History is in the Details

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A scene from the shore looking out on Hobart, Tasmania. From Meyer’s Universum volume 8, published in 1841. LE989/1936.0603.000001

The Mariners’ Museum and Park has thousands of prints in our collection, and one of my recent projects has been to catalog the prints and engravings from a German book titled Meyer’s Universum, oder Abbildung und Beschreibung des Sehenswerthesten und Merkwürdigsten der Natur und Kunst auf der ganzen Erde, or in English Meyer’s Universe, or Illustration and Description of the Most Remarkable and Strangest Things in Nature and Art all over the World. These illustrated travel books from the 1800s had fabulous names but for short, we’ll call it Meyer’s Universum.

There are only 29 of those prints in the collection so this should be pretty quick. I start by finding the book where the prints are published, verifying the edition (and therefore the year), then describing and researching everything in the image: buildings, bridges, statues, rivers, if I can identify it I will provide the history. We already had the name of the book, how hard can this be?   Read more

A Tour Through the Mediterranean with Joseph Partridge

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USS Warren, Act of Bearing Up in the Archipelago. The Archipelago referred to in the title is most likely the area between Cape Matapan and the western end of Crete. In a letter dated April 3, 1828 Kearny states about the voyage from Smyrna to Mahon: “We have had a long passage of 63 days, experiencing a succession of heavy gales of wind from the N.W. and squalls, rendering it not only tedious, but very dangerous to the safety of the vessel being light and badly provided with rigging.” Painted by Joseph Partridge. (Accession#: 1947.0851.000001)

Click on the map to tour the Mediterranean with the USS Warren!

A recent inquiry from the Assistant Professor of Mediterranean History and Archaeology at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World brought a really cool assemblage of watercolors in our collection to my attention. The images were painted by Joseph Partridge, an artist turned Marine stationed aboard USS Warren between 1827 and 1830.   Read more

Captain Ahab, Ishmael, and Starbuck, Oh, My! 

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One of the best things about working at a museum with such a vast collection is that I get to work on a variety of projects about so many different topics. I have had the opportunity to be involved with large, long-term exhibits; one-day exhibitions; outreach activities; and educational programs. It’s hard to choose which one is my favorite, because each provided different experiences and interactions with our visitors. But as I have been reminiscing recently, there is one event that prominently stands out, making it one of my favorite days at the Museum thus far.

Such a Great Day!

In March 2019, a school group asked to use our Museum to host a 24-hour read-a-thon of Moby Dick. Yep, you read that right. A class of juniors and seniors spent a full 24 hours (supervised!) at The Mariners’ Museum, camping out overnight, taking turns reading out loud passages from Herman Melville’s classic novel, first published in 1851. This event was led by a wonderful group of AP English high school students of the Norfolk Academic Guild. They came up with the idea and contacted the Museum; and we were all eager to be involved.    Read more

Privateering and the Battle of Groton Heights

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Whaleship in New London, oil painting by D. Walter Blake. QO 25/1933.0213.000001

Sometimes it takes just one object in the Collection to open up a world of exciting stories. In this case, an oil painting caught my eye the other day and reminded me of a history that excited me when I first learned about it.

During the American Revolution the Americans had a fledgling Navy, made up of the small fleets that each state could muster together. These ships were not able to match the well-trained, battle-hardened British Navy, so the Americans turned to privateers to help in the fight. A privateer was a private citizen who owned a ship and offered to arm that ship to fight against the British merchants. They had a better chance of success fighting merchants than a ship of the line, plus we needed the merchants’ cargo and supplies. In return the privateers received a portion of the money from the sale of the captured prize ship and the goods it carried. The profits could be high, but so was the danger. Whether these sailors were pirates or not completely depended on the paperwork and whose side of the war you were on.   Read more

A Look at the Unknown and Hope for the Future: The Artwork of Shipyard and Museum Staff Artist Thomas C. Skinner

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CRUISER USS PORTSMOUTH AT PIER, oil on canvas 1945, by THOMAS C. SKINNER 1956.47.04

Thomas Catlett Skinner’s office was a loft overlooking the dry dock at the Newport News shipyard.  Frequently he would gather his tools and wander through the yard, stopping to observe and document the many scenes unfolding before him.  A vat of molten steel.  Red hot metal beams being bent into shape.  Yards of canvas transformed into sails.  The welcome respite of a lunch break.  The intensity of a foreman’s face.  A ship being refitted for the next voyage.  Scenes that were rarely seen by anyone outside the shipyard and activities that many people never knew existed.

Skinner’s tools were paint, pencils, canvas and paper.  His loft workspace shook with the unending pounding from riveting hammers and vibrations from heavy machinery.  And when he set up his easel beside the piers, dry docks and workers, he was surrounded by noise and dirt and exposed to the fickleness of the weather.   Yet despite the adversity, he created amazing drawings and paintings that transport the viewer back in time.  His body of work contains striking, colorful images that make it easy to imagine all the noises in the shipyard, the sound and feeling of waves acting on a ship and the harsh sounds of battle. Today, as part of our 90th Anniversary celebration, we take a look at the Mariners’ Museum staff artist, Thomas Skinner, some of his work, and its importance.   Read more