I had quite a few epiphanies while the SS JOHN W BROWN was moored to Pier 13 for Labor Day Weekend. While our visitor numbers were less than 600, we had some exceptional guests; our visitors who came really wanted to come and were very excited about it. I always enjoy living aboard because it’s a cocktail of nostalgia for my shipping days, it’s a nice escape from the day to day of school (read, write, repeat), but most importantly I get to bond closer with the crew. A ship really is the sum total of its crew and there is no crew quite like that of the SS JOHN W BROWN.
While I was doing research last year of crews of Liberty Ships I was struck at how little had changed; there were old salts from WWII and kids who were either too young to enlist or had a small defect that prevented them from enlisting. This is essentially the crew of the Brown, a bunch of old salts and young kids with a few peppered in the middle. This crew is also special because I am in utter awe of how things get done. I don’t have to worry about anything when I come aboard: the P-ways are swept, there’s food, the lights are on, the gangway is down, and the cargo is loaded. I can just turn on my computer and keep working on collections or have a meeting about whatever or be the resident millennial and show someone how something works.
When I arrived I thought I would be chipping and painting all day and never have time to work on the Museum but I was wrong, there are volunteers who are working away to keep the Brown beautiful and operational. This crew, this magic, is what makes the Brown truly a unique ship-museum/museum-ship. We don’t have preservationists charging hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep a floating building from rusting away; rather we have hundreds of people keeping a working vessel operational. We make steam, we cook food, we bust rust, we navigate, we could haul cargo if someone hired us to.
Nobody lives in house museums, they are an immortal (as long as there’s money) snapshot in time, how much can you learn from that? Ships live a life. We have scars from being turned into a troopship, a high school, being pilfered in the mothball fleet, being turned into a museum. We acquired a GMDSS and ECDIS, we added generators so we don’t have to run steam all day, the Brown lives, grows and thrives. Museum buildings add wings to display more objects out of context and behind glass, we live.
We made very good contact Labor Day Weekend. I had never met him before but the way he talked about Liberty Ships moved me and I realized it’s that passion about a living thing that we currently exist in, that still lives, that is remarkable. We make as much passion as we do steam and that passion is how we market, it’s how we add new exhibits, it’s how we tweet, blog, it’s how we get this story out to the world, our passion about how one nation built 2,700 identical ships in 5 years that were designed to haul cargo once.
Just about every American who served in WWII touched a Liberty Ship at one point. Whether they were taken home on one, assaulted a beach from one, were resupplied by one, their aircraft came over on one, the possibilities are deep and wide. As we go through out collections that fact is ringing out to me, and we’re only a box and a half in. Maybe when we’re close to being done in two years the story will change but for now, the fact that this living ship houses the people’s history of World War II, to me, is magical.
Project Liberty Ship, Inc is a 501(c)3 non-profit, all volunteer organization engaged in the preservation and operation of the historic ship JOHN W. BROWN as a living memorial museum. Gifts to Project Liberty Ship are tax deductible.