History of a History Museum

May 30, 2011 § 6 Comments

excerpt from page 8 of The Livable City, 1981

We’ve discovered in our work with Friends of Bowne that there is a lot of confusion about the history of Bowne & Co., Stationers and the Seaport Museum, leading to much speculation, conspiracy theories, and uncertainty about how to change things. In an effort to make sense of the past and the present, we are making available a PDF scan of an article about the Seaport that was published by the Municipal Art Society in New York City. Entitled “The South Street Seaport Museum,” the article appeared in The Livable City Number 8/1, in June 1981, and was written by the architectural historian Barry Lewis and Virginia Dajani, at that time an Associate Director of the Municipal Art Society and a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University.

You can find the article PDF here: South Street Seaport Museum article PDF

The article took two years to write and the authors interviewed 35 people, most of whom requested anonymity. Lewis and Dajani attempted “to take an objective look at the history of the South Street Seaport Museum” and succeeded in writing a mostly even-toned account of the complex dealings that established the museum and kept it alive during the economic recession of the 1970s. Only occasionally do notes of anger emerge, especially in a sidebar about the Jasper Ward House, a former Seaport property with a complicated past. The Jasper Ward sidebar ends with the question “What is really going on down at South Street?,” a question many of us still ask. The authors would probably have been even more exasperated if they had known that the Seaport Museum would eventually sell the Jasper Ward House to a private buyer.

Bowne & Co. is briefly mentioned in the article. In a section about the Museum’s difficulties caring for its collection (p. 6), there is this:

“One board member has said: ‘After ten years of existence, there was nothing to show except the Bowne Shop on land and the Peking on the sea.’ Both the Peking and the Bowne Shop were helped financially – and spiritually – by individual Museum board members who acted as project godfathers. The Peking was given to the Seaport by board member Jack Aron, who paid for its restoration. The much-acclaimed Bowne Shop, a restored, 19-century print shop, was created and is still maintained by board member Ted Stanley, who is the head of the the very-much-alive Bowne & Company publishing house on Hudson Street. Stanley has been mentioned by several Museum-watchers as one of the few board members left who understand the Seaport’s original vision.”

On the same page:

“Some of the Museum’s programs have been admirable: The Bowne Shop, the excellent Viking ship program presented in Autumn 1980, the Seaport’s traditional summer programs for children, the exhibit on the Hudson river ships (one of the Museum’s best), and the revival, at long last, of the ship restoration program.”

Apologies: the PDF is a scan of a xerox, so the images are not clear. One page of drawings by the developer Rouse, page 10, was left out because the images were illegible.

Doug Clouse

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§ 6 Responses to History of a History Museum

  • Jean Hayter says:

    As a former Bowne Shop volunteer – I was always told and it was part of my spiel when I gave letterpress demonstrations that the original Bowne and Company had been and were very supportive of the museum shop. On one occasion a ‘Bowne’ was in the group and talked to me after confirming the fact. Are they not involved/interested now?

  • Paul Romaine says:

    Bowne used to hold its annual shareholder meetings at Grolier.

    R.R. Donnelly is (was) a very distinguished Chicago firm with a long history in printing and bookbinding. They were the makers of those beautiful photographic facsimile (including Lee’s General Order no. 9) which continue to bedevil manuscript librarians. (FWIW, the monster in financial printing is/was Commerce Clearing House, CCH, which is also Chicago-based, but is now owned by Wolters/Kluwer.)

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