MYSTIC — Mystic Seaport plans to reopen on May 23 with a different slant and something special for patrons and local residents.

There will be no admission charged during the first week, said Seaport spokesman Dan McFadden, noting that the Seaport will be an "outdoor-only" museum until May 29. All ships will be closed for viewing, he said, as will all exhibits.

"Basically, it will be a park experience," said McFadden. "People can come in and bring their families and their dogs and enjoy being on the river."

"We are excited to invite people back," he added. "It was so good to hear when Gov. Lamont made his announcement."

Last week, the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development and Office of the Arts released a document containing guidelines for operating during COVID-19 for the state's arts and cultural organizations. 

"Like other industries, the impact of COVID-19 has been devastating to CT’s arts and cultural sector," the document says. "The sector has lost millions of dollars in revenue from ticket sales, program income and canceled fundraising events. CT Arts Alliance data derived from local surveys conducted by Designated Regional Service Organizations shows $24 million in lost revenue between March and April due to closing."

As the state of Connecticut reduces its COVID-19 restrictions, McFadden said, the museum will slowly begin to open additional exhibits and add more programming a little at a time.

McFadden said while all exhibits are closed for now, guests will be able to "enjoy some free time outside with family and friends."

"We'll follow all state guidelines, and the CDC guidelines," he said, "and we will be asking people to wear masks when they are on the grounds."

Visitors will also be expected to observe a 6-foot social distance at all times, he said, and follow the directions noted on signs and given by staff. Guests are also urged to bring along their own hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes.

"At some point we'll be opening up," he added. "We'll be re-introducing exhibits over time ... we know it will be different, but we're still working out what it will look like and what we should charge." 

Although the Seaport has been closed to the public since since mid-March, and was forced to lay off many employees due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the nation’s leading maritime museum has been a beehive of virtual activity with its online classes, programs and Digital Museum.

"We have a whole new production studio,"" said McFadden, noting that the Seaport was using Zoom long before the video communications company became a household name in its distance education department.

There's a program called "What's New in the Night Sky," that's open to the public, and another with Shipwright Tom Daniels and Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center Educator Rob Reas that teaches participants how to build a bat house.

"We have produced more that a hundred pieces of digital content," said McFadden, "and we've had more that five thousand people view our content. There's been a huge increase on our YouTube channel."

"We knew we had to find a way to keep our audiences engaged while we were closed," he said, noting that viewers from around the world have tuned in to the seaport programs.

McFadden called "Mystic River Scale Model," a video that shows what Mystic looked like in 1870 and features more than 250 detailed dwellings, shops, barns, and lofts, and five local shipyards, particularly fascinating. The scale model has been evolving since 1958 and a group of volunteer model builders continues to work on additions and detailing.

In a video called "Large Shipyard Tools," Shipyard Maintenance Supervisor Scott Noseworthy gives a guided tour of the shipyard — including the carpenter, blacksmith, machine and sawmill shops — and describes the larger tools needed to preserve and restore historic the seaport's ships and boats.

Since the pandemic began, McFadden said, schools across the country and across region have participated in seaport distance learning programs. Programs are about 45-60 minutes long and include with a limit of 100 participants per session.

Eighth graders from Exeter-West Greenwich took part in a specialized astronomy class, seventh and eighth graders from Waterford studied "Phases of the Moon;" Mitchell College students studied "From Corsets to Coopers: 19th Century Whaling Artifacts," and fourth and fifth graders from Essex participated in a course called "Night Sky and Navigation."

Then there's the "Morning Zen" photo project where every morning the seaport shares photos that "evoke serenity and calm" on its social media pages and invites viewers to do the same. 

McFadden said "SALT: Tracing Memories," the exhibition by contemporary Japanese artist Motoi Yamamoto which was originally scheduled to be on display now in the Collins Gallery, has been rescheduled for next year.

Although none of the laid off employees have been "brought back," McFadden said, he hopes, as programs expand and exhibits slowly open, that will change.

"It's going to be long process," he said.

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