A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Seaport Museum officials plead poverty as fate of New York City's past remains uncertain.
Six months after its board of directors fired seven South Street Seaport Museum employees, including its archaeological curator and maritime librarian, the fate of its 2-million-plus artifact collection and its research library and archive remain uncertain. Blaming reduced attendance at the museum since 9/11 and a $1 million budget deficit, Seaport Museum chairman Lawrence S. Huntington said in a New York Times article last July that the cutbacks were necessary "to put this museum on a break-even basis." Among staff let go were archaeological curator Diane Dallal, who ran New York Unearthed, the city's only archaeological museum and conservation lab, and Norman Brouwer, curator of ships and marine historian, a 32-year veteran of the museum in charge of its library.
The Archaeological Collection
Given just one week's notice before she was let go, Dallal says that after expressing concern over the artifacts under her care she was told by the Seaport Museum's executive director Paula Mayo to "just leave them." The collection--excavated over a 20-year period from archaeological sites in New York City--includes structural elements of piers and wharves of the early port of New York City, objects recovered from the landfills that expanded Manhattan, nineteenth-century merchandise, artifacts from the Great Fire of 1835, and the earliest remains of Dutch New Amsterdam.
It is imperative to have an archaeologist trained in conservation techniques overseeing these artifacts, Dallal says, because they are extremely fragile and in need of continuous conservation or they run the risk of being either lost or destroyed. She notes, for example, glass that was long-buried in the ground starts to flake once they are excavated. If the glass is not treated, then pieces will flake off until there is nothing left. "The problem is that they [the artifacts] had been in a very different environment for over 300 years and adapted," says archaeologist Diane diZerega Wall, co-author of Touring Gotham's Archaeological Past and the Seaport Museum's original curator. "When excavated they were taken out and put in a different environment." Wall emphasizes that artifacts also need meticulous documentation. "Archaeological collections need more oversight than normal museum collections," she says. "If things don't get put away in the right place it is as if they never existed." What can be lost is the context--where the artifact came from."
The archaeological collections are central to the Seaport Museum's stated mission to preserve and interpret the history of New York City as a world port--a place where goods, labor, and cultures were exchanged through work, commerce, and the interaction of diverse communities. "They tell us so much about the life of the ordinary New Yorker, about what kinds of material were used, construction methods, what pipes people were smoking, about the cities of origin of immigrants, what the Irish were eating as opposed to the Germans," Dallal says.
An important part of Dallal's position was running New York Unearthed. Since her dismissal, she fears for the future of the archaeological education program there. City schoolchildren can no longer observe her or other archaeologists in the New York Unearthed conservation lab, which was an integral part of the program, she says. "Children had many questions about history, conservation, archaeological techniques. I'm not sure that the educators there know how to answer questions about archaeology." Dallal recalls that she often told the children anecdotes and emphasized the importance of archaeology in revealing facts about the world around them.
The cutbacks have angered the archaeological community. "Their [the Seaport Museum] responsibility is to look after the collections and they're not doing that," Wall says. "We are saddened that this valuable program which taught the public about the city's archaeological heritage and allowed scholars the opportunity to study the museum's collections is in jeopardy and we hope the museum will find the resources to fully restore it," adds Amanda Sutphin of the New York City Landmarks Commission.
Since ARCHAEOLOGY first ran the story on the Seaport Museum layoffs in June, "non-communication" between the archaeological community and museum officials has exacerbated the bad feelings, says Chris Ricciardi, president of PANYC (Professional Archaeologists of New York City). Letters and phone calls to Paula Mayo have gone unanswered, he says, speaking for himself and on behalf of other archaeologists. "We did receive a form letter in June from the Seaport and since then she has refused all contact. Not talking directly to the archaeological and historical community helps perpetuate the fears we all have."
In an interview with ARCHAEOLOGY, Mayo acknowledges the Seaport Museum's legal responsibility for the artifacts and says that she and other museum officials are involved in discussions with educational and cultural institutions in New York State to try to find a place for them. " Jeff Remling, the Seaport Museum's curator of collections and director of operations, has been in touch with Ricciardi, she says.
Ricciardi confirms that while Remling did contact him about finding a repository for the artifacts, Mayo has continued to refuse direct contact with himself and other members of PANYC, thus fueling speculation that the artifacts are in danger of being discarded. "When you fire your staff and shut your buildings down, it is obvious that they're going to get rid of things," he says.
Mayo blames the Seaport Museum's financial woes on reduced attendance after the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and a longstanding lack of funding for archaeology. "We're still struggling to get back to the attendance levels we had before 9/11," she said. "There are still educational organizations who will not allow their students to come down here and we've lost a considerable amount of business, school and other groups."
She emphasizes that the museum made other cuts besides archaeology, including two positions in waterfront, two in development, one in library, one in office management, and one in accounting. "Some very difficult choices were made and we are still short-staffed, as many institutions are at this point, and really struggling to produce the programs that we have been trying to do and carry on with the museum's mission and go forward," she says. She declined to name the board members responsible for making the decision to cut the archaeology program or say when the decision was made.
Finding donors for the archaeology program has been a tough sell, she says. "It has been tough slogging in the fundraising community to convince funders that this is an important part of the museum's mission," she says. "We did not receive any city subsidies, government funding, or funding despite the fact that we are sitting in the midst of a retail mall [the shops and restaurants at the Seaport and Pier 17]. Everything this institution has has been raised through private fundraising and corporate support." She says that the bulk of their funding comes from private donors and has not included grants for the re-development of Lower Manhattan after 9/11.
A History and Heritage grant for $4.6 million, sponsored by New York Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton, was "essentially a marketing grant administered by the Lower Manhattan Development Council," she says. "We never got a check." A $5-million grant from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey went toward the capital campaign for the renovation of Schermerhorn Row (the historic structure at 12 Fulton Street that houses the museum), she says.
She does not understand why the archaeological community has been "up in arms" over the museum's decision to cut the archaeology program. "Right now we're at the point where we are examining every possible angle so that we can take care of New York Unearthed," she responds. "Everyone says it's a wonderful thing, everyone wants it to continue. But where are all of these people with funding to help this happen?"
Funding for the conservation lab at New York Unearthed lapsed six years ago, Mayo explains. Until then, the financial organization TIAA/CREF owned the building on 17 State Street where New York Unearthed is housed, providing the space without charge as well as funding the curatorial position. When TIAA/CREF sold the building, its new owner, RFR Realty, continued to allow the museum to use the space rent-free, but would not pay for operating expenses. Since then, the museum has funded the lab on its own, she says. "The school groups that visit do not generate enough funding."
But a former Seaport Museum staff member, who wishes to remain anonymous, disputes that. According to this individual, the educational groups and Elder Hostel program at the Seaport Museum have been a significant source of income.
Archaeologists "Under Glass"
Dioramas lining the walls of the second-level gallery at New York Unearthed illustrate artifacts from different time periods that have been excavated by archaeologists in New York City. On the museum's lower level, a simulated cross-section of earth shows different layers and actual artifacts buried there. The highlight of the museum for New York City schoolchildren, however, was the glass-enclosed conservation lab that allowed them to observe and ask questions of Dallal and the other archaeologists as they worked on conserving and cataloging objects from the Seaport Museum's archaeological collection. The artifacts constitute the largest research collection in America from an urban city.
Artifacts are a Window Into The Past
Among the highlights of the South Street Seaport Museum collection are the earliest physical evidence of Dutch New Amsterdam. An archaeological excavation in 1983 in Lower Manhattan yielded thousands of artifacts, including such finds as a rare woven basket filled with Dutch and Native American artifacts dating from the seventeenth century.
Remarkably preserved physical evidence of the Great Fire of 1835 that destroyed most of New York City was found from a warehouse that was burned in the fire. Even grapes, blueberries, and coffee beans were perfectly preserved by the fire.
The museum's financial woes are not exclusive to it, says Peter Neill, a former director and current board member of the Seaport Museum. Citing a "stunning expression of global indifference," he blames the problem on a decline in philanthropy throughout the nonprofit sector. "Let me point out here that no one has singled out archaeology [at the Seaport Museum]," Neill says, noting that museums nationwide have found it difficult to find funding for archaeology and other programs. "These circumstances are challenging to many museums. Many are in crisis. In crisis, you manage conservatively within ethical guidelines. That is what the Seaport Museum is doing."
Ricciardi wants to know, however, why neither he nor other members of PANYC were contacted, given the Seaport Museum's supposed dire financial state. He insists that he would have helped try to find alternate funding from city and governmental sources. "Communication is the key and there has been a definite lack. It is tough but not impossible to get funding," he says.
Mayo insists that the Seaport Museum's fundraising arm has worked tirelessly to raise money for the archaeology department. Dallal disagrees. "We were always the stepchild," she says. During her tenure as the Seaport Museum's archaeological curator she says she saw the development department pulled off archaeology to do grant-writing for other departments. "I saw it happen time and time again."
Right now the Seaport Museum is in a "holding pattern," Remling says. "There has been an uproar against the museum for laying off Dallal, but no one has come up with any cash to reinstate her or the archaeology program."
Granted an "Absolute Charter" in 1967 by the New York State Board Of Regents as a nonprofit educational institution, the South Street Seaport Museum must comply with Rule 3.27 of the Rules of the Regents, which spells out the requirements of a museum in the care of its collections. David Palmquist, head of the Chartering Office of the New York State Department of Education in the New York State Museum, has been involved in ongoing dialogue with Mayo regarding the care of the museum's artifacts and archives and its financial situation. He says his role is to assist the Seaport Museum in reaching its goals and to come to a determination of what is best for the institution, the public, and the collection, but declined to provide specifics of their discussions.
The care of the archaeological collection is a primary concern now, Ricciardi says. Rule 3.27.4 defines "care" as meaning the keeping of adequate records pertaining to the provenance, identification, and location of a museum's holdings, and the application of current professionally accepted methods to their security and to the minimizing of damage and deterioration. With no archaeological curator on staff and no plan to hire one, it is difficult to see how the Seaport Museum is now acting in accordance with this rule.
"I don't want to see the artifacts discarded," Ricciardi says, "they need to find a home where they can be studied." The New York State Museum in Albany is the most likely place for the collections if they have to be moved, he concludes.
Mayo would not say when Seaport Museum officials first contacted other institutions regarding the disposition of the collections. However, in an interview with ARCHAEOLOGY, New York State Museum curator Chuck Fisher confirmed that the Seaport Museum's Jeff Remling contacted him "in a very preliminary way" only in early November. That is nearly five months after the staff layoffs at the Seaport Museum, and, presumably, some time longer than the decision was made to cut back on the Seaport Museum's archaeology commitment.
"This is an extremely significant collection--the archaeology of New York City," Fisher says. "It is so large a collection that any institution would be reluctant to step in and take over the responsibility." While Fisher says that the State Museum is the logical place for the artifacts, if they must be moved, he believes that the best scenario is that they remain in New York City. Dallal agrees: "The artifacts are an invaluable source for learning about the past. They were excavated in New York City and they're part of our history."
"The loss of the archaeological collections would be catastrophic for the preservation of New York City's archaeological heritage," wrote archaeologist Rebecca Yamin, the director of the Five Points Project in Lower Manhattan, in a letter to Mayo last June. To ensure their preservation for future generations, a safe harbor must be secured for them and this must be accomplished as soon as possible.
Paula Mayo says the Seaport Museum's maritime library has been open--by appointment--since curator of ships and marine historian Norman Brouwer who oversaw the library was fired last June. In an interview with ARCHAEOLOGY, Brouwer, however, questioned her assertion.
"The resource is effectively gone at this point," he says. According to Brouwer, accessing the library's extensive collection of texts and archives pertaining to New York City's maritime history, would now be difficult since he was the only person at the Seaport Museum who knew where to find things. Given only one week's notice after being fired, he says there simply was no time to train a replacement. He says that staff members call frequently asking him where materials are but that he cannot help them much. "I can't help if I'm not there."
Hired as the Seaport Museum's maritime historian, Brouwer says he was given free rein in acquiring material for the nascent library. During his tenure as librarian, Brouwer says he searched worldwide for the one-of-a-kind collection and irreplaceable texts, photographs, and archives pertaining to the history of New York City as a world port. The library was his passion, he says, and its creation a labor of love.
"It is important to have a major maritime museum dealing with the Port of New York--no other port has had a richer history. It was the gateway to North America for the majority of immigrants who came by sea. Its history goes back to the 1600s," he says. "People expect to have a major maritime museum and research facility--that was what I was trying to achieve."
There is no other library like it, Brouwer says. Highlights include the most extensive collection anywhere of W& A Fletcher pen-and-ink drawings, which date back to the mid-nineteenth-century and document the evolution of marine steam engine construction. Another historical treasure is from the Staten Island shipyard: 6,000 sheets of original drawings of building plans for tugboats, barges, and ferry boats. From these drawings, maritime historians can reconstruct the types of vessels that were built at the shipyard there from the 1890s through the 1960s, Brouwer says. There are also film negatives of the operations of the Moran Towing Company, tugboat operators in New York harbor still in business, dating from the 1940s through the 1960s.
"There were scores of shipyards, although few plans have survived so we have no record of what many boats in the past looked like," Brouwer says. "If anybody wants to know how ships were built in the past it is necessary to either excavate the archaeological remains or look at the plans of ships." The library is an invaluable resource for maritime historians, genealogists, marine and industrial archaeologists, and history buffs who have come from around the world to use the facility, he says.
"Collections such as these need continuous care--they can't be boxed up and put somewhere into a corner," says Joseph Komljenovich, president of a professional organization, the Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York. Komljenovich emphasized that a librarian's role in a museum setting is crucial in providing scholars and the general public access. "It is a museum's responsibility to help further scholarship and research--these services are part of their mission."
In addition to serving as librarian, Brouwer says he wrote articles for the Seaport Museum's publication, Seaport, lectured there, and did research for the museum's fleet of historic ships in the harbor. Experts in the field consider Brouwer's book, The International Register Of Historic Ships, featuring nearly 2,000 surviving historic vessels, to be the most comprehensive listing of such ships ever published.
Although the Seaport Museum's financial difficulties was the official reason given for Brouwer's dismissal, he does not believe that is the whole story. Over the years, he says, it was rumored that certain members of the Board of Trustees questioned the validity of having a librarian in a historical museum, a rationale that Brouwer says he simply cannot comprehend.
"This is a tempest in a teapot as far as the library is concerned," says Neill. "The museum is committed to its library. It is being reorganized and moved." Among the improvements which he cites as "vastly improving" the old library are a relocation of the library's contents into a more secure location, and the implementation of a central database. However, given his and Mayo's statements regarding the Seaport Museum's financial situation, it is difficult to determine where the Seaport Museum will come up with the funds to pay for the revamping of the facility or for the salary of a librarian to oversee it.
"A terrible wrong has been done," says a former Seaport Museum employee "There are ways to cut costs, but they [the Seaport Museum] chose to cut their professional staff, which is the heart and soul of any museum. Where do ideas come from? What do objects mean without some there to tell what they mean? And this includes the Seaport Museum's librarian and curator."
For now, the artifacts remain in limbo while the contents of the maritime library are to be boxed-up and moved from their original location at 213 Water Street to space on the sixth-floor at Schermerhorn Row. Meanwhile, on the South Street Seaport Museum website Brouwer's book, The International Register Of Historic Ships is prominently featured, while Dallal is pictured in the conservation lab at New York Unearthed showing children bits and pieces from New York City's past.
ARCHAEOLOGY will continue to track the fate of these unique collections
Lisa Schiffman, a recent journalism graduate of New York University, is an intern with ARCHAEOLOGY.