Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
online features
Archaeology Sunk at Seaport Museum July 29, 2004
by Evan Walker

Controversial firings leave fate of artifacts uncertain.

The South Street Seaport Museum entryway in Schermerhorn Row in Lower Manhattan (Photo by Evan Walker)

At the end of June, the South Street Seaport Museum dismissed seven employees on short notice. The staff members fired included the museum's archaeologist, Diane Dallal, and it's nautical historian, Norman Brouwer, who had been employed there for 32 years. The cutbacks put into doubt the future of New York Unearthed and the nautical library, two of the museum's most important public and research facilities. Ironically, the firing took place even as the museum was advertising a "sneak peak" at its new $20 million renovation of Schermerhorn Row (the historic row of buildings that houses the museum, restaurants, and upscale shops).

In addition to being the museum's curator of archaeological collections, Dallal ran the New York Unearthed archaeological center and conservation laboratory. The archaeological collections--more than 2 million artifacts from sites in the city--are permanently housed at the South Street Seaport Museum. Artifacts went to New York Unearthed's glass-enclosed conservation laboratory for curation, conservation, and study. There, the public could observe archaeologists and conservators at work. "One of the highlights of New York Unearthed's educational programs for school children was the chance to visit the lab, see the artifacts being catalogued and conserved and to meet and speak with 'real' archaeologists," says Dallal, "I was told that this program was the most popular of all the South Street Seaport's educational programs." What will become of the collections and New York Unearthed, the city's only archaeological museum, is unknown. "When I learned that my position was being 'eliminated,' I expressed extreme concern about the collections, many of which needed conservation," says Dallal. "I was told to just leave them."

The dismissals have many New Yorkers up in arms. ARCHAEOLOGY Magazine has received numerous letters and emails from archaeologists, institutions, and citizens voicing concern. Christopher Ricciardi, president of Professional Archaeologists of New York City wrote in a letter to the museum, "It is our fear that without Ms. Dallal expertly running and maintaining South Street Seaport's repository of artifacts and associated documentary information that the collections will now become off limits to research and eventually be lost forever." Rebecca Yamin, principle archaeologist and director of the Five Points Project, an excavation in Lower Manhattan, states in a letter to the museum that the possible loss of the archaeological collection there "has catastrophic implications for the preservation of the city's archaeological heritage as well as for the invaluable educational resource it provides for both New York City's school children and for scholars from all over the world." City University of New York professor Diana Wall, who was the original curator of archaeology at the South Street Seaport Museum, also expressed her concern in a letter. In referring to Diane Dallal's duties as a curator, Wall states that "the museum cannot afford to put the conservation needs of the archaeological collections on the back burner and assume that they can make up for neglect when they get the money to hire a new archaeological curator." Without "continuous oversight by an archaeologist trained as a conservator who understands the physical needs of the artifacts," writes Wall, "parts of the museum's archaeological collections could literally self-destruct."

New York Unearthed is no longer open to the general public, but only to school groups by appointment. (Photo by Evan Walker)

In a July 8, New York Times article, retired Wall Street executive and museum chairman Lawrence S. Huntington said, "To put this museum on a break-even basis, we've had to cut back the payroll." Huntington stated that the archaeological collection was not specifically part of the museum's focus. "It's not necessarily related to the seaport's mission, even though it comes out of the ground of Lower Manhattan."

Dallal disagrees. "The truth is that these collections contain structural remains of the piers and wharves of the early port, the landfill it was built upon, merchandise sold by nineteenth-century waterfront merchants, remains of the 1835 fire, the earliest remains of Dutch New Amsterdam, just to name a few of it's important components." In fact, one of the inaugural exhibitions in the renovated facility is Nieuw Amsterdam: Dutch New York as Represented in the Archaeological Collections of South Street Seaport Museum. Opened in June, the exhibit features numerous artifacts uncovered from Lower Manhattan archaeological sites. (Nieuw Amsterdam was curated by Dallal.)

How significant are the South Street Seaport Museum's difficulties? According to the New York Times article, the museum had a $700,000 deficit in 2003. Huntington told the Times that the latest staff cuts were necessary to trim $1 million from the budget. The museum's funding comes from many different sources, including New York City and heavyweight corporate sponsors such as ADP, AIG, American Express, Verizon, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Con Edison, Prudential, Merrill Lynch, JP Morgan Chase, and the New York Stock Exchange.

Paula Mayo, the museum's executive director, pointed to lower attendance as an explanation of the museum's financial troubles, as well as the need to eliminate employees. She told the Times that annual attendance is down to 450,000 from 700,000 a decade ago, a 40% drop. It is unclear how these figures relate to those in an interview with Peter Neill, the museum's president until his March 2004 resignation, in the May/June 2004 issue of Stanford Magazine. Concerning "paying participants" to the museum, that article states that before 9/11, "nearly 500,000 people per year were paying participants in SSSM programs." Then, "that number dropped to zero after 9/11; it has now climbed back to around 385,000." This suggests that the number of paying participants has returned to 77% of pre-9/11 levels. (Admission to the museum is currently $8 for adults, $6 for students/seniors with ID, and $4 for children ages 5 to 12.)

At the end of July, the museum's website still featured a book by historian Norman Brouwer, a long-time staff member who had been fired a month before.

The museum has also benefited from political and financial support post 9/11. Through a project to revitalize Lower Manhattan, New York Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton secured $500 million of a $2 billion grant for the redevelopment of nonprofit organizations, small businesses, and families. According to an October 2002 Schumer press release, $4.6 million dollars was specifically set aside for "history and heritage," including the South Street Seaport Museum.

An April 2002 press release announced a $5 million grant from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to help boost the economy of Lower Manhattan through the expansion of the South Street Seaport Museum. New York Governor George E. Pataki also expressed his support for the project and the museum in the press release noting, "This is one more way in which my administration is revitalizing lower Manhattan, and helping to build a stronger future for this extraordinary area of New York City."

And according to an October 2003 press release, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg worked successfully for the $47 million "historic redevelopment" of Lower Manhattan. Through this project, the city restored several historic buildings along Front Street at the South Street Seaport, and provided $5 million toward the restoration of the South Street Seaport Museum. Bloomberg stated in the press release that, "the Historic Front Street Project is a fitting complement to the renovation at the Seaport Museum just a few blocks away, and I am proud that the City has played a part in both of these important projects."

It is clear that despite lower (though apparently rebounding) attendance, the museum enjoys considerable support, both financial and political, within the New York City community. This raises a number of questions. Was the cutting of archaeology a choice--as opposed to cutting elsewhere or seeking more funds from government or corporate sources--rather than a necessity? Museum chairman Lawrence Huntington's comment to the Times suggests it was in part choice, based on a narrow view of the museum's purpose. If so, who made this decision and when was it taken? More important, given such a decision, was any thought given to the disposition of the collections and the fate of New York Unearthed?

Diana Wall noted in her letter to the museum's Paula Mayo that "when the museum acquired these collections, they took on a responsibility to maintain them and to make them available to, in my opinion, they are abrogating their responsibility." And Chris Ricciardi stated in his letter, "we understand that South Street Seaport's main focus is the maritime history of The City of New York, but that history has been uncovered, in part, through archaeology.... There is no question that the South Street Seaport is loosing more than it is gaining by eliminating the archaeological curator position, New York Unearthed, and access to the collections."

ARCHAEOLOGY will follow this story as it develops.

* Click here for the full text of the letters sent to the South Street Seaport Museum and for the museum's response.
* South Street Seaport Museum Update (January 2005)
* Seaport Museum Artifacts Ship Out (June 2005)

Evan Walker, an anthropology and geography major at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is an intern with ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America