An exhibit at Mystic Seaport shines a light on the streamlined history of yacht design. Travel back in time with us.
A gleaming Airstream trailer was parked on the front lawn of the exhibition hall at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. It felt out of place in the historic coastal town, an artifact from the wrong era. Families lined up for photos with it, and people peered at the sign posted in front.
It was exactly the reaction that Director of Exhibits Elysa Engelman was hoping for. “Museum-going is such a great social experience,” she said. It was a far cry from the hushed museums of my childhood. The exhibit, curated by Matthew Bird of the Rhode Island School of -Design, told the story of streamlining, a design trend that began with boats in the late 1920s and spread across the transportation industry and into the home through the ’40s.
The antique boats, outboards, historic design drawings and videos in the exhibit represented just a smidge of the museum’s extensive collection of over 2 million artifacts and 630 boats. The pieces are carefully cataloged and maintained in storage, waiting to be plucked like actors who don’t yet know what movie they’ll star in. Engelman said the curators don’t know what story the objects will tell, or in what configuration, until ideas are sparked by the current cultural moment.
That explained the collection of toasters lining the rear wall of the exhibit. Toasters in a maritime museum? Of course. It was a way for visitors to relate to the design story by conjuring personal memories and sparking conversation. “Suddenly they’re hooked on the exhibit and want to learn more,” said Engelman.
Bringing the exhibit to life were a 3D designer, a graphic designer, a video production team, fabricators and collections staff. Quentin Snediker is the senior curator for watercraft and has worked at Mystic Seaport for over 25 years. He oversees the museum’s fleet of historic vessels. His team prepares the boats for use in exhibits, which can involve processes as simple as cleaning with soap and water or as involved as scraping and painting. “A ship’s never finished ‘till it’s sunk,” he said, quoting the headline of an old magazine article.
Snediker has seen the museum’s approach to exhibits evolve in recent years. In the past, static exhibits included nothing more than a group of boats; the streamlining exhibit was the first foray into using the boats as just one portion of the overall story. “I’m greatly pleased and rewarded that we’re drawing from the collection to tell an all-embracing, more relevant story to today’s audiences,” he told me. “To be able to utilize [the boats] to tell a broader story to a broader group of people with broader cultural interests is the highest use of the collection.”
With so many carefully selected objects and boats on display, it seems there is an entry point for nearly every visitor into the story being explored by each latest exhibit. Whether it’s the little old Evinrude, the black-and-white video footage of 1930s racing boats or the Airstream parked outside, Engelman loves watching visitors interact with the exhibits. “We often learn as much from our visitors as we teach,” she said. It is that humility and openness to the unknown that makes the exhibits at Mystic irresistible, and keeps visitors returning for whatever surprising story will come next.