Ships of the Sea Museum in Savannah houses a tightly edited collection of ship models and maritime miscellany that makes for a very satisfying experience, seadog or not. Although this experience might be most pleasurable for maritime historians who are interested in Savannah’s long history as a major port of trade, there is something to be said for the arduous dedication that it takes to craft such exacting ship models.
Placards within the displays show that the models are the work of a couple of miniature shipbuilders, both of whom seem to have constructed their ships in extreme labors of love. The vessels are incredibly detailed in their tiny nets and guns and sails, much of which must have been attached with tweezers and a magnifying glass.
The star of the show is the Titanic, although the ship has no connection to Savannah. The ship sits in a glass vitine in the center of an upstairs room, its lights frozen in time, in that moment before they flickered and went out and right before the ship stood on end, cracked in half, and disappeared into the freezing waters of the North Atlantic. The Titanic model is more of a diorama; it features small doomed people on its decks and other luckier ones rowing away from the disaster. Such is the attention to detail that it even has miniature ice floes strewn around it.
There is also a Titanic-in-a-bottle, in a more drastic pose. Instead of settling, it is on its way down. Still, it doesn’t quite have the impact of the larger diorama upstairs, but it does bring up the age-old question: How’d they get that ship in there?
The visit started inside the walled gates, in the largest private garden in Savannah. The museum is in the Scarborough House, an elegant building that is the former residence of the president of the Savannah Steamship Company. The garden extends off the back and at the time we visited the flowers had mostly died off. The museum is the main attraction, so the lack of flowering plants wasn’t an issue. At the steps to the entrance, Mr. B. turned to ask me how many ships were on display inside. I don’t know, I said, maybe a dozen. Ever the comic, Mr. B. asked how they managed to fit them all inside.
You enter the museum through a small gift shop, where we met the docent of the day. He explained that the first floor was all ship models, while the second floor was models and memorabilia and other cool nautical stuff like bare-breasted figureheads (Question: Why do the female figureheads fondle themselves?), scrimshaw, eating utensils, ships’ logs, and menus. The basement level held a wooden wheelhouse, the ships in the bottles, and, stored away in an office and classroom, material deemed not up to snuff for the main collection.
I counted a grand total of two other people in the museum. This worked to our advantage when the docent showed us the office and classroom where extra materials are stored. In the classroom were a spectacular fireplace screen depicting a fishwoman in a flounder skirt and a trident worthy of Neptune, among other things.
The Scarborough House a treat unto itself. The building has been carefully restored to reflect its origins as a grand residence, with period-appropriate carpeting and gleaming woodwork. It has gone through several uses over the two centuries since it was built, and it is the perfect setting for its latest function. The museum used to be housed nearer to the river, but we were told that the location wasn’t ideal. In the Scarborough House, the collection has a gem of a setting.
My favorite item in the museum wasn’t the blind figurehead that might spook small children, nor was it a massive naval vessel complete with miniature prop-driven attack planes. It wasn’t the Titanic, either. Rather, it was a modest watercolor sandwiched between vitrines on the second floor. Called “A Whale Attacking a Boat,” it depicts an upside-down whale upending a small wooden boat. I mentioned my excitement about the painting to the docent, who had no idea to what I was referring. Not only was it so obscure that I was unable to buy a print of it, it was so obscure that a museum volunteer had never even noticed it.
Ships of the Sea Museum: *****
If you visit: Obviously not on the tourist trail, so if you’re tired of being jostled and hustled down on River Street, take the short walk up MLK Boulevard to the museum. It was an oasis of ordered calm on a sweltering day.