Courtesy National Museum of American History
The National Museum of American History’s maritime collections has its roots in the National Watercraft Collection. The oldest material in the collection are from 19th century international exhibitions held in London, Bergen, Norway, and other locations around the world. The material then came to the National Museum, and when NMAH opened in 1964, the material was transferred to its collections. The focus of these collections was maritime technology, not the stories of the communities, people, involved in maritime activities. The On the Water project was originally part of the America on the Move exhibition, which provided an opportunity to revise the transportation exhibition that had remained mostly unchanged since the museum opened. The maritime portion of the exhibition had started out as ship models and marine engines, and while an upgrade in the 1970s had a more interpretive approach, the opportunity to upgrade the maritime exhibition as part of America on the Move in the early 2000s provided an opportunity for a new approach. “We said ‘ok, this is where we are going to look at some of the new scholarship, we are going to look at ways in which we can help our visitors understand how important maritime history has been in all different ways in this country, how important it still is and how it is something that relates to people who are not the stereotypical old man in the sea.’” This new perspective on how to interpret America’s maritime history is firmly focused on the power of material culture and required a commitment to do new research on objects already in the collection. It provided an opportunity to find the stories of real people and their experiences told in their own words. “…it would be women, it would be children; it would be people of color, it would be this broader look at people at different periods of time and in their own words, something about their experience with water, whether it is coastal, whether it is at sea, whether it is in a river environment.” Such an approach allowed for a more dynamic exploration of maritime culture.
This porcelain tea set was made in England between 1751 and 1783 and represents the type of service used by the well-to-do. Courtesy National Museum of American History
The exhibition guides visitors through American’s maritime history and culture in chronological order. Life in the Atlantic World 1450-1800 explores the new links of maritime connections, their impacts on tastes and trade, the forced crossings of the slave trade, and, through a contrast of fact and fiction, the impact of piracy on Atlantic trade. Maritime Nation1800-1850 traces America’s fight for independence and the role of seaports and trade in strengthening the foundations of a new nation. Fishing for a Living 1840-1920 highlights how oceans, ports, and rivers have been a source of not only food but also profit. Inland Waterways 1820-1940 emphasizes the importance of rivers in the expansion of the nation, connecting a network of cities and towns. Ocean Crossings 1870-1969 documents the role of ocean liners in immigration and leisure. The nation’s experiences in World Wars I & II are documented in Answering the Call 1917-1945, and visitors are reminded how modern maritime activities continue to connect people and markets around the world in Modern Maritime America.
Journal of Alexander Van Valen. Courtesy National Museum of American History Alexander Van Valen
The power of the exhibition lies in its objects which capture a variety of moments in the history of the nation along with a variety of voices and experiences. An ordinary 18th century tea set invites visitors to think about how an ordinary object connects to the impact the larger Atlantic maritime world had on culture and people. The economic demands of nations which drove trade convey the consumer side of the story, while the story of the sugar trade highlights the scale of an enterprise which demanded an enormous collection of ships, land, and human lives. The Gold Rush journal of New Yorker Alexander Van Valen provides a first-hand account not only of his 200-day voyage which took him and his fellow passengers around the Cape Horn at the tip of South America, but also 19th century San Francisco and mining operations.
Collection of fish hooks, stone sinkers, baskets, shell jewelry, and images borrowed from The National Museum of Natural History allowed for the exploration of the relationships between Native Americans along the west coast, in California and Oregon, and the waters they fished. The role of fisheries to the nation’s economy and culture is also explored through the stories of the Atlantic Cod in Gloucester, Massachusetts, oysters in the Chesapeake Bay, and the salmon canneries of Astoria, Oregon. The experiences of those involved in the various fisheries and the impacts of technological and social trends on the fisheries themselves are documented in ship models, tools, baskets, photographs, posters, and carvings. A bottle of oil, a lamp, corset stays, an umbrella, a ship’s log, and recordings of songs and stories are some of the objects used to highlight another industry, whaling, which played an integral role in daily American life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Courtesy National Museum of American History
On the Water also traces the various inland river narratives which combined to form the larger American relationship with its waterways. A manifest of enslaved individuals sold down river to work in cotton, the lighthouse lens from Galveston Bay where residents took refuge in 1900 during a hurricane (which ultimately destroyed most of the city of Galveston), and the annotated navigation charts of Captain Jack Libby of the Mississippi River towboat James Faris are some of the objects which present histories and experiences from the networks created by the Great Lakes, Erie Canal, Missouri, Mississippi, and Ohio rivers. Such narratives allow the visitor to encounter the complexities of the connections between land, water, and the people living along the banks of the nation’s waterways.
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