On Boats and Ideas and Stepping Away

There is a framed black-and-white photograph in my office that depicts Tim White, a former head of the Workshop on the Water at Philadelphia’s Independence Seaport Museum, fitting a centerboard case into a wooden boat under construction in his shop. I took the photo myself way back in 1995 while doing field research for my undergraduate thesis project. It captures at least two moments. One is evidentiary: a simple act of boatbuilding. The other is more oblique: a young photographer in a strange city, excited by ideas, fascinated by boats, and emboldened by the documentarian’s gaze.

Tim White in the Independence Seaport Museum Boat Shop, Philadelphia, PA, October 27, 1995.

It was that second moment—not the first—that I went hunting around for in my old field notes sometime toward the end of my first year on the tenure track. I had come full circle, landing back in Philadelphia after years away. And yet, life and work in the university hadn’t turned out to be quite what I hoped for. Despite some bright spots, I found myself pretty quickly surrounded by unclear expectations, combative colleagues, and worse than crippling bureaucracies. Disciplinary orthodoxies turned out to be far more entrenched than I had suspected. More broadly, the in-crowd hierarchies that prevail across academia wore deeply on me, and still do. I found it harder and harder to recall what it was like to be excited by ideas, to be fascinated by anything, to be bold.

The photo of the boat shop, I hoped, would be a reminder, encouragement to revisit the things and places that had put me on this course years ago. And so it was. Before long I had reacquainted myself with the Seaport Museum, finding there colleagues who remain today among my most valued. I even dusted off some old boat research and found a few new projects along the way.

But the most important memories buried within that old photo had less to do with WHAT ideas excited me back then, than with HOW I got excited about ideas in the first place. I thought about the museums that thrilled me when I was a kid. I thought about how much I loved woodshop in high school. I thought about learning to do field research at the American Folklife Center and with the National Park Service. And I thought about professors I had respected for abandoning the classroom whenever it made more sense to show students how things work than to tell them.

Since then I’ve sought in my teaching to flee campus, or at least to get out of the classroom, whenever possible. I’ve tried it all: fieldtrips, outreach, partnerships, scavenger hunts, bus rides, walking tours, digital meet-ups, throwing pots, really whatever it takes. This semester I’m pushing further by staging an entire semester of course meetings at, where else, the Independence Seaport Museum. More than two decades since taking that photo of Tim White in his shop, I’m returning to the same spot with my own students to stage the LESLEY Documentation Project. Tim’s not there any more, but the boats are, and so is the shop, and amid all of it we’re getting excited about ideas that are all but impossible to conjure in the stubborn fixity of a seminar room.

The modern American university is a difficult place, run through with contradictions and inequity. Much that is good remains there, but I’ve become convinced that to find it we must step away as often as we can. Doing so, in my case anyway, amounts to an act of self-preservation. And for my students, especially in this age of anger and anxiety, learning to preserve ourselves may just be the most important lesson.

Seth Bruggeman interviews Tim White, Independence Seaport Museum Boat Shop, Philadelphia, PA, October 27, 1995. Photo by Chad Mahood.


A bibliography of the rise, fall, and rise of my excitement about maritime pasts:

Big Boats

I had a surprising run in with an old friend early last month while visiting Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport museum. Last November, Mystic hauled the Charles W. Morgan out of the water and laid it up in dry dock for an extensive overhaul (click here for the full story). This was no small endeavor. At 340 tons and almost 170 years old, the Morgan requires a firm, but gentle hand. She is, after all, a National Historic Landmark and, according to the good folks at Mystic, the world’s last remaining wooden whaling ship. But, beyond all of that, the Morgan is beloved by throngs of people like myself who remember first discovering her on family vacations long ago. And seeing as how tourists have been flocking to the Morgan since 1941, that’s a whole lot of memories.

But what amazed me on my most recent visit was how BIG the Morgan really is. Seeing her out of the water is a remarkable experience. Others agree. One museum staffer recalls an old-timer who quipped, “you don’t know anything about that boat until you’ve seen her out of the water.” Now, before I go on, perhaps it’s worth noting that I am a longstanding maritime history junky. Those early trips to Mystic really worked their magic and I’ll probably drag my own kids there whether they like it or not. I can’t help but imagine though that even someone without my particular obsession with nineteenth-century maritime stuff would be impressed by the Morgan‘s shear girth. Don’t get me wrong, she looks big in the water, but out of her element, the Morgan’s size is really striking. These ships were built broad and deep to accommodate the thousands of barrels of whale oil crews pursued for years on end. As a result, whale ships in dry dock dwarf the buildings that surround them–then and now.

Stumbling upon this particular moment in the Morgan‘s long life was a real treat because it brought me as close as I’ll probably ever get to seeing what a working nineteenth-century shipyard was really like. But it also reminded me just how dramatically our understanding of an object can change with a shift in context. The Morgan is a very different thing out of the water and that difference is worth thinking about in a museum. Everyone who visits Mystic learns about the hardships of life at sea. The Morgan‘s tiny crew quarters make the point well enough. But, from the current vantage point, the ratio of crew space to cargo space is even more evident. Astute museum goers will see in the ship’s remarkable proportions a harsh truth about the cheapness of human labor in the early decades of American industrial capitalism. This is not to say that you can’t know anything about the Morgan while she’s in the water, but her overhaul clearly presents exciting opportunities for reflection as well as repair.