I Guess This is a Post About Beauty in Unexpected Places

Day 228

Before I begin this post which has almost nothing to do with the present day, I need to acknowledge that America is in a very troubling place right now. Regardless of how you feel we got here, we are seeing an appalling amount of open rhetoric and action from white nationalists/white supremacists/the alt-right, neo-nazis, the Klan, and their sympathizers and their apologists. Here's a useful roundup of resources about how to help your community, by the good folks over at Autostraddle; it's specifically anti-Trump because of some of his policies and statements, but I believe it's useful to anyone against this kind of hatred, regardless of your politics. This isn't normally a political blog, but as an American and as a human, I have to use every channel I have available to speak out.

And now, on to the regular post.

On Saturday, I visited Mystic Seaport in Connecticut. The museum describes itself as "The Museum of America and the Sea" but it really interprets the New England maritime industries during the Age of Sail (the 16th through 19th centuries), and much of what I saw on display was focused on the 19th century, such as the whaling industry of the period. That said, I didn't see the whole museum. It's the largest maritime museum in the country. It's an "open-air museum," meaning it's a collection of buildings, many of which are historic re-creations, which house various exhibits. I really enjoy this style of museum -- probably my favorite is The Shelburne Museum in Vermont, but I also enjoy living history museums on this model, such as Old Sturbridge Village

A very long, plain brown building.
The exterior of the rope walk.
It's hard to give a full critique of a museum I didn't have time to visit all of -- mind you, I was there for several hours. Overall, I really enjoyed it and was impressed with a lot of what they do. History enthusiasts may know about their massive project to restore their whaling ship the Charles W. Morgan which culminated in their sailing her for a ten-week voyage in 2014. I had a few concerns, such as the minor place that African American and Native American maritime workers had in the exhibits I saw relative to the importance of their role in history, but I don't know whether these were addressed in exhibits that I did not see. So, I wanted to write a blog post about how much I like open-air museums, and really big museums in general, but at first I didn't know what angle to take.

Fibers that look like a Rapunzel wig dangling to the floor.
Combed fibers hanging from a rafter.
Then, the ropewalk took my breath away. When I wasn't busy geeking out about the display of a 19th-century rope factory, I realized that this is what I want to say about open-air museums. The best part about them is that you can walk into a building knowing only the general topic of what you'll see inside, and be totally unprepared for how much you'll enjoy it. Certainly, this can happen with individual objects or exhibits in "regular" museums, and I've even had the experience of walking into a whole museum or historic site now knowing what it will be like, but there's something about being partway through a museum visit and opening a door into an immersive experience that just grabs you.

A rack with four rows of over a dozen spools of yarn each.
The creel, a rack holding bobbins of yarn spun from hemp or manila fiber.
The ropewalk exhibit is fairly unassuming. In a portion of a building that's half the width and a quarter of the length of the original ropewalk, a handful of signs explain the process of ropemaking. Fibers are twisted in one direction, then wound around one another in the opposite direction, finally producing a rope 600 feet long. These ropes were used on sailing ships, so they had to be long, thick, and strong. There were no staff members interpreting and no parts in motion. The topic simply captured my imagination. I knew a little bit about ropemaking in the late 18th century and seen some engravings of the process, because several years ago I was an educator at the USS Constitution Museum in Charlestown (outside of Boston), but that was when it was all done by hand, whereas this factory was shown during the industrial revolution, so what I knew only somewhat applied.

Dozens of strands of fiber leading into a round metal plate with holes at regular intervals.
The forming plate was used to even out the tension
between strands as they were twisted into rope.
I think my fascination with the ropewalk was in part because I like seeing manufacturing or industrial processes broken down into steps. I love factory tours, brewery tours, even the Paris sewer tour. The ropewalk was laid out with ropes and machines in different stages of the process, so even though the gears hadn't turned in years, it was easy to imagine the steps playing out before me. I know that this was grueling work and I don't want to over-romanticize it, I just find it admirable and interesting. I'm also a fiber crafter (mostly a knitter) so even though the fibers plied into rope are rough and coarse and would feel nothing like what I'm used to, it all looked fondly familiar. The other part is that I was really impressed by the sheer scale of these ropes and this operation. The Romantic concept of the sublime has many meanings to different people, but the aspect that has always resonated the most with me is the emotional side of being confronted with something that's greater than me, physically or otherwise, that makes me feel small in a good way.  I'm feeling a little sheepish about using such a grandiose concept -- in fact, that's why this post's title is a little more tongue-in-cheek than I usually go for -- but the ropewalk made me feel that.

The inside of a wooden building, with wooden and metal machinery, sunlight coming in through the windows.
A look down the ropewalk.

I have no idea why I got this feeling about the ropewalk but not the beautiful ships around me. I have felt that way before about ships, so it's not that they don't stir me. This unexpectedness -- not just the fact that I was really excited about the ropewalk, but the fact that my excitement took me by surprise, is what's so cool about open-air museums. If I hadn't waxed poetic enough already, I would say it's what's so important about museums as a whole.

Very large coils of rope, piled several feet high, in a wooden building.
Finished rope.


  1. Wonderfully written! Did Matt tell you how I was gushing about it on Thursday? I spent my childhood at the Plymouth Cordage Company, but by then it was a shopping center and now a row of doctors/administrative offices. Only 2 of the many building have been refurbished and remain in use-the rest were torn down or sit in sad disrepair. When I discovered (about 3 years ago) that this section of rope walk had been preserved I was SO excited. The magnitude is astonishing! To think that large building is only less than a QUARTER of the length/width of the original rope walk is crazy.
    The Cordage Company is such an integral part of Plymouth history, but everyone is so focused on the Pilgrims that it is completely ignored. I'm glad this little piece exists, even if it isn't actually in Plymouth anymore.

    1. Thanks so much! In fact, Matt didn't mention it -- he was probably too amused at the way I was gushing about it. That's so neat that you have a personal and geographic connection to the Plymouth Cordage Company! My photos don't do it justice, so I looked it up, and the quarter-length section they have is 250 feet long. When looking it up I saw they have a cute video on their website: http://www.mysticseaport.org/locations/ropewalk/

      Regarding the history being ignored, I know what you mean. I find that's often the way with the histories of towns that are famous for one thing, but it can be so frustrating! To use another Massachusetts example, Salem used to be and important port of international trade, but if it weren't for the Peabody Essex Museum, I don't think anyone would remember that, and still it's obscured by witches.


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