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For Relics From the Sea: South Street Seaport Museum

I have been to the South Street Seaport many, many times. It is one of the most recognizable landmarks in New York City. I have passed it in the car, on a bus, and even on a subway train. Seeing this infamous building, and the water that surrounds it, feels like home to me. Especially, since I usually see it on my way out of the city. For those who have never been, it is a great place to shop, eat, go for drinks and even sightsee. A few years ago I went there to see the Bodies Exhibit (see link below for more info). It was one of the very first things I was determined to do once I was done with graduate school and could now explore my city my way. But in all the time that I have spent at the Seaport I have never, ever been to the Seaport Museum. I am embarrassed to say I wasn’t even really aware there was one. That all changed during a week in April.

As is common for me, I get a lot of my information about world and entertainment events from reading the New York Times. During that particular issue there were many stories about the one hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. I have always been interested in the Titanic. I know many of us are. The week of the anniversary of the sinking there were so many programs on, numerous channels, I thought my DVR was going to blow. I am still trying to watch the miniseries that ABC did. I heard great things but there never seems to be enough hours in my days. But when I heard that there were artifacts from the miniseries and from the actual ship being displayed at the South Street Seaport Museum I knew I had to go. When I heard it would only be on display until May 16th, I knew I had to hustle. Sometimes deadlines are a gift.

The more I thought about going the more excited I got. I had seen signs and advertisements many places. I began to take them as literal signs I had to get my butt in gear. Finally I could take no more. My interest had been peaked to its height. One afternoon I took a walk down to Water Street to see what it was all about.

For starters, I did not realize that the infamous lighthouse that marks the entry way to the cobble stone path that is the beginning of the Seaport has a Titanic significance, literally. As I approached to take a photo I noticed something I never had seen before, even though it has been from the beginning. There is a plaque inscribed with the date “April 15, 1912”.

The plaque on the lighthouse reads:

Titanic Memorial Lighthouse
This lighthouse is a memorial to the passengers, officers, and crew who died as heroes when the steamship Titanic sank after collision with an iceberg.
Latitude 41° 46´ North
Longitude 50° 14´ West
      April 15, 1912

It has been dedicated to the lives lost on the Titanic. The interesting part of this story is that on April 15, 1913 this lighthouse was mounted a green time ball that would light up and everyday five minutes before noon, would rise and be dropped at the stroke of noon to remind the busy city of the lives lost. It is said that light could be seen all through the New York Harbor to Sandy Hook. The lighthouse was originally established by the Seamen’s Church and was moved to its current location in 1976.

In all the years I have been aware of it, I have not thought about the meaning of this lighthouse or its age. I have treated it like a movie prop. I suppose to some degree that is now appropriate seeing how it played a part in the real life story of Titanic. If a documentary film were being made at that time this lighthouse would be front and center. I like that it still is.

It is funny to think that each time I have passed it and looked at it with fascination I was appreciating more than just an aging piece of architecture. It makes me wonder how many people pass it a day that is doing the same thing.

As for the Titanic exhibit, it is actually being housed in a separate building from the South Street Seaport Museum, another new fact for me. Also if you go and have time to sightsee your ten dollar entry fee will get you into both of these sites as well as The Museum of the City of New York. It is not nearby but if you have time a trip afterward can be easily planned.

I went into the Titanic exhibit first. Actually I didn’t know ahead of time that the original museum was around the corner but this is what I wanted to see first anyway. I love that the letters on the door spell it out. I loved that the woman working at the desk there let me close the door so that I could take a picture even more. After having just read that memorial plaque and gotten chills, it was like a time warp stepping into that exhibit. It was a humid day in the city and the lights were dimmed so that you could interact with several monitors that were set up. But upon the first items you see are the costumes from the miniseries portraying some very famous people like John Jacob Astor IV and as she became known later the Unsinkable Margaret “Molly” Brown. As you walk along the wall and read some of the original messages sent as the Titanic realizes it’s struck an iceberg and is going to sink, those outfits are still in your peripheral vision. It is like seeing a ghost in the corner of your eye. You see clothing but there are no feet touching the floor. As I moved around and continued reading I was moved by how moved I was. I mean we all know how it ended.

I actually skipped ahead of some other visitors who were reading slower than I. Then I was just brought to tears. I don’t remember the passengers names but I remember reading clear as day, that someone sent a message to loved ones back home once they were aboard the Carpathia safely afterward saying simply something to the effect “Titanic stank, we are okay”. The photographs of herds of people in blankets while staff tried to figure out who was alive, who was dead, and who was missing are a powerful thing. Even more so were the shots of the crowds as the Carpathia pulled into N.Y.C. because families had heard of the disaster and no one could be sure who would be lucky enough to see their loved ones coming off that ship.

Picture that in your mind for a moment. There is no Twitter, no Facebook, no Internet, hell no telephone. You were going to meet the Titanic originally and now you are racing down to the pier to meet another ship praying to God or whoever you can that of the approximately 710 survivors found, your mother, brother, sister, daughter, friend, or neighbor is alive and can tell you good news about whoever else was aboard that ship that you knew. The sheer panic and intensity of that situation I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I can hardly fathom it myself and the thought of it now creates a panic attack.

There was also movie memorabilia from all different eras. I learned that Dorothy Gibson was a survivor and only a month later stared in a movie “Saved from the Titanic”, portraying herself, about the story wearing the dress and shoes she was actually wearing that night. Talk about triggering your own Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I have no idea how she didn’t or did and dealt with it.

Next I composed myself and walked the few paces diagonal to the actual Seaport museum. There are six floors featuring a variety of New York City related historical items. Each floor divided the items based on the time period and purpose of the items. There was a floor for tools, fashion, coffee trade, Fulton fish market, and so on, basically things that had to do with N.Y.C. history and the Seaport. The museum was a lot larger than I pictured it. It had a great space and everything was laid out very well. My favorite was the section devoted to ships in a bottle. There were so many of varying sizes, shapes, and details, but that is what made it feel like I was at the South Street Seaport Museum to me. That is what separated it from all other exhibits I have seen and that is what also made it tie into the Titanic experience I had just had. I had to also remember the sailboats and other treacherous travel that had come way before the Titanic and think of the lives that were lost on less glorious trips.

I will leave you one last piece of trivia I learned from this experience. The Seaport is now owned and operated by The Howard Hughes Corporation. Howard Hughes is another historical character I cannot get enough of. I have watched biographies and read article after article about him, but it never seems to satisfy me. I will always been intrigued by those who have lived lives where they have had extraordinary experiences and left some mystery in their legacy.

The Titanic will always have a legacy of mystery, tragedy, and grandeur. I guess its one hundredth anniversary was meant to teach me more than I ever set out to learn when I started out with a few clicks of my remote. The universe has a funny way of supplying what you need when you are most ready to receive it.

For exhibit and museum information:

For further reading:


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