What year is it?

May 2, 2012

Mystic seaport has a Mystic Psychic; why don’t they have a Mystic Mystic? That would have made so much more sense to me.

The town of Mystic reminded me of Pismo Beach but not quite, you know?

I came in cold, not knowing what to expect at all. We took a quick spin around the tiny village (an old map store! a cute sun hat at half off! pizza! Though we ate at a nice fish place). It was small. And quaint. Well, it would have been quaint if there had been less construction (or if there had been sidewalks).

Anyway, after that, everyone asked if I wanted to go to seaport village. How in the world would I know? Thinking about the kitschy seaport village in San Diego, then thinking about the warm, sunny waves, I agreed. I didn’t expect a sudden shift in weather, I knew it was going to be cloudy and slightly chilly but, with everyone looking at me expectantly, I suppose I would have agreed to leaping off a cliff since I had no better plan.

I’m not sure what I expected from Mystic Seaport Village. I’ve never been to something like this before. It is billed as a re-created nineteenth-century coastal village. With some ships, some historic ships. And a working shipyard. I didn’t realize that we were supposed to go into the houses but C saw the grocery store and took me in there. The docent explained that it was set up as a nineteenth-century grocery and here were the things we could touch and over there were the antiques we couldn’t touch.

Ok, I’m getting into it… we went to the chemist’s and saw cure-alls and pickled leeches. The docent suggested he couldn’t keep live leeches fed (I found this surprising given the number of 10-year old boys running around, I’m certain they’d be willing to dare each other into feeding the leeches).

We went into a garden area and then into a house that had a roaring fire. The docent explained about cooking fires (though not about the attendant dangers to the cook) and how the oven was used to bake bread. She said the kitchen was built in 16-something and moved into the house. I think I lost the thread a bit, there is some havoc with people (school groups) coming in and out and the docent tries to have a narrative that can work within that constraint but it is difficult.

We wandered and saw a historic fishing ship, one that launched in 1921 (I didn’t remember, had to look it up) and then it sailed around fishing for awhile, got refitted for cargo and then bought so it could be historic. As others went below to look at the sleeping quarters, I chatted with the docent about dogs and leeches. (What am I doing here?)

For the most part, the docents were interesting and knowledgeable. I would have like to talk to the cooper but he was on break and to the printing press folks but they had a huge group of kids.  Ahhh, the clockmaker, this I could like.

That, of course, was where it all when wrong.

I read about Black Bart and  watched a movie about the Longitude Prize which detailed how marine chronometers are critical to knowing location. It is hard to sail around the oceans if you don’t know where you are. So I kinda knew that and I bet my father-in-law knew it . And we ooh’d over the telescopes and ahh’d over the compasses. We were invited behind the counter to look at the pendulum (land) clocks. I didn’t go, instead asking if he had any gyroscopes.

He said no one had ever asked. And he thought gyroscopes came later.

I tried to subtly wander off and check to see what Wikipedia said. The docent followed and wanted to know what I found:  1860s saw the first gyrocompasses, marine gyrocompass was patented in 1904. So, yeah, a nineteenth century clock store would be interested in the up and coming gyroscopes and the effect they would have on navigation. I bet he went home and read up on gyros of the time; I walked away feeling a like a complete nerd and a little silly.

(Note: the gyro wouldn’t have much of an effect on marine navigation since it couldn’t be used as an inertial measurement unit (IMU) for a long time.  I worked on IMUs for Crossbow, back before they sold the division to MEMSIC. It is a hard problem even now though the problem is making it cheap and accurate (and not just one or the other).)

We went to the rope shop (neat), watched kids climb rigging on old ships, had a snack, and wandered around the historic whaler that was being gutted in dry dock. It was edutainment, not as good as the Frozen Planet TV series but a nice walk. I had a good time but came away a little confused. What year was it supposed to be in Mystic Seaport?

One hundred year spread was too big. For the twentieth century, the spread would be the Wright Flyer and international telegraph to commercial space flight and the iPhone. In a hundred years, if a museum town is built and puts an iPhone next to the Wright Flyer, visitors are going to get a whacko picture of our age. I wish they’d choose a year and narrow in on it, helping people to understand what came before the year and what came after, what was common and what was rare.

I suppose this is the where I rant a bit about museums having the responsibility to curate as well as collect. A well curated display is about determining how to display a collection in a way that makes sense. A lot of it is about selecting what not to show, eliminate the cruft to help outsiders to the creamy center.

Ahh, well, that rant will have to wait. We are off to an art museum. I think our hosts are going to give up on history** since after the paintings, we are either going to the science center (three of four people in our party will be thrilled with this) or the dinosaur park (I think maybe it will be the same three nerds who are excited about dino tracks in the rocks).

** Give up on history until we get to Plymouth where, of course, we will see The Rock.