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Chesapeake Bay: from work to play

The biggest change on the Chesapeake Bay during the 20th century was the move away from a place of harvesting, where rewards were reaped from beneath the waves, and toward a place for recreation, according to Melissa McLoud, a Bay historian who works at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels. But for all of its history, she says, her museum has “focused on the Chesapeake as a workplace.”

That changes June 4 when the museum opens its largest permanent exhibit ever, called “At Play on the Bay.”

Until now, McLoud said, the museum has been known for its displays chronicling the history of the area’s seafood industry and the related world of boatbuilding, along with its authentic Chesapeake Bay lighthouse that has taught visitors something about navigation on the Bay. “But you don’t get a good look at the most important economic change. This [new] show is that story: What happens to a place when it changes and what happens to the people.”

A new building, designed to suggest the aesthetic of local waterfront structures, houses the exhibit at the outer end of Navy Point, the museum’s property on the Miles River. Inside, visitors are led through 14 sections, from a re-created “canoe campsite” from 1917 to a mahogany-paneled yacht club with well-stocked liquor shelves. Selected vessels from the museum’s fleet have been brought inside the building, including a log canoe, star and comet one-design sailboats, a hydroplane and a 1950s Owens sedan powerboat built near Annapolis. The boats have each been selected to illustrate change on the Bay, McLoud says. The log canoes started as working boats for oyster tongers and evolved into pure racing boats. The display illustrates how the sailplan of a typical log canoe doubled from the workboat version to the racing boat. The hydroplane display includes a video narrated by a Chesapeake Bay racing legend, juxtaposed beside a display that shows how boatbuilders pitched their recreational vessel to women.

McLoud said “At Play on the Bay” was conceived about 10 years ago. (She has been with the museum eight years.) Historians, curators and folklorists, working through the museum’s Breene M. Kerr Center for Chesapeake Studies, spent most of that time researching the conversion of the Bay’s economy from one based on fishing to one designed to offer fun. Then the research had to be converted into a show. An example is in the western corner of the ground-floor display area, where workers have re-created a Chesapeake tackle shop. The information gathered by the staff was handed over to a scriptwriter, McLoud says. Some local residents who speak with the correct inflections were recruited to create an ongoing audio show — a dialogue between the tackle shop owner, one of his friends who mooches free grape Nehi soda, and customers who come and go.

The building and its strategically placed windows were designed to take advantage of the surrounding scenery, including landscapes now occupied by the museum’s other structures, which are reminiscent of the old working waterfront as well as the Miles River itself. She said the hope is that visitors will absorb the outdoors scenery while viewing displays inside, and make the connections between the museum and its outdoors environment.

Throughout the museum, two-dimensional clouds are suspended by wires from the ceiling, each one carrying the words of a different Chesapeake Bay resident expressing that person’s opinions. One might be the words of a recreational boater who has tangled with a commercial fisherman. The next might be the thoughts of a fisherman. The idea is to show the diverse attitudes within the community about the changes that have turned the Chesapeake into a playground, McLoud says.

One area is set up like a living room, with a television and couches. The television will show 30-minute shows patched together from the museum’s “incredible collection of 1940s, ’50s and ’60s home movies” of family vacations on the Bay, McLoud says. She says she hopes that visitors who have already spent time on the Bay will come and reminisce “and make the connection between this big, regional story and their personal story. And if they learn about the larger economic transformation and are able to put their story in that story, that will be great.”

McLoud says she hopes newcomers to the Chesapeake will think “what an amazing environment the Chesapeake Bay is to afford this range” of recreational opportunities, from the raucousness of hydroplane racing to the more contemplative activities of fishing and birdwatching “and to make a connection between their own lives and how people here play on the Bay.”