At Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, children dart from building to building like schools of fish, slowing only when caught in the net of one of the museum’s evangelical docents.
Of all the museums singing the glory of New England’s maritime past, Mystic Seaport may be the loudest in the choir. With 144 buildings and a fleet of wooden ships anchored in its harbor, the museum is set up like an old port town—albeit a much cleaner one, with high-end dining and interior plumbing. If Martha Stewart commanded an armada of fishing vessels, she’d sail from Mystic, Connecticut. It’s a historical wonderland particularly for the under-five-foot crowd. Children dart from building to building like schools of fish, slowing only when caught in the net of one of the museum’s evangelical docents. Hop onto a ship and someone will demonstrate how to climb the rigging. Poke your head into a shack and a talkative blacksmith will stress the importance of properly crafted gaff hooks. Some days there’s even a band. “Ever hear a sea chantey, kid? No? Then here we go!”
Mystic Seaport tends to celebrate the art and the romance of maritime life—more sailboats and scrimshaw than scurvy and slavery—making it an ideal place for children to first hear the siren call of the sea. The celestial maps of the Treworgy Planetarium and the museum’s shrine-like hall of figureheads are enough to make most young visitors pack their toys in a gunny sack and fantasize about signing on to the next ship sailing.
At the far end of the campus stands the museum’s preservation pièce de résistance: a fully functional shipyard. Visitors are welcome to tour the facility and watch the museum’s crew of honest-to-God shipwrights practice their ancient craft. This year, they completed their greatest opus, a five-year restoration of the Charles W. Morgan, the largest wooden merchant ship, and the last wooden whaler, left afloat.
From May through August this year, the ship will serve as a mobile classroom, carrying the museum’s message to ports along the New England coast; it will return to Mystic in the fall to resume its role as an exhibit, welcoming museum visitors aboard. Conservators believe the ship won’t need another retrofit for at least 40 years, when, they hope, the kids the Seaport enchants today will be old enough to make a donation.