Interested in doing more than just reading about life in the U.S. Navy's first six frigates? A new exhibit at the USS Constitution Museum, located at Boston Harbor in Charlestown, Massachusetts, gives visitors the chance to experience what it was like to serve on board "Old Ironsides." All Hands on Deck: A Sailor's Life in 1812 is a hands-on, minds-on exhibit in which families can scrub the deck, swing in a hammock, fire a cannon, and furl a sail. The culmination of eight years of research into the lives and experiences of the men who served in the Constitution during the time she earned her famous nickname, the exhibit is a national model of family learning techniques at a history museum.
The USS Constitution is the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world. Active-duty Navy Sailors provide guided tours of Old Ironsides, which offer visitors a sense of the ship's size and scale and a brief overview of her history. Yet they see a vessel lacking any evidence of the teeming humanity that once lived and worked on board.
The USS Constitution Museum's new exhibit, however, interprets the historic ship from the inside looking out, giving voice for the first time to the ship's company. It looks below the surface and reinvigorates interpretation of this national monument by examining the individuals who served on board her and the ways their experiences affected them, their families ashore, and the United States.
As visitors enter All Hands on Deck they feel the bustle of a busy 19th-century waterfront as provisions and livestock are loaded aboard ship. Posted handbills indicate that they are approaching a recruiting office for the Constitution in 1812. Outside a "House of Rendezvous" (temporary recruiting office), visitors encounter six Constitution crewmen (full-scale photo cutouts) and learn who they were and what motivated them to serve in the ship. Lieutenant Charles W. Morgan, responsible for recruiting, then invites the visitors into the waterfront building to serve their country and fight for "free trade and Sailors' rights."
Once inside, they sit across from each other and take turns acting as recruiter and recruit. The recruiter asks the recruit a series of questions to gauge his or her potential as a Sailor. After answers are tallied, recruits are invited to sign their names (using a quill pen) and join the crew.
Visitors next make the transition from shore to ship by seeing what items Sailors packed for sea and by bidding their loved ones farewell. They're then "welcomed" on board by a Marine sentry carrying a musket who warns them that they must do their duty or else. The "recruits" who need clothes or other supplies can purchase them from the purser and see how quickly expenses consume their wages. The new Sailors then go below to the berth deck. There, they can experience what it was like to swing in a hammock slung side-by-side with crewmates' hammocks in an area that was dark, crowded, stuffy, and sometimes wet.
A Sailor figure in the nearby mess area discusses, in the words of one contemporary War of 1812 seaman, how the crew was divided into "little communities of about 8, called 'messes.' These eat and drink together, and are, as it were, so many families." In addition to learning about the various food served in the Constitution, recruits can sit on the deck and bond over salt pork, ship's biscuits, and grog and get a sense of the intimacy possible on such a large ship as well as the relative comfort and escape one's mess provided.
Back on deck, recruits engage in holystoning and other on-watch activities. Those that require teamwork for success, such as furling a sail, highlight the physical skill and mental stamina serving in a functional ship required. As visitors approach the yard where they are to perform this task, they can view recent footage from the replica War of 1812 brig Niagara showing Sailors in period clothing aloft taking in a sail. Constitution recruits then step off the ground, balance on a footrope, and together pull in a heavy sail.
Maintaining discipline was all-important on board a 19th-century frigate, and All Hands on Deck includes a means of keeping the crew in line-a cat-o'-nine-tails. It's interpreted through the eyes of a Sailor, for whom it represented humiliation and a constant threat, and from the perspective of the captain, who saw it as a necessary evil to control the crew's behavior. The crew member represented in this section, Moses Smith, faced telling on a shipmate or getting flogged.
The Constitution is best known for her stirring victories during the War of 1812, and visiting recruits get their first taste of battle by experiencing the training and teamwork required to fire the ship's cannon. A video shows the ship's 21st-century crew demonstrating the steps required to load one of her 5,400-pound guns, and visitors can haul on the lines of a slightly smaller carronade and see if they are strong enough to help the gunners on board the Constitution.
While the recruits contemplate the work required to load just one of the nearly 50 guns on board Old Ironsides, the sound of a drum beating to quarters indicates the start of a multimedia presentation that brings battle to life through a combination of historic images, narration, objects, and the words of War of 1812 Sailors. For instance, visitors hear contemporary Sailor David C. Bunnell's description of the nerve-racking moments before a battle: "The word 'silence' was given-we stood in awful impatience. . . . My pulse beat quick-all nature seemed wrapped in awful suspense-the dart of death hung as it were trembling by a single hair, and no one knew on whose head it would fall."
Among the other crew members visitors hear from is young Midshipman Pardon Mawney Whipple, who before going into battle for the first time expressed his excitement and a strong sense of patriotism: "It appears to me at present that a man must be happy who sacrifices everything for his country . . . should I be so fortunate as to prove serviceable to my country, I shall be in the zenith of my glory."
The battle presentation also explores how, after the inhumanity of battle, combatants' attitudes toward their opponents change. Prisoners of war are brought aboard, the opposing captains pay each other respect, and the surgeons of both vessels work together to aid the wounded. Some of the exhibit's battle-related artifacts include muskets and boarding pikes, surgical instruments and a medical chest, and a Royal Navy officer's sword that was offered in surrender.
All Hands on Deck concludes with the crew and ship returning home to a hero's welcome. Visitors learn what the Constitution meant to her officers and men and to the country as a whole and discover the fate of the Sailors profiled in the exhibit.