserve. I have given and taken hundreds of tours by this time in my life and know what to look for as the interpreter is giving his or her presentation. Invariably I ask a number of questions, but never in a manner that takes over the conversation or plays gotcha with the guide. I can tell you that the people there at the seaport museum were uniformly excellent. The Mystic Seaport Museum would be a tricky place to do interpretation because the visitors seemed made up largely of families with young children. Tailoring one’s talk for different age levels and levels of interest is a tricky balance. This would be especially true in Mystic because one of the museum’s central topics is whaling. Whale oil and whale by-products were once huge parts of the world’s economy. Whale oil lit the world’s homes and streets, and lubricated the machinery of the Industrial Revolution. Jewelers used it watches, clockmakers in the gears of grandfather clocks, and women in the maintenance of their sewing machines. Explaining how that economy worked, especially in the presence of small children, would be difficult. I must say that the people at the Mystic Seaport Museum did so in am intelligent and sophisticated manner.