On Black Friday, my mother, father, sister, and uncle and I made the hour-and-a-half-or-so drive to St. Michaels, Maryland and visited the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. After we purchased our tickets in the gift shop, we were directed to a staff person who gave us a brochure and encouraged us to go see everything. “Everything is open, but some doors might be closed just to keep the wind out. Go ahead and open doors,” he said. When I asked about photography, he told me I could “click click click!”
The museum is a series of buildings and structures along the water, with boats and the Bay itself part of the displays. In a low-tech way, the museum is highly interactive and multisensory, conveying to visitors the sights, sounds, textures, smells, and tastes of the Chesapeake Bay.
It turned out that almost every door we tried did in fact open, to yet another exhibit or workspace to explore. There were spaces that focused on the evolution of the Bay from a place to work to a place of recreation, crabbing and oystering, duck stamps and duck decoys, and the anatomy of a boat. Other structures had once been located elsewhere but were moved to the museum campus, including the Mitchell House (where Frederick Douglass’s sister Eliza Bailey Mitchell lived, originally located on a different street in St. Michaels), the Tolchester Bandstand (originally located at the Tolchester Beach amusement park in Kent County, Maryland), and the Hooper Strait Lighthouse (originally located at Hooper Strait on the Chesapeake Bay).
In addition to all the sights, visitors could hear the sounds of nature and the audio and video components of exhibits and taste seafood at Crab Claw Restaurant onsite. Authentic smells were everywhere; at one point, inside a building looking at a boat on display, I commented, “It smells like a boat.” And there were plenty of objects visitors could touch.
On a dock, signs instructed visitors to try pulling up the line and seeing if they caught any crabs in the crab pot, or using the oyster nippers to attempt to catch oysters. In the lighthouse, visitors could try out some of the domestic chores and games that would have been part of life in the lighthouse.
Sometimes we visitors wondered about the boundaries to our access. I heard a child remark to his siblings that there were so many weapons in one room and no one watching them. We played with the friendly little barn kitten who lives and is cared for at the museum, joking that my uncle (who hopes to adopt a cat soon) had just found his new pet. Of course, we knew Sprit belonged at her museum home, but we loved playing with her. The museum had a brightly colored and busty female figurehead on display, and a sign quoted carver John M. Cook describing it in 1984: “[M]idshipmen entered the Museum where the Freedom figurehead was and rubbed their hands on the large bosoms for luck.” A disapproving mother of a Midshipman complained to the Admiral, and the figurehead was moved.
The sharp objects on display, the docks without railings leading right to the water, the many touchable objects, the boats and lighthouse through which visitors could climb, and the staff who served much more as greeters than as rule enforcers leant the place a degree of authenticity and lack of security that can be hard to imagine in the city of DC proper. Understandably, not all museums will strike this balance in the same way. The fact that CBMM was able (successfully, as far as I could see on the day of my visit) to offer so much authentic experience led my father to proclaim, “That was such a great museum! There were so many things to do!”