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New Mystic Seaport president talks present and future

From July 1 to 11, over 31,000 folks visited the Mystic Seaport Museum.

It's an impressive total, even in the context of a culturally starved populace emerging from coronavirus pandemic restrictions — and even with the fact the figure is no doubt bolstered by the state's Summer at the Museum Program, which runs through Sept. 6 and provides free admission to Connecticut children 18 and younger and an accompanying adult.

That initiative, along with a $1.3 million reimbursement from the state to promote tourism, has with other grants, awards and private and corporate contributions helped keep Mystic Seaport afloat.

This is all of great significance as new seaport President Peter Armstrong — who was appointed in February — and his staff now evaluate and conceptualize exhibitions, programs and events to reflect a post-COVID vision for the facility.

A native of Newcastle upon Tyne, England, Armstrong previously worked at the United Kingdom's Royal Armories Museum and as director at the Jamestown-Yorktown museums in Virginia.

"Attendance numbers are great at the moment," Armstrong said Tuesday in a phone interview, "but I don't think people appreciate how hard the pandemic hit. There's also the perception that COVID is over and that we now have plenty of revenue. It's not over, and, sadly, we don't (have that perceived revenue)."

In 2020, Mystic Seaport museum was closed in April and May and then reopened Memorial Day weekend with COVID-19 precautions in place.

Working within the existing financial situation, and in anticipation of fulfilling Armstrong's vision for the museum, he said visitors can expect some changes. And the extent of those changes has fueled heated speculation and commentary on social media about programs or aspects of the facility that won't continue or will be significantly altered.

Most of the concern seems to be centered on a decision to stop the annual early-summer Sea Music Festival; changes to the on-site presence of role-playing employees depicting tradesmen, boatbuilders and other figures one would expect to see in a 19th-century seaport; and whether the holiday Lantern Light Tours will continue.

Sea Music Fest out; Mystic Riverfest in

Armstrong patiently addressed these concerns in the interview and acknowledged that, yes, the Sea Music Festival has been canceled. "We simply don't have the resources to put on an event like the Sea Music Festival that draws a limited audience," he said. "I appreciate that people enjoyed it, but we simply can't afford the time or expenditures for such things as accommodations for the artists. We have to focus on a wider constituency."

To that end, Oct. 9-11, the seaport is presenting "Mystic Riverfest," an event that includes one day of traditional sea music sandwiched between two days of music programming focused on more contemporary demographics. There will be a food component — possibly food trucks — family activities and an autumnal motif, as well.

"A broader curriculum allows us to feature traditional music as well as hopefully draw old and new visitors to the seaport," Armstrong said.

Where are the costumed interpreters?

"We continue to use costumed performers in our education programs and specific events formerly — the Lantern Light Village is an event example — where they are directly relevant to the story," museum spokesman Dan McFadden said in an email. "We do not have them roaming the grounds on a daily basis, because that locks us into a specific time and place, and we want an environment where our interpreters can tell the maritime history story across a wide swath of time and make connections to show relevance to today's world."

New take on Lantern Light

The Lantern Light Village, which is based on the old Lantern Light Tours at holiday time, will continue in its new format at a date to be determined after Thanksgiving. Another seasonal event, the Halloween Jack-o-Lantern Walk, also instigated last year, takes place Oct. 26-30.

Other traditional favorites scheduled are the Wooden Boat Show on Aug. 20-22 and the Community Carol Sing on Dec. 19.

Moving ahead

In February, Armstrong told The Day the museum will "continue rolling out new exhibits, programs and demonstrations along with featuring more modern vessels and telling the story of how people rely on the sea in ways they may not realize. You don't want to see the same thing you saw the last time you were here." He also said, referring to the mix of old, new and eliminated events, "(This) is not a heartless look at the bottom line. We have to consider staff time, the museum's mission, whether it will resonate with our audience and expenses."

He points to a forecast that suggests a lot of American museums will not reopen.

According to a June 1 news release from the American Alliance of Museums, "About 85 percent of (museum) directors now believe there is no significant risk of their museum's permanent closure in the next six months; 15 percent confirmed there was a 'significant risk' of permanent closure or they 'didn't know' if they would survive the next six months absent additional financial relief."

While there is certainly cause for cautious optimism with those statistics, 15% is the equivalent of 5,000 museums.

Staffing concerns

After Tuesday's interview, the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, or SVOG, a federal grant program created by the Economic Aid to Hard-Hit Small Businesses, Non-profits and Venues Act, which includes $15 billion in grants to shuttered entertainment venues, awarded 94 grants totalling almost $65 million to Connecticut, including $3,976,572 to Mystic Seaport.

McFadden said, "Obviously this is great news, and the funds will help us recover from a horrendous 2020. However, this is not something where we can state immediately where we will allocate the money. We need to review the specific rules for the grant and our trustees will need to vote to accept it."

"We can say generally the focus for the museum is to build a more robust employee base — better pay, benefits, more comprehensive training — so people can make working here a better career, and that the programming emphasis will be on events and activities that have an impact on a wider audience, particularly in the area of diversity," he said.

During the pandemic, the seaport laid off several employees and the decision has been made to eliminate some of the positions permanently. Armstrong acknowledged the museum won't be able to rehire everyone but said, "We have made offers to some of our employees if they want to come back, and some decided to do so and some decided not to."

He added that they'd like the role of tradesmen — the blacksmiths and sail-setters, for example — to be more proactive in the context of teaching programs. Interns could apprentice on site and then potentially return and contribute in a similar capacity down the road.

"If we have a world-class blacksmith, it only makes sense to have him train others. And we're not losing the sail-setters, but the idea is to use them to train younger persons," Armstrong said. "As it is, the public might come and see someone set sails, and be entertained — and then they leave. If people are being taught while this is happening, it becomes more productive."

Though the training program isn't up and running, McFadden said, "We've formulated the program and identified some of the talented people we'd like to hire as instructors, but there's no formal recruiting or jobs posted yet ... it will start sometime in the fall."

"Everything we're doing is an ongoing process," Armstrong said. "We'd like to have as large a staff as possible to do what we envision. I'm not sitting at my desk deliberately taking away events or eliminating jobs. I'm just trying to run an important museum the best way I know how coming out of a pandemic."

r.koster@theday.com 

If you go

Other new and ongoing Mystic Seaport Museum programs:

• The Arts on the Quad monthly concert series continues Saturday with a 6:30 p.m. performance by the New London Big Band.

• "A Spectacle in Motion: The Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage 'Round the World" is on loan from the New Bedford Whaling Museum. The panorama changes according to the appropriate port of call of a working whaling ship in the mid-19th century. Currently depicting Faial, Azores, the panorama will shift Aug. 19 to Cape Verde, with an on-site festival of the culture on display.

• The "Moby Dick" Marathon reading is Aug. 31 with the structure altered to cover selected chapters instead of the whole novel

• The new "Sea as Muse" exhibition opens Sept. 18

• By Land and Sea antique car show and customer appreciation night on Sept. 25

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