This is a guest post by journalist Brian Hubert (follow him on Twitter @briguyhubert), an avocational specialist in transportation history, who just visited southern New England to look into the different ways in which public history is practiced here.  This is his impression of a visit to several sites in Fall River, Massachusetts, offering military, technological, social, and dark history, in places that use the power of space in strikingly different, but similarly influential ways, when it comes to understanding the elements of a successful guest experience.

A recent trip to Fall River, Massachusetts shows the power of space in historic sites.

One of those sites is Battleship Cove, which features the destroyer the USS Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., the battleship USS Massachusetts, and the submarine USS Lionfish, along with a ship built for East Germany, the Hiddensee, which was part of USSR’s “Eastern Bloc” during the Cold War. The ships are docked under a tall bridge that carries Interstate 195 towards Providence.  After passing through a small building that houses a gift shop, guests can make a left and venture into a large building that houses two “PT” (Patrol Torpedo) boats, along with a number of signs and a video that tell the story of the famous craft, including the events of August 1943, which would help to make future U.S. President John F. Kennedy famous.
Guests start their tour of the big ships by boarding the USS Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., and seeing the ship just as it was when it was decommissioned in the 1970s. They are free to tour as much or as little the of ship they want to at their own pace in whatever order they want.  Most hatches are open and no one is there to yell “don’t touch that” at guests. A small ship’s store has a calendar turned to February 1972, and the shelves are even stocked with Ritz crackers, Sunmaid raisins along with Lucky Strike, Camel and Marlboro cigarettes and Colgate shaving cream. On the counter is an old cash register stuck on $.01 and a sign hangs from it stating the store’s hours in military time.
The mess hall is another interesting space with a retro Coca Cola vending machine along with tables, and a stainless steel water fountain much like one found in a high school hallway.  Shelves hold dozens of napkin dispensers like those found in a traditional diner. The cafeteria-like space contrasts greatly with a dining room where higher ranking members of the crew enjoyed their meals on a table with a tablecloth and fine china. The placement and presence of these items give the ship a lived-in feel and it breaks down barriers to imagining what day-to-day life was for members of the crew and how the day-to-day routine varied for crew members based on rank.
A self-guided tour seemed to be the best way to take everything in. It lets the guest focus on what they think is most interesting, and it avoids a situation where a guide focuses on only one or two things they’re interested in.
Maritime technology abounds in the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. as well, ranging from early computer and radio equipment to the large steam turbines that propelled the ship. Above deck, the ship retains many of its original guns, allowing guests to get an idea of just how big some of them really were in a way that could only happen on board such a vessel.  Visitors can peer through glass at the ship’s bridge, and a video plays on a loop in which former crew members who served on the ship, even in those rooms, share their experiences.
What better way to offer living history than by featuring those who actually lived it?
Nearby a fully intact radar room is lit by red lights that made the large radar screen easier to read for crew members.
A platform then can take visitors to the USS Lionfish, a WWII submarine that used a diesel-electric and battery propulsion system that was a precursor to today’s nuclear subs. This limited the time Lionfish could spend below water, and the deck is equipped with several guns to help protect the sub when it needed to breach the surface and run its diesel engines to charge the batteries. When guests head below deck, they immediately encounter the equipment used to launch torpedos, several of which sat ready to go in case of enemy attack. Hammocks above the torpedoes provided cramped sleeping quarters that allowed the crew to wake up and fire them off at any moment.
As one takes in the surroundings it’s easy to suspend disbelief and imagine what it was like to serve on Lionfish even with a lack of expensive and gimmicky technology, or even an interpreter or docent. After passing through a doorway so short it requires guests to bend down to pass through, guests pass several officers’ quarters before they arrive at the center of the sub.
In this space, the ping-ping of Lionfish‘s sounding equipment can still be heard. Adventurous visitors can climb a ladder to peer into the bridge. In an adjacent, space, behind plastic, are the handles that were used by the crew to let in or discharge water allowing the sub to dive below the service or come back up. Passing through another doorway, guests enter the engine room and come face to face with four large Fairbanks Morse diesel engines that generated electricity to charge the large batteries that drove the electric motors that propelled Lionfish when it was below water.  Similar engines would find use in Fairbanks Morse’s unsuccessful foray into the diesel-electric locomotive market after the war. It was a time when railroads across the U.S. and Canada were rapidly replacing steam locomotives with new diesel-electric locomotives. A nearby GE electrical cabinet allowed the crew to change between the diesel engines, which could only be run above water and the batteries used when the sub was below water. A couple of the levers can even be pulled, providing a very small, but tangible, connection to when Lionfish was in service.
Once back on the deck another platform takes visitors over to the Hiddensee, a much more modern Soviet-era missile cruiser that belonged to the East German Navy before reunification in the 1990s.  Following reunification, Hiddensee was transferred to the German Federal Navy and later to the U.S. Navy (to which it still belongs). Once aboard it’s hard to miss one of the giant missile batteries, with what looks like missiles still inside. Much of the labels and signage aboard is still in Russian (Cyrillic), while some English labels were added at later date. Unlike the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., and the Lionfish, access to the bridge is unfettered and visitors can get up close to and even touch some of the equipment. Below deck, a shower stall is frozen in the 90s with Suave shampoo and bar soap ready to use.
The last, and biggest, ship at Battleship Cove is the USS Massachusetts, a WWII battleship that launched in 1941. The first thing visitors notice is three massive guns above deck, and their size can only be appreciated in person. While the tour below deck was cut short by the museum closing for the night, one of the most best spaces down there was the mess hall, which resembled a large cafeteria. Large trays hold faux food and counters still survive. Nearby was a machine shop stocked with everything from light bulbs to a large assortment of tools ready to be used to repair just about anything while Massachusetts was at sea.
One of the most tangible experiences on Massachusetts is found here on the dozens of hammocks where members of the crew that staffed the mess hall slept. Guests are free to climb up in the hammocks and see how they felt. They actually were more comfortable than they looked. One could even take a nap if one wanted to.
What better way to connect with the past than closing your eyes for a few seconds and laying down in hammocks just like those the ship’s crew would’ve slept in?
Perhaps the biggest disappointment, though, with Battleship Cove was not being told that admission tickets could also be used for a nearby maritime museum that appeared to have a bit of an identity crisis. On its website, this museum, which features exhibits and artifacts that help to tell the story sea history and its connection to Fall River, is referred to as a maritime museum. But strangely enough, a large sign in front refers to it as the Marine Museum. It would’ve been nice to know Battleship Cove tickets are also valid at this museum, making the $18 ticket price seem like a better value.
The lack of talk of this museum at the ticket counter, contrasts greatly with New England’s largest theme park, a Six Flags in Agawam, Massachusetts where nearly all the park’s marketing and promotional efforts note how admission tickets and season passes include admission to the theme park and a large adjacent waterpark named Hurricane Harbor.  Both the theme and water park are accessible through one gate.
If Six Flags can tout “two parks for the price of one” why can’t Battleship Cove promote “two museums, each offering different experiences, for the price of one?”
Space also plays a key role at the nearby Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast, where Borden lived when her father and stepmother who were murdered in 1892 by bring struck with a hatchet multiple times each. The circumstance surrounding their deaths became a national sensation almost overnight thanks to the press who spread the story rapidly. In 1893 a jury found Lizzie not guilty on all charges, which is highlighted on the front page of a copy of a major New York City daily that hangs in the gift shop.
Unlike many other historic house museums, the Borden house has no velvet ropes or glass barriers restricting visitors’ access. Guests are welcome to sit down on the period furnishings that fill the rooms. Unlike many other HHM’s, the furnishings are not the focus of the tour, which instead focuses on Borden’s life, with a special focus on the day of the murder. A good deal of background is provided about the lives of her parents, her sister Emma and the family’s Irish maid, Bridget.
Just being able to sit on the furniture and roam freely in the rooms, creates a different dynamic and a more relaxed atmosphere. The tour had a more conversational feel than the usual material-culture driven lecture of a typical HHM tour. Each room, including those where Mr. and Mrs. Borden were killed, features graphic, but discretely placed, crime scene photos, which were a new innovation in police investigations at the time.  They help connect guests back to the day when the Bordens were killed.
The Borden home is a popular “dark tourism” site. Dark tourism is a kind of tourism based on going to places where death or other tragedies occurred. They have become big business, and their own segment of the heritage tourism sector.  Over the years, the Borden house has become the subject of countless ghost legends, and upstairs in Mr. Borden’s bedroom, and in an upstairs space where Bridget slept, our guide shared several ghosts stories related to the house. The stories, like one involving toys making sounds, and rolling up a pitched floor in the third-floor room, are told in a way that leaves it up to the guest to decide rather they want to believe in the ghost story or not.
This acknowledges the ghost legends and stories connected with the site without resorting to gimmicks like Colonial Williamsburg’s fictional  “Haunting on DoG Street.” While off-mission programming is touted by CW leaders and marketing staff  as a cure for dwindling attendance and financial issues, this hypothesis was proven wrong at the Old Colony and Fall River Railway Museum, next to Battleship Cove, which closed in October 2016.  The defunct museum held a “Haunted Railyard” event for several years but it did little to stave off declining attendance that led to the site’s demise. Now its small yard, flanked by rail sidings to use store freight train cars that extend to the docks, sits padlocked, with its future very much up in the air.
The closing could be construed as a positive for the museum’s New Haven Railroad self-propelled Railway Diesel Car. After years as a static display at the museum, the RDC will head to the Berkshire’s Hoosac Valley Train operation in North Adams, Massachusetts, where it will be restored to operate with a sister RDC that already runs between North Adams, and Adams on a four-mile section of old New York Central Railroad branchline that ran between North Adams and the railroad’s mainline between Boston and Albany at Pittsfield.
As for the rest of the rolling stock and artifacts at the museum, which include an old New Haven Railroad 40 -foot boxcar from the mid-20th century, a caboose and a riveted steel heavyweight coach, the future is less certain.
This museum’s demise after years of plummeting attendance serves to offer a cautionary tale about how off-mission programming is no magic silver bullet solution for struggling sites.
But despite this, back across the street at Battleship Cove, signs hang promoting a mermaid “princess party” event that features a picture that bears more than a passing resemblance to Ariel from the Disney animated hit film “The Little Mermaid.” It seems strange  to hold this kind of program at a site that focuses on battleships. How does it relate to the mission of a site that already offers a big slate of children’s programming, including sleepovers on the ships?
So the question is why?  Why create a space for fictional mermaids in one that was already given meaning by heroes?  For space to have power, doesn’t it require an understanding of who and why that power was created in the first place?
— Brian Hubert
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2 thoughts on “Battleships and Bordens: Questions about the Power of Space (Guest Post)

  1. This reads like a very interesting outing! I always felt more comfortable in “please touch” museums, but I seem more reflective in “keep your hands off” sites. It seems the focus on the people at the Borden House combines the opportunity to relax and reflect — as much as one can at the site of such a heinous crime.

    It baffles me as well why a battleship and a mermaid (with accompanying copyright infringement) are partnered. It’s almost as if they are attempting to draw a crowd of little Barbie girls, which makes my Mom-blood boil. I’d much rather my daughter have a sleepover and learn about something her grandfather may have experienced instead of the pink pablum so many places use to promote female stereotypes.

    Thanks for the sharing!

    1. Carolyn

      That is an excellent point about the Mermaid program and one worse than the copyright infringement. It’s a great question of what message this program offers to girls. Why shouldn’t girls just be able to enjoy visiting the Battleship and learning about life was like for those who served in the Navy, some of whom may have been their relatives? Shouldn’t historic sites encourage girls to pursue their dreams whatever they may be without stereotyping?
      That may just be a career in the Navy, but programming like this just serves to keep old gender stereotypes alive and does nothing to further the site’s mission.

      Do we really have to have a princess party to get girls to come, is that all they think girls want?

      I vote for the sleepover and letting old gender stereotypes die.

      Great point about the Borden House as well, the events that happened there present a special challenge. No matter what your thoughts on what happened you can’t discount it was a heinous crime and that needs to be handled in a tasteful way.

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