Mystic Seaport has long been one of the great gems of the Connecticut shoreline, and indeed the whole New England coast. The Charles W. Morgan whaler and replica shipyards have, for decades, been drawing people from around the world who are trying to dig down deeper into our state’s relationship with the sea, and the economies of older times.
This year, Mystic Seaport has opened the 5,000-square-foot Thompson Exhibition Building. Now the largest exhibition space in the seaport, it will be the new home of the seaport’s big shows, as well as a local host for traveling exhibitions. The building itself is magnificent. Built by Essex architectural firm Centerbrook, the structure has a distinctive curve that resembles — to this observer, at least — the hull of a wooden whaling ship. To many, the shape of the building also resembles a large wave, breaking over the exhibits inside.
The building is also geothermally heated, utilizing some 20 wells that go 500 feet into the ground, warming the building with deep underground air that stays at a consistent temperature year round. The inaugural exhibit, too, firmly roots the new Thompson building in the seaport. The Sea Change exhibit is full of unusual and stunning items drawn from the seaport’s impressive collection. Many of the items featured in Sea Change have been owned by the seaport for some time, but had not been displayed in a proper space.
Upon entering the exhibit hall, the viewer is immediately greeted by a massive projection screen of the sea, which can be adjusted through different states of calmness up to violent choppiness.
The wall of water introduces the viewer to the central theme behind the exhibit: the ever-changing nature of the sea — its living, awesome power.
The phrase “sea change” originates in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and the full quote is projected on another wall of the exhibit: “those are pearls that were his eyes; … a sea-change into something rich and strange.” Throughout the hall, pinned to large white forms that resemble sails or icebergs, the museum-goer is carried through a fascinating series of displays. The highlights included a ship model from the 1740s that has a mystifying and intricately detailed interior, only viewable through the modern technology of a pinhole camera that the viewer can control.
Back before oil and gas generated our electricity, hunters chased whales across the globe for the oil used to light lamps. Visitors get a pure, raw sense of this pursuit at Mystic Seaport.
The inaugural exhibition in the Thompson Exhibition Building further deepens, and wonderfully complicates, our understanding of human beings’ relationship to the sea, up through more recent times. Through interactive audio and video, museum-goers can listen to a battery of experts from various fields speak about the exhibits. One can learn about an indigenous-made Arctic canoe known as a umiak, which hangs above the viewer’s head.
Sea Change will occupy the space through the fall, so there is plenty of time to catch the show. We can be sure that the next exhibits that come through will be engaging, if they are anything like the inaugural show. To the decades of learning and immersion offered by the seaport, it now adds a proper exhibition hall in which to really strut its stuff.