While the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum is very much a year-round institution, its high season coincides with summertime. Although most of the museum’s visitors are amateurs at boating and fishing, its mission is to preserve the history and culture of watermen and women who made their livelihoods a vital industry of the Bay region.
While many of those who still make their living on the Bay’s waters do so in all seasons – sometimes under inhospitable conditions – for the rest of us, the closest we get to fishing, crabbing or oystering is at a supermarket seafood counter. Hopefully pre-frozen. At best, we’re fair-weather fishers. “Summertime, an’ the livin’ is easy,” as the Gershwin song goes, explains why Memorial through Labor Day is primetime at the maritime museum.
Festivals from Easter and Passover through the winter holidays draw well, but more so in the months after Memorial Day weekend. On the calendar June 16-18 is the Antique & Classic Boat Show and Coastal Arts Fair. It’s followed by Big Band Night on July 1 with a live concert of classic standards and a perfect waterfront vantage point on the museum campus to take in St. Michaels’ early Independence Day fireworks. Watermen’s Appreciation Day on Aug. 13 features a boat-docking contest, live music and a cash feast of steamed crabs, beer and more. (Bring your credit card.) Labor Day weekend brings the Sept. 2 Charity Boat Auction and a chance to get out on the water yourself or take a step up in your boating ambiance. October’s Mid-Atlantic Small Crafts Festival and the Oysterfest on the 8th and 28th, respectively, are big draws and two of my personal favorites. (If forced to choose, I’d go for the bivalves.)
Of course, maritime museum attractions are not limited to festival events. CBMM is open daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s days. And there’s so much to see that general admission tickets are good for two days – except on certain festival days.
But what’s new at the maritime museum, those of you who haven’t visited since last summer or fall? Beyond all the standing permanent installations, CBMM rotates special exhibitions on a yearly basis.
Jen Dolde, director of curatorial affairs and exhibitions, led a team that included exhibition designer Jim Koerner, VP of education and interpretation Jill Ferris and chief historian Pete Lesher to launch the extraordinary “Changing Chesapeake” exhibit. The team started by sending out a detailed call for artistic submissions. Of nearly 150 artworks received, a panel of five representing art, art education and science communities undertook a blind review – no names attached – of artworks and artist statements – to cull that number down to something close to the 78 in the show. The curatorial team then adjusted those selections to account for space limitations and to ensure a greater variety of artists.
“From the outset, our intention for this community response exhibition was to give primacy to the artists’ viewpoint,” Dolde said. “Changing Chesapeake,” which opened March 1 and runs through Feb. 25, 2024, is a not-to–be-missed multimedia expression of the emotional and practical impacts of climate change on the Bay region that is our home. Seventy artists from both sides of the Chesapeake and all around its watershed produced works ranging from tragic to comic commentary on what they’ve witnessed or are warning us about the earth’s devolving environmental burden on our children, grandchildren and generations beyond.
Edward Klein of St. Michaels directly addresses this concern in his song, “What Did a Crab Look Like?” Performed on video at the museum by guitarists and vocalists alongside a printed commentary, offers the “hope that future generations . . . will not have to ask . . .” the title question.
But we don’t need a fast-forward time machine to see what is and has been happening for years, if not decades. Straight ahead as you enter the two-story exhibit from the first-floor Steamboat Building entrance, you can’t miss “Looking Out at the Ghosts of the Coast,” a quilted blanket collage depicting a window framed by a homey 3-D crocheted curtain and the view of a naked dead forest outside. It’s a homespun masterpiece by Laura Guertin, an earth sciences professor at Penn State, Brandywine. It’s one of a dozen or so Ghost Forest references in this show as it is so outfront obvious to where we live. Have you visited Dorchester’s Blackwater Refuge lately?
While the home Guertin depicts is not yet threatened – so cozy inside, warm as a blanket – the same cannot be said of the “Sea Rise” installation by George Lorie of Rockville, which takes up a big chunk of the central floorspace of the second-floor galleries. The painted and laminated wood project is composed of collective waves representing Bay waters lapping at a peaked roof – all that remains visible of some family’s lost home.
Barbed comedy is what we make of “Ospreys Don’t Wear Coats,” by Annapolis resident Nicholas Thrift, about his oil-painted native bird wearing an overcoat while grasping two (likely) non-biodegradable coffee cups.
Virtually all the arts are represented here. If it wears you out, peering at all this thought-provoking imagery, you’re encouraged to touch the art – rare in a museum – of printed poetry on painted maritime-themed boards. Bench seats nearby invite you to read one or two at your leisure.
Putting all this together in a manner that seems to make linear sense was the job of designer Koernor, who Dolde gives credit for “grouping pieces so that they connect and play off one another.” Ferris is working to bring some of the artists back to the museum this summer for a presentation or an open conversation. We all need to have such conversations.
For more on “The Changing Chesapeake,” click to Val Cavalheri’s coverage of opening night (link here).
Accompanying this show, is a related photo exhibit in a conference room across that hall, “The Coming Coast” by filmmaker/photographer Michael Snyder. His photo series captures a making-the-best-of-it scene “Flooding, Norfolk, Virginia,” of a girl on a tree-limb swing whose flight is reflected in standing water below. “If you look out our backyard, it’s pretty much always flooded now,” says homeowner Angela Ramsay.
“Cafe on Smith Island,” photographed in Ewell, population 267, is augmented by an observance by Hoss Parks (no known relation): “I dig graves for a living. I may be the last one doing it because there ain’t nobody left. The young ones have almost all gone off.”
Still, life presses on elsewhere across the region. Among Snyder’s aerial photos is “New Houses Near Kent Narrows.” Lots of them. The Narrows, by definition, are all at water’s edge.
But aside from what’s new at the maritime museum, for those of you – newcomers, perhaps – there are free tours (with entrance fee) of such long-standing exhibitions as “Oystering on the Chesapeake” and “Waterman’s Wharf.” Or you can climb to the top of Hooper Strait Lighthouse, circa 1879, for better views of St. Michaels Harbor and the Miles River, or check out the working shipyard, where there’s always something nautical going on.
Finally, perhaps capping off the summer sometime in September, is the new visitors center just to the left of the parking lots as you enter the CBMM campus. As you’ll see, it’s well underway and promises to be a more accessible entryway for everyone – wheelchairs and strollers included. Never mind the out-of-character 21st-century architecture: It’s meant to signal a welcoming destination for all ages and avenues of life.
Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum
10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily through October; 213 N. Talbot St., St. Michaels cbmm.org
Steve Parks is a retired New York arts critic and editor now living in Easton.