On 2 July 1995, the 35-year-old Philadelphia Maritime Museum officially reopened as the Independence Seaport Museum, a new multimillion-dollar, 100,000-square-foot facility at Penn’s Landing. The museum now includes interactive hands-on exhibitions, historic ship tours, a working boat-building shop (The Workshop on the Water), changing exhibition galleries, a 550-seat auditorium, a new education center, a library, and a gift shop (The Seaport Trader).
The Philadelphia Maritime Museum, founded in 1960 by community leaders, first opened its doors in 1961 in space rented from the Athenaeum of Philadelphia. In 1974, the museum was relocated to the city’s historic district, and in 1979, the American Association of Museums accredited the museum, making it only the sixth institution in the area to be so recognized.
In addition to the increased exhibition and storage space of the new facility, the Independence Seaport Museum has redefined its mission to focus more intently on the maritime experience as social history. This allows the institution’s collection, exhibition, and interpretation efforts to encompass a broader range of artifacts, including large-scale objects that reflect the evolving nature of work on the waterfront and materials that demonstrate the influence of technology on society. The galleries at the new site enable the museum to present the story of the ongoing impact of maritime activities on the lives of the people and the region.
The centerpiece exhibition, “Home Port Philadelphia,” conveys the history of the Delaware River and the ports along its shores, focusing on the urban industrial history of the late 19th and 20th centuries. Featuring more than 1,000 artifacts, the exhibition is arranged in six thematic sections. In “Bound for Philadelphia,” visitors can sound ship horns and whistles as they chart a course for Penn’s Landing, learn the hazards of navigation as they travel along an inlaid floor chart of the Delaware River, and peruse charts and navigational instruments as they walk under a three-story replica of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.
In “Coming to America,” the museum uses audio and video excerpts of journals and letters to show visitors the hardships faced by late-19th-century immigrants as they embarked on the dangerous voyage to the New World. A recreated Washington Avenue Immigration Station helps visitors experience the challenges immigrants faced upon arrival in Philadelphia. In “Ship via Philadelphia,” museum visitors can unload a container ship and explore commerce and trade from the 18th century to the present. Costumed merchants and longshoremen share stories of how developments in ship technology and cargo handling have changed the nature of their work. In the exhibit “Of Wood, Iron, and Steel,” a video recounts the growth and decline of the Delaware Valley shipbuilding industry, once known as the “American Clyde.” Visitors can try their hand at welding and riveting and learn about engine power. A mock-up of Lorraine D’AUeisio, female union organizer and shipfitter, tells her story in a recreated ship floor area.
In “Protecting the Nation,” visitors experience danger on the open sea through a general quarters drill on board the bridge of the guided-missile destroyer USS Lawrence (DDG-4), which was built at nearby Camden, New Jersey, and commissioned in 1962. The bridge comes to life as the voice of African-American sailor Hassan Radee retells his experience in the Navy of the late 20th century. Also in this exhibit, civilian employee Domenik Brancato recounts his 60-year career at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, and artifacts detail the importance of Philadelphia’s role in the nation’s defense throughout the past two centuries.
The exhibit “The Great Outdoors” includes narration by Cynthia Poten, Delaware River Keeper, who tells visitors of how she organizes volunteers at more than 100 sites to test the quality of the water. Interactives let visitors fish off a pier and row along the Schuylkill River. A recreation of the John Heinz Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum teaches visitors about issues surrounding waterfront development and its impact on the environment.
A second permanent exhibition, “Divers of the Deep,” takes visitors on a trip under the sea to study the development of diving. Beneath shimmering waves, amidst a giant coral reef, they marvel at the marine life in a 430-gallon aquarium. Video presentations explain the challenges of hard-hat diving used for ship repair, underwater cable laying, and salvage operations. The museum displays diving suits and helmets on a recreated salvage barge of Herman Wolter, a late-19th-century Delaware River salvor. Exhibits of SCUBA gear and the development of the sport of skin diving, as well as two mini-submersibles (one used for oil exploration, the other in conjunction with Sealab), give visitors a glimpse of the changing diving technologies that have developed since World War II. A recreated underwater wreck site teaches visitors the importance of underwater archaeology and serves as a context for recovered artifacts in the museum’s collection, as well as for items on loan from HMS Debraak, an 18th-century wreck recently excavated in the Delaware Bay. Other special exhibitions in the museum’s changing exhibit gallery focus on themes related to America’s maritime heritage.
In addition, the museum features the cruiser USS Olympia (C-6), which was commissioned in 1895 as one of the nation’s first steel warships. Best known as Admiral George Dewey’s flagship in the Battle of Manila Bay, the Olympia ended her active career in 1921, when she sailed home from France with the body of the Unknown Soldier. (For more on the Olympia’s role in returning the Unknown Soldier, see “Known But to God,” pp. 45-48, this issue.) Decommissioned, she has been in Philadelphia since the early 1920s. Alongside the Olympia lies the World War II submarine Becuna (SS-319), which also is open to museum visitors. Surrounded by restaurants and shops, the museum unites the cultural attractions at Penn’s Landing and is the cultural flagship in the heart of the Philadelphia waterfront.