On the Peking One Last Time: A Trip to the Seaport Museum

Yesterday I toured the barque Peking, berthed at Pier 17 at the South Street Seaport Museum, for the very last time.

Unlike the dozens upon dozens of tours I’ve done long ago, I’m not leading this one. I’m here to say goodbye to the old girl before she leaves the Seaport for good and departs for her home port of Hamburg, Germany.

I can’t just go up the gangway; I have to go on the tour. The lady at the desk said I’d get more out of it if I waited for the next tour.

I don’t tell her that I’ve worked at this museum, taught on this ship, hauled her lines and raised her sail many, many years ago — an explanation I gave to the guy in the lobby of the museum proper, in Schermerhorn Row, after I bought my ticket and peppered him with questions:

Are the upper galleries open? Are there plans to open them soon? In the fall, maybe? The next decade? Is the laundry still there? Is the library still intact? Yes, I know its not open to the public; is it still there? Is the collection still held here? Yes, I know it’s not open to the public. After the archaeologist was fired, I heard the archaeological collection was being sent off site.

He said it’s still there.

I don’t believe him.

I ask about New York Unearthed; he has no answer. I want to cry.

17 State Street, where New York Unearthed used to be.

 

He asked me when I worked here. “Before the shit hit the fan.” Over 10 years ago. He said he’s been here for four. I hope he stays.

The museum — which was supposed to be this amazing, fantastic, beautiful place filled with history — is now reduced to… Let’s just say there were silent tears.

I looked up at the still, blocked-off escalator to the galleries and wished I’d taken pictures back then. There was an exhibition on the transatlantic slave trade, Captive Passage, the last time I taught up there.

The last time I toured the galleries was in 2006. Most of the people I knew were gone and the museum’s organization was on very, very shaky legs. I took pictures I can’t find.

I wish, more than anything, that I’d kept the poorly printed copy of the museum manifesto, so to speak, the plan of what it was supposed to be. In the summer of 2003, the education department toured the empty galleries still under construction with the historian curating the museum, Shan Holt.

I could still draw you a map of what was supposed to be.

Now current staffers hand out maps of a museum in survival mode. That great place Holt planned out is lost to the ethers of time, much like the era of South Street as a working seaport. It’s depressing.

The guy says there are photos of the galleries on display, along with a rotating selection of mariners’ artifacts. The tears well up again.

The tears don’t actually start to fall until I see a panel showing photographs of important figures in the Museum’s history, and my time there: Peter Neill, who interviewed me for an intern position I didn’t get. I was picked up by the education department instead, which I was thrilled with because it seemed much more fun. (It was very, very fun.)

Jack, the historian who worked with the Elderhostel program. He was a brilliant man with a very messy desk;

and Lars, the man who worked on Peking below deck. I never went down there because the rats freaked me out.

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Even when I moved from intern to educator, I still felt like an intern. Always something to learn. Always someone who knows more. Always.

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I don’t pay attention on the tour. I meet two people who worked at the Seaport Museum, their tenures much longer than mine. We’re saddened by the condition of the ship but are happy to take one last look at the Peking.

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