By Marisa Valentino
“Over the centuries, the village has faced fires, floods and other disasters, and now COVID- 19. It’s now part of our story,” said Richard Doctorow in a recent phone interview.
Doctorow is the director of the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum, which normally opens its doors in early May, but couldn’t this year because of the pandemic. While recent months have brought difficulties and conundrums, it was smooth sailing for the beloved cultural institution when it opened its season with a selection of outdoor exhibitions on Thursday, July 9.
“As individuals and as a society, we will all have to learn to adapt and overcome — the museum will adapt and overcome as well,” said Doctorow. “We’ve been a cornerstone of the village for over 80 years and we’re not quitting now.”
Like all businesses, East End museums were required to follow the New York State guidelines for phased reopening and were permitted to open, with limitations, in phase four, which began July 7. Two days later the Whaling Museum decided to open its lawn to visitors. with outdoor exhibitions dedicated to village history, whaling history and underwater photography by Tim Dalton, all of which were installed to ensure visitor safety while preserving and promoting Sag Harbor culture.
Doctorow explained that the extended closure this spring gave museum staff time to prepare for the opening. The new outdoor exhibitions were written and designed over the last two months. This process included discussing options, finalizing ideas and designing and printing materials, he said.
“Creating exhibits is almost like a theater production. There’s a lot of creativity involved, but also a lot of nuts and bolts production work,” said Doctorow. “There are times you wonder if it will all come together in time, but happily, it always seems to work out.”
Also working out is the season which no one was sure would happen, and Doctorow is excited about the museum being able to finally open its doors after the long COVID months.
“I think everyone wants things to get back to as close to ‘normal’ as we can, and this is certainly a step in the right direction,” he said. “We wanted to make coming back to the museum as safe and stress-free as possible. So keeping the building closed and offering outdoor exhibits seemed a good way to get people used to the idea of returning to public spaces.”
Doctorow is passionate about history and his job, and he said that bringing the story of Sag Harbor to life is his favorite part of his profession.
“The village has had a fascinating 300-plus years. It was the first place on Long Island to have a newspaper; the first book printed on Long Island was in Sag Harbor,” he said. “She was the sixth largest whaling port in the nation and home of the largest watchcase factory in America.
“She was the second village on the island — after Brooklyn — to get electric lights,” he added. “Parts of the Apollo Lunar Lander were built here. You can tell the story of America through Sag Harbor’s history.”
Doctorow adds that in terms of more current offerings, the underwater photography exhibition featuring work by Dalton, a Shelter Island resident, should not be missed.
“His work is amazing. He doesn’t just capture the image of the animal, but like any great photographer he also captures the personality of his subjects,” said Doctorow. “You can see a sense of humor in the expressions of some of the whales. The sharks of course are a whole different matter, all business. Personally, I would not jump into the water to take close-up photos of sharks, but happily Tim Dalton is crazy enough to do it for us.”
Ultimately, connection with one another is something Doctorow hopes visitors can achieve by visiting the museum — even if only the outside of it.
“It’s been a stressful few months and isolation can take a toll,” said Doctorow. “But now we can once again connect — not only with friends, but with places, with community and of course, with history.”
Visit the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum, 200 Main Street, Thursdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Last entry is at 4:30pm. Admission is $5 (ages 7 and younger free). For details visit sagharborwhalingmuseum.org.
Also take note:
While the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum has figured out how to operate this season by featuring outdoor exhibitions, those with a hankering for more history may want to also check out the museum’s newly redesigned website (sagharborwhalingmuseum.org) which offers far more interactive and multi-media content than it had in the past.
Some of those new website features include a scientific water quality presentation about the health of Sag Harbor’s bays and coves which was assembled for the village in 2016 by Stony Brook’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Studies; a video entitled “Living On The Edge” by Kevin McAllister, founder and president of Defend H2O, which brings into focus issues related to coastal retreat; recordings of whaling and maritime ballades by musician Stephen SanFillipo; and a 1950s industrial film about working-class life in Sag Harbor (in which the museum itself has a starring role).
There’s also plenty of older history to be found on the website too, including journal entries from an 1844 voyage of the Thames, which left the port of Sag Harbor when whaling was at its peak and the village was home to 65 whaling ships. Each week, museum director Richard Doctorow adds another entry from the ship’s log from the same week in 1844.