The sea has always been romantic to those who do not have to work upon her, and this weekend the Smithsonian opens a new exhibit hall that exploits us landlubbers beautifully.
Four years in the making, the Hall of American Maritime Enterprise in the Museum of History and Technology reeks of tar and oil and hemp and vibrates with the sounds of great ships working (a full-size ship's engine chuffs away) or dying (a screen endlessly replays disasters at sea as filmed by Hollywood).
Among the hall's virtues is that it resurrects some of the splendid ship models the Museum of History and Technology long ago consigned to the warehouse. All models are neat, but ship models are better than Faberge eggs.
The hall begins with the Mayflower, of course, and follows the exuberant rise of the American merchant sailor as he exploited the western rivers and pursued the whale to the verge of extinction. Included is the pilot, house of a modern Mississippi River towboat with a river scene unreeling before it, and an endearing working model of a river lock. What's endearing about it is that it doesn't work, hardly, but it tries.
Full advantage is taken of the massiveness and splendidly functional design of ship fittings and the delicacy of the sailors' scrimshaw and other busywork. The hall affirms the Smithsonian's apparent abandonment of the modern museum trend toward style over substance; there are lots of things to look at, rather than a handful of outstanding specimens.
From the crescendo of American shipbuilding in World War II, when the U.S. sustained the Allied war machine by building Liberty and Victory ships faster than Hitler could sink them, the hall trails away, as did in fact the American maritime industry, which lost out to cheaper foreign bottoms manned by sailors who'll face more danger for less pay. Our last gasp, the liner S.S. United States, was a boondoggle that flew in face of reality, although while she sailed she was the fastest and safest passenger vessel in the world.
Nearly 200 people did major work on the Smithsonian project, and when it was discovered that one of them, Richard Day of McLean, had been a working seaman, they made a life-size likeness of him to illustrate the sailor's personal gear.
Tucked away in the final corner, complete with funky furniture and sketches so bad they're good, is a tattoo parlor whose mannequin is decorated while you watch by the eerie technique of laser holography. It's enough to make you want to toss yourcookies on the, er, deck.