By Ashley Welch
Susan Henshaw Jones had her work cut out for her when she became the president of the South Street Seaport Museum in the fall of 2011.
Earlier that year, financial struggles forced the maritime museum to lay off most of its staff and shut down. Jones, the Ronay Menschel director of the Museum of the City of New York, which took over the South Street Seaport Museum on an interim basis, was charged with the task of revitalizing the deteriorating museum.
Since then, the museum has reopened with a mix of historical and contemporary exhibitions, from installations featuring the former fisherman life of the area to photographs of Occupy Wall Street. The museum also offers an education program for preschoolers and grade-school children, in which 15,000 students have participated.
For Jones, the preservation of the 11 vessels that make up the Seaport fleet was one of the most difficult aspects of taking on the job. Before she assumed leadership of the museum, all 11 boats were closed to the public. Since then, two have reopened, with one, the Pioneer, running as a sailing vessel over the summer.
Yet, nothing could prepare Jones for the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
“Sandy was the biggest and most unexpected of challenges we have faced,” she said.
The storm left 5 to 7 feet of water in each of the museum buildings. In addition, all of the mechanical and electrical systems on Schermerhorn Row, a block of six historic counting houses built in the 1800s, were made inoperable and will need to be replaced, something that has hindered the museum’s ability to fully reopen. Currently, the museum is only accessible by stairs.
“We will be without elevators, escalators, and permanent heat and air conditioning for some time to come,” Jones said.
The ships, however, made it through Sandy just fine.
“They rode out the storm beautifully,” she said.
Sandy was just one of the many obstacles Jones has seen the Seaport Museum face over time. She started her career in the John Lindsay administration in the 1970s, when she worked on the affairs of the museum during her time at the Mayor’s office of Lower Manhattan Development. It was then when she developed a strong connection to the neighborhood and museum.
“Those days made me believe in the unique mission of the Seaport Museum,” she said.
When asked about the future of the Seaport Museum, Jones was hesitant to give details, saying that the agreement with the New York City Economic Development Corporation and New York City Department of Cultural Affairs will conclude in April 2013 and “we will have to see about the future then.” But she remained hopeful that it will remain an important cultural institution in the city.
“The Seaport and City Museum missions are very much compatible,” she said, “and with strong city and community support, the Seaport Museum has the potential to be a strong anchor and key institution in the Seaport district and for the City. After all, our greatness as a city is very much based on its past as a seaport.”
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