Maritime Museum Sets Sail Today The New Waterfront Home Stresses The City's Marine Heritage. It Was Six Years In The Planning.

Posted: July 02, 1995

Born a quarter-century ago as a small collection of marine artifacts, the burgeoning Philadelphia Maritime Museum has spent most of its short life hankering after the sea.

Today, it officially debuts on the waterfront at Penn's Landing as the Independence Seaport Museum, a 100,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art look at Philadelphia's marine heritage.

"A maritime museum really belongs down here on the waterfront - and that's true whether you're in Amsterdam or in Philadelphia," said John S. Carter, the museum's president.

But the realization of that vision - which involved the refurbishment of the underused Port of History Museum - was not easy.

It culminates more than six years of planning, negotiations with the city, state and performing arts groups, and a $15 million capital campaign called Our Voyage Home.

"We're all still in a state of shock that we're here," said museum curator Jane Allen, who started her career at the Maritime Museum, then at 321 Chestnut St., 17 years ago. Allen said discussions of moving to the waterfront had already begun when she first came to the museum.

The Independence Seaport Museum houses two permanent exhibitions, "Home Port: Philadelphia" and "Divers of the Deep," as well as a boat-building ''Workshop on the Water," a research library, 550-seat auditorium, storage facilities, temporary exhibition gallery and gift shop.

The museum, which has a $3 million annual budget and cost $15 million to refurbish, also will operate two historic ships: the USS Olympia - one of the nation's first steel warships and Commodore Dewey's flagship - and the USS Becuna, a World War II submarine.

The museum's opening follows by one day the debut of "Ocean Base Atlantic," a new permanent exhibition at the New Jersey State Aquarium designed to double that institution's flagging annual attendance of about 500,000.

Carter predicted last week that his museum's attendance will more than double, from 125,000 to 300,000. In the past, the two historic ships had a visitation of 180,000, "so we really think that we're in the ballpark," Carter said.

He said he expected that about 60 percent of visitors would come from within a 50-mile radius of the museum, the same number that visited the small museum.

A former ship's captain and shipwright, Carter came to the Maritime Museum six years ago from the Maine Maritime Museum to oversee its transition to a larger facility.

In its new venue, Carter said, the museum has broadened its focus - formerly somewhat technical - to encompass Philadelphia's role as port city and to appeal to a broader range of visitors.

It has supplemented its traditional displays of paintings, nautical artifacts and ship models with a variety of audiovisual and interactive exhibits and, he said, tried to endow its exhibits with theatrical flair.

"We wanted our museum to connect more with people," Carter said. "We wanted to strike a better balance between the real artifacts - the piece of the true cross - and telling the story . . . in an imaginative way . . . that would hopefully engage people more than our standard old ship-in-a-case did."

In the museum's centerpiece exhibition, "Home Port: Philadelphia," visitors can listen to recollections by former longshoreman Lucien Blackwell and other less well-known vistors; watch films on immigrant life in Philadelphia, and play a fishing game that illuminates the dangers of pollution.

They can walk under a large model of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, climb into bunk beds and hear the voices of European immigrants traveling steerage, simulate the processes of riveting and welding, and manipulate a miniature crane.

Designed by Museum Design Associates of Cambridge, Mass., the exhibition focuses on 19th- and 20th-century Philadelphia and also incorporates some of the museum's finest artifacts, from detailed ship models to a newly acquired Edward Moran painting called The Packet Thomas P. Cope Arriving in Philadelphia.

Allen said the museum wanted to inspire an emotional reaction in its visitors.

"In this location, it's a nonmaritime general audience, and we wanted it to appeal to all levels of interest," she said. "We didn't want to be intimidating."

A temporary exhibition called Shipyard Days features the voices and stories of soon-to-be-laid-off employees of Philadelphia Navy Yard. And a second permanent installation, Divers of the Deep, looks at underwater exploration through the eyes of explorers.

The Independence Seaport Museum, whose collection totals more than 15,000 artifacts, required two additions to the old Port of History building. Carter said it also has the capacity for further expansion.

Founded in 1960 by Philadelphia attorney J. Welles Henderson and incorporated a year later, the museum was initially just a few cases of materials housed at the Athenaeum on Washington Square. It moved to the 400 block of Chestnut Street before settling into its 321 Chestnut St. headquarters in 1974.

When Carter arrived at the Maritime Museum, "it was a neat museum, but it didn't have a lot of public visitation, it was vertically oriented, . . . it had very small galleries," he said. "There were a lot of problems with doing a good public presentation."

Bursting at the seams with artifacts, large and small, the museum set its sights on the Port of History building, built for the 1976 bicentennial celebration and the site of occasional exhibitions.

Only after the state transferred control of the property to the city was the museum able to sign a long-term lease.

The 1993 lease with the Penn's Landing Corp. requires the museum to pay an annual rental fee of $40,000, as well as a percentage of surplus revenues.

When the lease was announced, some performing arts groups, notably the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, worried that they would lose the use of the building's acoustically fine auditorium for their concerts.

The issue was resolved, Carter said, through a deal permitting the groups access to the now-renovated auditorium in accordance with a sliding-scale fee schedule set up by the city.

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