CBMM – Using the Past to Preserve the Future

By Sandra Zunino

When Stuart Parnes became the director of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum almost three years ago, he had a vision that transcended typical museum status quo.

While the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, founded in 1965, was a well-respected institution when Stuart came on board, like many history museums, it was focused on the past.

With the Chesapeake Bay currently facing critical issues such as declining water quality, land erosion and cultural changes, Stuart recognized the museum had an opportunity help people understand how to use lessons from the past to make decisions in the present.

“We’re trying to get the museum more connected to current issues and current events around the bay,” he says. To accomplish this, the museum is focusing on educational programs for families, residents, tourists and schools.

For example, recognizing the bay area has lost much of its soft shoreline in favor of bulkhead, the museum is in the final stages of installing a living shoreline that will be new to the bay and part of an educational program showing visitors the need for maintaining grasses for animal habitat and bay water filtration.

“We’re adding some things that are more environmental in their focus to get people to recognize that part of preserving this place is to take care of the water,” he says.

Bay From Above, another educational program, will compare aerial photographs from the 1930s and 40s with photographs taken today demonstrating changes to the land and waterfront over the past 75 to 80 years. “In some areas there are dramatic changes while others are remarkably preserved,” says Stuart. “These are great examples of how we can take care of this place.”

Stuart says while his 30-year museum career started with an interest in history-oriented museums, his expertise in maritime museums came purely by accident. He was in charge of a maritime museum in Mystic Seaport that was centered on 19th century American and maritime history. From there he went to Connecticut River Museum, on the mouth of the Connecticut River. “We were combining this notion of human cultural history with the natural history of a place,” he explains.

“Coming here, it couldn’t be more clear that this whole culture all around the Chesapeake Bay was and still is related to the work, travel and communities that have grown up around it, and now the recreation that’s being done on the bay.”

“People don’t think of this as a maritime place, but it really is,” he adds. “The Chesapeake Bay is still so much the center of so many of our lives.”

Stuart attributes much of the museum’s success to a terrific board of directors. “For museums, survival depends on the integrity of the board,” he says. “This is an extraordinarily good board, providing a lot of support and leadership.”

Additionally, many volunteers help keep the museum running smoothly, from answering phones to repairing and maintaining the historic water vessels. “We couldn’t do what we do without them,” says Stuart. “They provide tens of thousands of volunteer hours of service.”

Stuart also acknowledges partnerships between the museum and local organizations. “We are cultural historians, not scientists or biologist so we work very closely with the experts,” he says. “We couldn’t accomplish much without really supportive partners.”

“There’s a tremendous amount to do,” he adds “and we’re not alone.”