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Mystic Seaport in Four Hours
Mystic, Connecticut

MysticIt took me 50 years to finally visit Mystic Seaport, and it made me wish I were 10 again. Billed unflinchingly as "the Museum of America and the Sea" Mystic has expanded to fill 37 acres. It covers the area, according to the promotional materials, once occupied by three of the five original shipyards in the area. The tour bus from Portsmouth, NH dropped us off at noon with four hours to explore 60 buildings. That’s roughly 10 acres an hour and a building every four minutes -- if we didn't stop for lunch. Adults pay $17 and despite an excellent map and clearly organized exhibits, the whirl-wind first-timer can expect to be disoriented. It took me most of the visit to get the lay of the land.

The earliest exhibit areas at the far end of the campus include a cluster of nautical museums that, on their own, require a four hour visit. There’s a scrupulously tidy theme-park village clustered along the reconstructed historic waterfront, as well as a mini-town with common, tree-lined dirt roads, full-sizde houses, pub and church. There is an active shipyard for boat building and repair. There are a two large stationery ships, smaller historic boats, boat rides, boat museums, ship models, boat houses, a boat yard and docking spaces. There are teaching programs for graduate and undergraduate students, and discovery learning programs for kids of all ages. The effect is as if Disneyland crashed headlong into the Salem-Peabody or Kendall Whaling Museum – something for everyone, and even more, once you get your sea legs. All this runs along a scenic Connecticut river that is beautiful no matter where you turn, especially on a sunny day in May -– just ahead of the main summer season. The museum is open every day except Christmas. Here, in a nutshell, is our annotated disposable first impression. --JDR



 To get into the Mystic Seaport campus, visitors enter via a spacioius visitor's center. Only the gift shop and restaurant are accessible to nonpaying members, who also get to a partial view over a fence and through the windows. This adds to the "other worldly" feeling of the reconstructed village. 


The first thing we noticed were kids with sleeping bags wandering through the town common. The sense of Mystic as an educational center pervades the campus. We didn't bump into a single re-enactor or costumed character as at many history theme parks. Volunteer interpreters in modern dress (700 in all) staff the many buildings, greet visitors who wander about, and offer explanations in a casual New England style.


It took us, as adults, an hour or more to adjust to the odd mix of museum, seaport, and reconstructed village. Most buildings appear to be authentic, moved from other locations. The streets are artificially wide to handle the flow of walkers, free of vehicles and free of all litte, sounds and smells.. The effect is a bit ghostly, like wandering a Hollywood movie set after hours. That feeling fades, and kids probably don't notice it at all -- this tidy, compartmentalized view of history. Always there is a mast in the distance to guide the wanderer back to the reconstructed seaport where the ships rule the landscape.


Some portions of the Mystic campus really feel like another era.  This scene outside the tavern is one. (See photo at top of page too.) The big mistake we made was not packing a lunch. There is no "fast" food, drink or snack concesions here among the three eateries. Servise was polite, but we lost a good chunk of our short visit waiting for a noon meal; bad planning on our part. The lack of souvenir and snack sales on the campus is wonderful, but first-timers should be warned to bring provisions. 


The museum buildings at the far end of the campus are part of the original Mystic Seaport, built, it appears, by a more exclusive yachting group when the concept began in 1929. Here are the traditional ship models and half models, more formal maritime displays, and now, an enormous museum building with scores of modern exhibitis abour America's relationship to the sea.  It seemed, to a first-timer, like too many themes dealt with quickly, like a walk throuigh a maritime encyclopedia -- lobsterting, immigration, naval warfare, submarines, seafood, women and the sea, black history, pleasure boats, cargo ships, sea captains, whaling, the Navy, etc. etc. We should have visited the web site first to understand the interplay of themes. Each display was well designed, but clearly better viewing for members who can come back time and again by purchasing an annual pass. On the top floor of the Stillman building we played with some superb teaching software for kids and relaxed watching a series of short videos.   In the impressive hall of carved ship figureheads we discovered an old friend -- JENNY LIND -- recently on display in Portsmouth, NH, now among her wooden companions at Mystic.


Opinions and photos courtesy of J. Dennis Robinson  
Text copyright © 2002 All rights reserved.

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