Glenn Uminowicz - July 2006

At Play on the Bay at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum


Glenn Uminowicz

     One year ago, the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum opened its latest permanent exhibit—At Play on the Bay. Through the exhibition, the museum hoped to help visitors understand how the Bay has evolved from a workplace into a play space over the course of the last century. Six years in the making, the exhibit was based on solid scholarly research carried out through the Breene M. Kerr Center for Chesapeake Studies, a think tank for the exploration of the history of the Bay established at the museum in 1996.
      Far too often, research and writing on the history of American leisure is, well, downright boring and devoid of a true sense of fun. Some scholars appear to believe that the study of leisure can only be legitimized through writing solemn tomes. Future visitors to At Play on the Bay, however, need not worry. Confident in their scholarship, the museum staff created an exhibition that is a delight. The production values are outstanding and the label text is punctuated by unanticipated wit. Moreover, the exhibit demonstrates that it remains possible for museums to effectively deal with controversial issues, including contemporary ones.
      The introductory sections of At Play on the Bay focus on perceptions about the Chesapeake from a century or more ago. Label text informs visitors that the Bay must have seemed like “a place of almost unimaginable tranquility” in 1900. Visitors to the Eastern Shore in the early 20th century felt that the area’s farmers and watermen were still firmly entrenched in the century before. The Shore remained a place where “water worked under sail and the earth by ox or mule.”
      Museum Vice-President for Programs Melissa McLoud observed that this perceived sense of “timelessness” on the Chesapeake proved a major draw for visitors. Promoters of the region played upon the impression that it had escaped the march of progress and thus provided a respite from the unhealthy hustle and bustle of urban-industrial life. On one of the exhibit’s first panels, that perception is aptly illustrated through a quote from Appleton’s Handbook of American Travel (1866):
      Let the businessman, care-worn and wearied, slip down from New York, Philadelphia or Baltimore by way of the steamers on the Chesapeake…and forget for a little while the wrinkling perplexities of cabinets and commerce, in the quiet pleasures of simple domestic life within doors, and genial recreations to which he will be bidden without.
      Travel writers understood that Victorians increasingly linked the need for recreation to the physical, psychological and moral health of the nation. In 1938, renowned Dutch historian Johan Huizinga acknowledged the importance of a “play element” for any culture in Homo Ludens (Man the Player). Unlike European colleagues like Huizinga, however, American historians came late to the study of leisure. In 1988, the Henry Ford Museum published a volume on Leisure and Entertainment in America based on its collections. In the preface, Donna R. Braden acknowledged, “Much has been written about the history of work and the workplace in the United States, but surprisingly little attention has been paid to the history of leisure and leisure-time activities.”
      Curator of Exhibits Lindsley Rice noted that Maritime Museum staff understood that the history of recreation on the Bay was an important untold story. By the time At Play on the Bay opened, they had crafted a storyline that explored issues related to gender, race, ethnic background and class. They demonstrated how technological change affected the Bay and described how a growing and increasingly diverse population had exerted an impact on traditional patterns of life. Melissa McLoud explained that the museum wanted to go beyond maritime history alone to explore how people used a “watery place” over time.
      That story is carried along through a series of vignettes focusing on specific people. Early on in the exhibit, visitors encounter an early-20th-century canoe campsite, complete with tent and campfire. Canoe camping offered the appeal of picturesque scenery combined with a little exercise and perhaps some hunting or fishing. In 1883, Philadelphia physician Dr. Joseph T. Rothrock identified himself as among those who yielded to the “fascination for the paddle.” He proclaimed that he came to the Bay because “it was cheap, full of health and promised a complete change of life.”
      In the main gallery space, the interpretation of the featured vessels demonstrates the commitment to presenting maritime history and more. The attributes of a Chesapeake Bay Log Canoe are made apparent, but so is the fact that it was a workboat that evolved into a racer. It symbolizes the transition of the Bay from workspace to play place. An interactive video permits visitors to view a log canoe race and hear long-time racer Jimmy Glenn discuss changes in the social aspects of racing. She observed, “Back when I started racing log canoes…the crews all socialized on the weekend. You’ll see tonight when everybody comes in that each canoe goes its separate way for the evening.” In their leisure pursuits, Americans are becoming increasingly “atomized,” fragmenting into smaller and smaller groups. That fragmentation becomes apparent at several points in At Play on the Bay.
      The expense involved in log canoe racing increasingly places the activity beyond the reach of most Bay visitors. By contrast, historians have observed that many American leisure activities became “democratized” over time. The light and powerful Evinrude ELTO outboard motor , for example, revolutionized use of the Bay in 1921. Any inexperienced sailor could now attach an engine to an old rowboat. The 31-foot Owens Six-Sleeper Express motor cruiser was mass-produced. The Owens brothers consciously sought to lower the cost of owning a boat. Their sister Molly advocated for better appointed cabins and amenities such as a well-equipped galley. A guy could easily be sold a boat, but Owens’ marketing strategy emphasized the need to “remember the ladies.” Mom and the kids would be going cruising too.
      Controversial issues are not avoided in the powerboat section of the exhibit. In 1993, twenty-nine-year-old powerboat owner Joe Dazewieke insisted, “I like the looks, I like the noise, I like the power. I don’t think I could be on a sailboat.” So much for the unimaginable tranquility of the Bay. Visitors are also invited to place a Plexiglas “oil slick” over a map of Fogg’s Cove to gauge the amount of pollution produced by a single outboard motor.
      Throughout the exhibit, quotations from oral histories displayed on “storm clouds” illustrate points of controversy about the use of the Bay. In 2002, Lori Sutpin of Wittman, MD observed, “The ones (newcomers) who come looking for the picture postcard images find its not a still picture, but a living community. There are real people here. They want to change it, to rename it into there own idea of what it should be.” That locals can adjust to a changing population is illustrated using a 1960s tackle shop. Visitors learn about Phil Gootee, who converted his machine shop that served mostly locals into a marina and charter fishing center.
      The wish that there was more available space to explore some exhibit themes is the one criticism that can be leveled at At Play on the Bay. This is especially true for the sections exploring regional foodways and resorts. Regarding the latter topic, exhibit content does not shy away from discussing the segregation and anti-Semitism that existed at private clubs and resorts. The development of Henry’s Beach as a day resort for African-Americans illustrates some increase in accessibility to leisure-activities, as does the section on the Bay steamers that carried middle and working-class visitors.
      In the upstairs gallery, the section on public resorts is juxtaposed against a vignette depicting a private yacht club. The label entitled “Real Sailors Fly Burgees” notes, “In the rarified world of yachting, anything that sets the sailor apart from your common run-of-the-mill boater is smiled upon.” Specialized language helps define the yachting community, including the personal flags called “burgees.” From outboards to burgees, At Play on the Bay covers an extraordinary range of topics spanning more than a century. For anyone from this “watery place,” a visit to this exhibit is a must see.