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Isaac Hull Constitution model

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  • Member since
    May 2003
  • From: Greenville, NC
Isaac Hull Constitution model
Posted by jtilley on Thursday, August 16, 2007 10:26 PM

My wife and I just got back from a really enjoyable trip to New England.  It was great to get re-acquainted with some of the maritime sites I hadn't seen in quite a few years.  The Constitution herself is, whatever one may think about the historical accuracy of her current configuration, in terrific condition - the best she's been in during my lifetime.  And the people at Mystic Seaport are, as always, doing a fine job of preserving and maintaining the beautiful vessels entrusted to their care.  (The Charles W. Morgan is going to be hauled out of the water soon for a major restoration - at least the fifth she's undergone in the forty-plus years I've been visiting her.)

One place I was particularly interested in seeing was the Peabody/Essex Museum in Salem.  I first visited it, under its old name "Peabody Museum," in 1966, when I was in high school.  At that time it perceived itself almost entirely as a museum of maritime art and history, with a smattering of natural history and anthropology.  In recent years it's been renamed and vastly expanded; it feels like it's at least three times as big as it used to be.  And the emphasis has expanded to include a great deal more anthropology (with galleries devoted to Native Americans, Japan, China, Korea, and India), non-maritime art, and special exhibitions on a wide variety of themes.

One of my students handed in a term paper about the new Peabody/Essex Museum a few years ago, and I confess it made me worry a little.  I was afraid the new collecting emphasis had displaced the maritime part of the museum.  One exhibit that particularly concerned me was the famous model of the Constitution that was presented to the old museum by Isaac Hull during or shortly after the War of 1812.  As many Forum participants know, that model is a priceless artifact - arguably our best guide to what the ship looked like during her most famous period.  This is just the sort of artifact that needs a particularly large dose of tender loving care from curators and conservators who (a) appreciate its importance, and (b) know what they're doing.  I was afraid the grand old model would get neglected, or even damaged, by the new generation of museum staff.

I was pleased to see that some, at least of my concerns were groundless.  The model sits in a huge, attractive glass case in the East India Marine Hall, one of the few rooms in the museum that have been maintained more-or-less as they were in the old days.  The model has a quite prominent place, and obviously is getting a great deal of respect from the staff.  At first I was irritated that there was no label on it, but eventually I found a computerized "touch screen" that devoted a couple of paragraphs to the model.  (I have my doubts about the history that's set forth on that machine, but it's certainly no more sketchy or unreliable than the label that was on the model in the old days.)  Quite a few visitors seemed to be at least somewhat interested in the model.

I'm a bit concerned about the lighting arrangements.  The room has a set of huge windows overlooking the lovely square outside; it looks to me like direct sunlight must fall on the model on a regular basis.  In conservation circles, that's an absolute no-no.  I took a careful look at the windows, hoping they'd been treated with UV-blocking film.  I couldn't find any such substance; the slightly rippled glass appeared to have been there for a good long time.  Maybe the glass in the model's case has been treated, but it sure doesn't look like it.

About four other galleries in the museum are devoted to maritime subjects.  Most of the models I remembered from the old days are still there, exhibited in nice, well-lighted cases with pretty good labels.  (It's a rather arbitrary collection, but the curators quite obviously have tried hard to arrange the exhibits so they make some sense to the uninitiated visitor.)  And there are several excellent models that weren't there some years back - including one by Donald McNarry, one by his wife, Iris, and a beautiful Continental privateer Rattlesnake by Philip Reid, another master of small-scale sailing ships.  I wasn't able to find a few of my old favorites:  the primitive watercolor of the frigate Essex by Joseph Howard, the beautiful modern model of that ship that used to stand near the painting, and the four paintings by Francis Holman depicting the capture of the frigates Hancock and Boston.  We were only able to spend about three hours in the museum; it's entirely possible that I missed those particular exhibits, or that they were off display for conservation or some other good reason.

The Peabody/Essex Museum is a great institution.  It doesn't look like the old Peabody Museum - but change is often healthy.  I continue to hope that, one of these days, somebody will publish a thorough, well-illustrated study of that old Constitution model (which is surely one of the most historically important ship models in the U.S.), and I hope the curators and conservators will do something about how it's lit.  But I can enthusiastically recommend the museum as a place that every ship modeler and maritime history enthusiast ought to visit.

Youth, talent, hard work, and enthusiasm are no match for old age and treachery.

  • Member since
    November 2005
  • From: Formerly Bryan, now Arlington, Texas
Posted by CapnMac82 on Friday, August 17, 2007 9:46 AM

It's good to hear that the museums are still in good condition (if with the occasional "asterisk").

There are so many places to just want to go.  Then, when you travel, there's that urge which 'insists' on seeing the new, rather than revisiting.  Color me happy that anyone gets to vist or revisit the treasures that are our many museums.

O, the list of places I'd like to go is as varied as the list of places I've been. <g> 

  • Member since
    January 2005
  • From: Tampa, Florida, USA
Posted by steves on Friday, August 17, 2007 7:58 PM

Thanks for that very interesting report, jtilley.   I was at the Mariner's Museum earlier this month and noted that the Crabtree Collection is displayed in a totally dark windowless room with each ship individually lighted in its case by numerous very low-output lamps.  The effect is not only very dramatic, but also protects these models from the effects of high light levels and /or the sun.   Once one's eyes adjust to the darkness, the low light levels are more than sufficient to view the details of the models.

By the way, when you visited the Constitution did you visit the museum, and, if so, did you happen to notice if the Corne painting is on display?

 

 

Steve Sobieralski, Tampa Bay Ship Model Society

  • Member since
    May 2003
  • From: Greenville, NC
Posted by jtilley on Friday, August 17, 2007 8:59 PM

It's not necessary for lighting levels to be as low as they are in the Crabtree Gallery - though, from the strict preservation standpoint, it's not a bad idea.  Different materials, and different colors of material, react differently to light.  Red fabric dye and many forms of red ink are notoriously light-sensitive.  I remember a trip to the British Army Museum in London.  (Red dye is pretty crucial to the history of the British Army.)  The light levels throughout the galleries were kept so low that visitors felt in danger of falling over each other; the red uniforms and flags almost looked black.  (That was about thirty years ago; the management may have come up with a better solution since then.)

I've noted elsewhere that the lighting in the Crabtree Gallery is a key component of the mystique those models have acquired over the years.  I've actually seen members of the public walk into that gallery and instinctively start whispering to each other, as though they assumed they were entering a shrine of some sort.  (I've also had the interesting task of shooing out of the gallery several pairs of teenagers, who discovered that the dark corners were great places to make out during school field trips.)

In terms of conservation, the type of light is just as important as the amount.  I don't have a really thorough understanding of the subject, but as I understand it the ultraviolet end of the spectrum is the one that does the most damage to artifacts like ship models.  Exhibiting a model (or an oil painting, or an historic costume or uniform) in direct sunlight is just about the most brutal thing that can be done to it.  The damaging effects of the light can be reduced considerably by modern UV-proof films, and there is a (very expensive) form of acrylic sheeting, for making exhibit cases, that screens out the UV rays.  But the specifications handed to architects by responsible museum managers routinely specify that there are to be no windows in any space that has artifacts in it.  I know personally of one small museum that spent a great deal of money on an addition a few years ago.  The architect, incredibly, designed a row of windows high up in the walls of one gallery, and the museum board, even more incredibly, approved the plans.  After the new gallery opened, the museum director applied for accreditation from the American Association of Museums.  (AAM accreditation is a big, and pretty rare, honor - especially for a small local institution.)  The accreditation team told him it wouldn't approve the museum until something was done about those windows.  The poor man had to get up on a ladder and tape big sheets of poster board over them.  (He then got his accreditation.) 

We did spend a couple of hours in the Constitution Museum - and a fine one it is.  If I remember right, Corne made at least two oil paintings that show the ship.  I don't recall seeing either of them in the museum; I think I would have noticed them, but I can't swear to it. 

It's perhaps worth remembering that there are plenty of perfectly legitimate reasons for a particular artifact in a museum to be off public view at a particular moment.  In a good museum artifacts undergo conservation and study periodically - and get loaned to other institutions.  I have no reason to think that any of the absent pictures or models we've been talking about in this thread are being mistreated in any way.

Youth, talent, hard work, and enthusiasm are no match for old age and treachery.

  • Member since
    January 2005
  • From: Tampa, Florida, USA
Posted by steves on Friday, August 17, 2007 9:31 PM

jtilley,

That was my first visit to the Mariner's Museum, and I had wondered if the Crabtree display was a recent development or if it had always been shown like that.  Sounds like it has been that way for a while.   It is very dramatic, and since I was the only one in the room at the time I didn't notice anyone lowering their voice, but I am sure it happens.

The Corne painting I was asking about is the 1803(?) portrait of the ship.  I had understood that it was displayed at the museum, but perhaps not.  Or, as you say, it just may not be on display at the present time.  I am curious about some of the ship's colors in the painting. 

 

Steve Sobieralski, Tampa Bay Ship Model Society

  • Member since
    June 2005
  • From: Biloxi, Mississippi
Posted by Russ39 on Friday, August 17, 2007 10:03 PM

Steve:

I am not sure about this, but the last I heard of the 1803 Corne' watercolor was that it was at the Constitution museum, perhaps on loan. That may not be the case currently, though.

Russ 

 

  • Member since
    June 2007
  • From: Albuquerque, NM, USA
Posted by styrenegyrene on Friday, August 17, 2007 11:32 PM

When I worked for Digital Equipment Corp. I got to travel to Boston on business, and spent a few hours seeing The Constitution.  This was in the mid-80's, and I don't recall any specifics of her configuration.  And I didn't even have a camera with me.  There was a group of Japanese tourists on the pier when I boarded, and they seemed to be aruging about where they were or where they were going.  There was a lot of squawking and map waving.

I ignored them as much as possible, but they almost seemed to be following me around.  I ended up standing as far forward as I could get on the ship, and turned around to look down the weather deck.  The Japanese were nearby, carrying on as before.  I blocked them from my mind and concentrated on what I was looking at until, overcome by emotion, I took off my hat and stood there with tears in my eyes.  One of the Japanese was a man in his 70's or thereabouts.  He turned toward me and saw the expression on my face, I guess.  Instantly, he snapped to attention, faced the ship, and jerked the cap off his head.  The others wandered off, but he stood like that until I was ready to leave - the better part of five minutes.  As I passed by him headed for the gangplank, I bowed.  He returned the bow, then waved a hand generally toward the ship and said, "Brave men. Brave boat."  I nodded and left.

Honor knows its own.

Turning styrene into fantasies for 50 years!
  • Member since
    May 2003
  • From: Greenville, NC
Posted by jtilley on Saturday, August 18, 2007 5:15 AM

Styrenegyrene - That's quite a story.  It sounds like the gentleman in question was a military vet - probably from WWII. 

I've visited the Constitution a dozen or so times, I guess, beginning in 1966.  It's been interesting - and generally satisfying - to watch her change over the decades.  She's still a long way from her 1812 configuration, but the people responsible know that and are making improvements as funding permits.  She's come a long way since the day I heard, with my own ears, an enlisted man (in dubiously authentic 1812 garb) tell a group of tourists that the berth deck was so-named because sailors' wives and girlfriends gave birth to babies on it.

Current arrangements are such that, in order to get within about a hundred feet of the ship, you have to pass through a security gate and get your possessions x-rayed.  Visitors are kept together inside a fenced-in area, until a couple of dozen show up; they're then escorted to the ship.  My wife and I were there on a beautiful, sunny August weekday morning.  The number of visitors was the smallest I've ever seen there - in the dozens, where in earlier years there have been hundreds.  I have no explanation for that; maybe this was an off day.

Or maybe the problem is lack of convenient access.  There's no longer a large public parking lot alongside the ship, as there used to be.  So far as I could tell, there are no signs (on the freeways, the city streets, or anywhere else) directing the public to the Constitution.  (And anybody who's ever driven a car in Boston knows the implications of that.)  I think the ship's popularity is suffering from post-9/11 security concerns.  The authorities apparently have concluded that she'd be a good target for terrorists.  I guess they're probably right.

Russ - Captain Martin's book (the revised, 1997 edition) reproduces two paintings of the Constitution by Michel Felice Corne.  The first one (the one steves was referring to, I think) is a straightforward portrait of the ship in, apparently, her "as-built" configuration (or close to it).  It's identified as a gouache (i.e., a modified, thickened form of watercolor); the credit line under the reproduction reads "Courtesy of the U.S.S. Constitution Museum."  I think I would have noticed if it had been on display when I was there, but I can't say for sure.  (My wife and I went to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts later that day; the paintings collection at that place tends to leave one slightly numb to such things elsewhere.)  The other Corne painting reproduced in Captain Martin's book is a view of the assault on Tripoli; it's identified as having been commissioned by Commodore Preble, and looks like an oil painting.  The credit line for it reads simply "Official U.S. Navy Photo."  I think that means the Navy Historical Center in Washington has a photograph of it; I don't know where the original is.  (I think I have an extremely vague recollection of seeing it at Annapolis, but that may be way off-base.)

Steves - If I remember correctly, the Crabtree Gallery at the Mariners' Museum got installed in the form I remember (the darkened room with the illuminated models "floating" in it) sometime in the late sixties.  It was the work of two people:  the late Harold Sniffen, longtime senior curator (and one of the finest gentleman I've ever had the honor to meet) and Robert Brushwood, exhibit designer.  It got a major refurbishment, as I understand it, just a couple of years ago.  I haven't seen it since then, but I have the impression that the basic design and lighting scheme are generally similar to what I remember.  (I haven't set foot in that museum in about fourteen years; my wife says she can see my blood pressure going up whenever I get within a few blocks of it.)

Youth, talent, hard work, and enthusiasm are no match for old age and treachery.

  • Member since
    September 2004
  • From: Texas
Posted by Yankee Clipper on Saturday, August 18, 2007 9:55 AM

Styrenegyrene,

That is a beautiful story, thanks.

Yankee Clipper

  • Member since
    June 2007
  • From: Albuquerque, NM, USA
Posted by styrenegyrene on Saturday, August 18, 2007 9:58 AM
Our tour guide that day was a sailor in modern uniform.  I don't recall him saying anything that struck me as patently bogus, but there was one thing I thought curious.  He said the guns were fiberglass castings, and the originals had been removed.  I asked where they were, and he said these were fiberglass castings.  I asked again if the originals were still in existence, and he said these were fiberglass castings.   I let it drop.  Maybe the navy was afraid someone would steal them.  They would be worth a pretty penny on the market!
Turning styrene into fantasies for 50 years!
  • Member since
    May 2003
  • From: Greenville, NC
Posted by jtilley on Saturday, August 18, 2007 10:11 AM
Another possibility:  somebody was worried about the weight factor.  Removing all those iron guns would significantly reduce the stress on the ship's structure, which has been a matter of some concern in recent years.  Removing the long guns alone would save about seventy tons.

Youth, talent, hard work, and enthusiasm are no match for old age and treachery.

  • Member since
    June 2005
  • From: Biloxi, Mississippi
Posted by Russ39 on Saturday, August 18, 2007 12:12 PM

The Constitution has not had her original guns since probably the mid 19th century. The guns she had back in the 1930s were not original and I think they were in fact the wrong size.

It is true that they removed the iron guns and replaced them with the fiberglass castings to cut down on the weight which reduces the stress on the hull. I think it also reduces the cost factor as well. The fakes cost less than the real ones to produce and they are probably easier to maintain.

Russ 

 

  • Member since
    March 2004
Posted by Gerarddm on Saturday, August 18, 2007 1:00 PM

I assume that the guns she now has ARE the right size?

After building Revell's version of her when I was a kid, I was thrilled to be able to finally visit her in person in the mid-70s and was just enthralled. After the model's scale, the sheer size of the guns completely took me by surprise. It also struck me how squat her hull was in the water, and how in fact she was a killing machine. She looked every bit as purposeful as a dead black SSN I saw once running on the surface into Groton.

I hope they sail her again, like every 10 years or so.

Gerard> WA State Current: 1/700 What-If Railgun Battlecruiser 1/700 Admiralty COURAGEOUS battlecruiser
  • Member since
    June 2005
  • From: Biloxi, Mississippi
Posted by Russ39 on Saturday, August 18, 2007 1:07 PM

I would think the fake guns she has now are probably the right size. I have not seen them, only read about them. There has been a lot of research done in the past 30 years on her so you'd think they would have gotten that right when ordering them. That said, she is owned by a rather large bureaucracy that is prone to mistakes every now and again. :)

Russ 

 

  • Member since
    May 2003
  • From: Greenville, NC
Posted by jtilley on Saturday, August 18, 2007 10:55 PM

When I was in Boston the week before last I asked one of the enlisted men whether there were any plans to take the Constitution to sea again.  His answer was kind of vague (he was on his way someplace else), but I think he said they were going to take her out later this month (August).

I wouldn't have a major problem with the idea of taking her to sea once every ten years, but I'm a little worried that the Navy may yield to public pressure and take her out too often.  Captain Tyrone Martin, former c.o. of the ship and author of the best extant book about her (A Most Fortunate Ship:  A Narrative History of Old Ironsides) has publicly questioned the wisdom of sailing her at all.  (I think the phrase he used was something like, "the old lady's out of her wheelchair, but she's not ready for roller blades.")  I have to agree with him.  I enjoyed seeing those great color photos of her, with the Blue Angels flying overhead, as much as anybody else did, but the risks of sailing an historic ship are just too great.  (I'd be happier if she was taken out of the water and put in a permanent drydock, like the Victory or the Cutty Sark.  Floating a wood ship in water is, from the standpoint of conservation, an extremely unsound practice.) 

There seems to be quite a bit of sentiment among maritime history enthusiasts in favor of keeping such ships afloat, and operating them under sail.  I'm reminded of the aviation enthusiasts who want to see historic aircraft flying.  Every year the historical aviation journals report several more instances of such planes crashing - frequently killing people.  (The RAF used to operate a "Vintage Pair" of early jets - a Vampire and a Swift, as I remember.  Their careers came to a spectacular end when they collided with each other in midair during an air show, killing one of the three men on board.)  I don't want to see anything of that nature happen to the Constitution, or the Morgan, or the Cutty Sark, or....

Some people in the maritime preservation field argue strongly against the construction of replica ships (e.g., the Mayflower II, the Jamestown ships, and the Pride of Baltimore).  Those individuals make the valid point that there's only a limited amount of money available for such projects, and assert that the available funds ought to go to the preservation of genuine, historic vessels and other genuine maritime artifacts.  I can't disagree with that position, but I do think replicas have their uses.  I'd rather see a replica (especially one that's been surreptitiously equipped with modern compartmentation and other safety features) sailing the high seas than a real historic ship.  If a tragedy does occur (e.g., the one that struck the first Pride of Baltimore), at least the replica can be replaced.  The Constitution can't.

Youth, talent, hard work, and enthusiasm are no match for old age and treachery.

  • Member since
    January 2006
  • From: Sarasota, FL
Posted by RedCorvette on Sunday, August 19, 2007 11:58 AM

The seaman may have been refering to one of the "turnaround cruises" when they tow her out.  They're both ceremonial and serve the purpose of evening out the weathering by turning the ship to face the opposite direction when moored.  (I routinely enter the lottery to win the chance to ride along...)

Actually sailing her is an entirely different deal.  Certainly there is the issue of risk to the ship itself.  But also putting together a sufficiently trained crew to sail her effectively and safely is a big challenge.  Although the embarked crew spends time training aloft, a lot of it is mainly for maintenance work.  Minimizing the strain on the ship and dealing with a limited trained crew were primary reasons they only used a six sail set (plus they don't have a complete set of sails for her anyway...).

Personally, I take a lot of pride in the fact that we've made the commitment as a nation to keep the Constitution afloat and functional.  And besides, very little (if any) of her is original anymore, so if something breaks and has to be fixed, well it's been done before.

Mark

 

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  • Member since
    June 2005
  • From: Biloxi, Mississippi
Posted by Russ39 on Sunday, August 19, 2007 12:07 PM

There is probably more of her original material in her than you might believe. She still has her original keel, all of her floor timbers and first futtocks are still original, as well as a few other parts of her backbone such as her stemson and apron and her deadwood.

She probably still has a few of her second futtocks that are still original or nearly so, but the higher up in the hull framing you get, the more unlikely it is that a piece is original. I doubt her sternpost or stem is completely original either. But, there is still some of her that is either original, or dating back to the 1830s.

Russ

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