The threat facing the Queen Mary is a serious issue with which, ultimately, every museum or other site with major physical resources has to grapple. Maritime museums of all sorts — from the Queen Mary to Fall River’s Battleship Cove or Mystic Seaport — are like zoos in that way: the first responsibility is to the care and preservation of the reason(s) they exist at all (check out the AASLH’s guide to Interpreting Naval History at Museums and Historic Sites). That alone is a tremendously expensive effort, and while certain things can be deferred, they cannot be avoided and will only become more expensive to fix. As someone who once ran a site with a few dozen historic buildings, some dating to the 1600s, maintaining them (to the point of spending winter mornings shoveling snow off 18th-century roofs), let alone interpreting them, was a daunting task. How can you completely fulfill every site’s implicit core mission — not just to protect, but to project — when you can’t let anyone experience the space because it’s dangerous to the structure and to the guests, and you simply don’t have the money?
As funding sources decline, and schemes to find more become more wild and ineffectual in their desperation, when does the answer become “let it go”? More and more sites will face the question that the Queen Mary — a unique, immersive site that has a special place in my heart and where my Disney connection began — now must answer. Communities have done, and are doing to do, what they can, but the need is quickly outstripping their capacity. The differences among Long Beach to Fall River to smaller towns are in degree, not in kind. In the end, while we talk a great deal about succession plans in museum and public history leadership, and sustainability of programming and human capital, must we now include a new discussion about decommissioning with dignity, responsibly and thoughtfully turning experience into memory and history?
And, keep in mind, this has already begun. Does anyone remember Johnsonville, an Old Sturbridge-type (meaning totally fictional but with period buildings shipped in from other areas) Victorian “living history” village in Connecticut that closed more than 15 years ago? They have already been decommissioned, the site is abandoned, and its caretakers are selling historic resources to anyone with cash. Other sites are taking different tacks, but are no less transformational. Old Sturbridge itself, for a site that is losing $1 million a year per its last 990, is shifting its scarce resources to creating a charter school. Colonial Williamsburg, now hemorrhaging guests, has dropped all pretensions to the history education vision that created the place, and inspired Walt Disney himself, to embrace “theme-based interpretation” that promotes, as the Wall Street Journal just promoted, hotels, golf, fine dining, and craft beer (the new motto, according to the WSJ, should be “Give me luxury or give me death!”): Its idea of a Women’s History Month program is a group of patriot men, talking about women, which basically happens every day ending in a “y”. As for many of the rest, the unique stories they can tell are being buried underneath an increasingly anodyne and banal series of cookie-cutter programming. Bold, original programming, except at places like Plimoth Plantation, appears to have largely evaporated. Perhaps, as has been suggested elsewhere, it is simply that an era in the history of heritage tourism — that of the large-scale living history museum — is over, a relic of post-World War II prosperity, highways, and a love-affair with car trips. At least some places, such as Historic Deerfield, seem to be resolutely holding on to their integrity, keeping within their financial compass to focus intently on mission-related efforts, to their credit. But for many others, is there a pandemic of the same sort of “mission rot” that the Queen Mary more seriously and directly faces in its hull deterioration, but leads, nevertheless, to the same metaphorical end: a sinking ship that can never sail again?
In any case, it’s a situation that’s certainly calls for a new chapter for my upcoming book, and might require a serious re-read of The Anarchists’ Guide.