South Street Seaport Museum

Edification value  
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  
Time spent 48 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned The Museum is home to the Alan Govenar & Kaleta Doolin Tattoo Collection. The current modest Gus Wagner show is like a teaser for what they might be able to do once material in the collection (Wagner’s notebooks and such) is conserved and stable. I was sad to learn the Staten Island Tattoo Museum is no more, so I’m hopeful this enables the Seaport Museum to fill that gap.

The South Street Seaport Museum just celebrated its 50th anniversary, and its establishment contributed to the survival of a collection of historic buildings in the face of Lower Manhattan’s relentless pressure for development.  The museum includes a print shop (worth visiting; great cards), the museum building proper, and the “street of ships,” a collection of historic vessels, several of which are open for tours when the museum is open.

Upper museum floors not currently open

The museum itself is still not fully back on its feet following 2012’s Hurricane Sandy.  This is unfortunate because a significant part of the museum’s space is not currently open, and the exhibits on display now are long on words and short on artifacts — the science fair school of museum displays, wherein you might as well just read about it on the internet.  Told that way, even something as fun as the story of an early 20th century tattoo artist is only so engaging.



A wall of reproductions and captions, the bulk of the Gus Wagner, Tattooist exhibit

Until it fully reopens, the museum by itself is not worth the time or $12 to visit.  However, the museum also offers the chance to tour the lightship Ambrose and the tall ship Wavertree.  And the museum also runs the sailing vessel Pioneer (which needs to be booked separately) which is an awesome way to get out on the Harbor.

Wavertree, open for visits

I only had time to visit Wavertree, but she’s impressive.  Immense, steel-hulled, and built in 1885 as a cargo ship, Wavertree just completed a massive restoration effort that has helped put her back in seaworthy condition.  The brief public tour gives a taste of what life was like for sailors (i.e., tough) and the officers (i.e., less tough) aboard.  She’s still a work in progress, which is interesting too:  there’s always staff or volunteers performing some work or other on her.

Ambrose is a lightship, which was a sturdy class of ship used as a floating lighthouse, in places where terrestrial ones weren’t feasible.  She went into service in 1908 and helped ships navigate the entrance to Lower New York Bay until 1932. 

The collection is completed by two sailing vessels, Lettie G. Howard and Pioneer, and an adorable wooden tugboat named W. O. Decker.

I want to be more enthusiastic about the Seaport Museum than I am.  I love ships, the sea, and the city’s history. South Street Seaport is about as central as it gets, while many of the city’s other maritime museums are in far flung locales like Staten and City Islands.  Still, in its current state, it’s operating at only a fraction of its potential, and having two historic boats to tour only goes so far.  With regret, the best I can muster for it is a lukewarm nod to anyone with an interest in those topics.  

For Reference:

Address 12 Fulton Street and Pier 16, Manhattan
Cost  General Admission With Ship Tour: $12
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