Friday, July 01, 2005


Seeking Help on Costly Upkeep, Museum Offers Its Antique Ships for Adoption


The New York Times
By Abeer Allam
June 28, 2005

In recent years, as it has battled to stay alive after Sept. 11, the South Street Seaport Museum has eliminated jobs, closed its library and, mostly recently, given away an unusual collection of two million artifacts dug up in Lower Manhattan.

Now, the maritime museum, in downtown Manhattan, has come up with a novel idea to pay for the upkeep of its antique ships, which are the last of their kind and which make up the biggest privately owned fleet of such ships in the country. The museum has offered them for adoption, asking New Yorkers to pay for maintenance of a favorite ship.

A philanthropist took the lead and paid $300,000 to adopt the W.O Decker, a 75-year-old steam-powered wooden tugboat. But the museum does not expect many others to come forward with such large amounts, so it is making it possible to adopt a hull, a mast or even a rope. Anything.

"People adopt animals; people can adopt ships as well," said Paula M. Mayo, the museum's executive director.

Now, a year after several veteran staff members were let go in what was perhaps the museum's most painful cost-cutting episode, all these measures have helped strengthen the museum's financial health, officials say. It broke even this year, in a far cry from the $700,000 budget deficit it sustained in 2003.

"We have turned the finances around," said Lawrence Huntington, chairman of the board of trustees. "We have a long way to go: we have to continue to raise money. We have pretty well got the ships stabilized; they are not going to get any worse."

The ships up for adoption have been docked at Pier 16 for so long that their spindly masts have almost became part of the skyline of Lower Manhattan. Along with the remaining cobblestone alleys and the aroma of the fish market, the ships provide one of the few direct links to the once-bustling seaport's storied past.

Some are stationary, while others are working ships used mainly for entertainment or educational programs for schoolchildren. Mr. Huntington also said that he wanted to turn one ship, the Peking, into a space for weddings and parties, complete with a handicapped entrance and heating.

But the destruction of the World Trade Center dealt the museum a financial blow. The number of visitors dropped to 95,892 in 2001 from 362,959 in 2000. Last year, the number of visitors increased to 161,745, but that is still far from the 700,000 who visited the museum a decade ago, according to the museum's officials. That was about a decade after the seaport area was developed into a maritime-themed shopping mall with the museum at its core.

After Sept. 11, insurance premiums went up by 30 percent. The museum, which has a small endowment that generates $25,000 to $30,000 a year, relies mainly on donations from individuals and corporations - which can fluctuate wildly - for its operating budget of $5.9 million. The city helps, with a subsidy of $200,000 this year.

The seaport's decision to give away its archaeological collection, to the New York State Museum in Albany, has stirred anger among New York archaeology experts.

The two million artifacts excavated in the last two decades represent different stages of New York City history, starting from American Indian settlements, to Dutch New Amsterdam, to the English colonial and the early American republic periods. They were being kept at the museum even after the curator was let go last year; since Sept. 11, the museum has cut its staff to 33 from 53.

Ms. Mayo said that the archaeology program, New York Unearthed, used to receive $130,000 in a yearly grant from a company that owned the repository, but that that ended when the building was sold five years ago.

Though researchers and archaeologists are glad that the collection found a home, they maintained that sending it away was betrayal of New York City's history and that the trip to Albany was a hurdle for students of archaeology and anthropology.

"New York City is the center of the world," said Chris Ricciardi, past president of Professional Archaeologists of New York City, a watchdog group. "The center of the world should have a world-class museum that covers all aspects of our city's history."

The collection includes pieces of china cups, glass bottles, children's marbles and toys, combs, pins, buttons, spoons and water pipes.

Some local archaeologists said the museum never asked for help. Museum officials, however, said they sought help from other New York cultural and government institutions to keep the collection, but got no response. They added that they took the drastic action because they wanted to focus on preserving the museum's ship collection. It costs $300,000 a year just to maintain the ships in safe condition, cleaning and replacing ropes and hiring security.

"We are not the navy," Ms. Mayo said. "This is just one small museum, and ships in salt water cost a lot of money."


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