Olympia in Juxtaposition

Material Culture: The LESLEY Documentation Project
Seaport label

My saber label in the WWI Olympia exhibit

This past week I boarded Cruiser Olympia at the Independence Seaport Museum for what I think was the fourth time. I’ve found myself getting more familiar with the space as I experience it in different ways: viewing it first as Artship Olympia, showing it to friends visiting the area, mining it for background while writing an exhibit label for World War I Olympia, approaching it from the outside via rowboat, revisiting my favorite spots and, finally, venturing into the engine hatches and the claustrophobic guts of the machine. A lot of the charm comes from the ship’s persistent atmosphere of what I can only think to call “in-between.” As Curator of Historic Ships Kevin Smith noted as he guided our tour through the ship, Olympia’s 1892 construction date (and the curatorial decision to focus interpretation in on the years 1902-1911) means that it remains indefinitely straddling eras characterized by extreme instability.

The “in-between” is one of the things I love most about the Gilded Age (my area of specialization). Its defining characteristic is the push and pull of radically different methods of governance, foreign policy, social stratification, and implementation of rapid technological innovations. It’s impossible to categorize this era as either opulent or squalid. It wasn’t either socially progressive or fervently militaristic: It was both. I find that tension fascinating. Olympia’s embodiment of these contrasts is what makes it so exceptional.

Smith also mentioned that he sometimes has to address visitor misconceptions, including reiterating that the Olympia is obviously not the Titanic. It might seem like a stupid comparison. But I think that’s actually a pretty valuable insight on the part of visitors, specifically the type who have had limited exposure to vessels of any kind circa 1912. They’re signaling that they already have a certain amount of cultural understanding of the site: they probably understand, for instance, that there were obvious and stark divides along class and rank lines. They may also understand something of the geopolitical situation of the time period, including difficult topics like American discrimination, nationalism, militarism, and imperialism. If the visitor is already primed in their knowledge of these broad issues, even just by having seen a ridiculously inaccurate mid-1990s blockbuster film, this saves everyone the work of having to explain these things before they can even board the ship. So my question is: How can Olympia best acknowledge the cultural familiarity that visitors already have, and use it to deepen their understanding of the ship from 1902-1911?


Olympia: always in juxtaposition. Image from the Boston Globe, October 17, 1899.

Time and again, I’m drawn to a specific site of juxtaposition on the ship: the Junior Officers’ Wardroom, the place where junior officers took their meals and spent their free time, located in the exact center of the ship along its keel. Smaller than the Senior Officers’ Wardroom, but outfitted in a similarly decadent way, the room’s portholes open (jarringly) onto an outdoor passage housing the engine hatch. The fact that a visitor cannot enter the Wardroom and must look into it primarily through the portholes enhances a sense of dissonance. He or she looks into the room and sees its gramophone and fine china the way that a ship fireman would have, on the way to work in the greasy, cramped, loud, and sometimes unbearably humid bowels of the ship.

The direct confrontation between above-and-below-decks class, status, masculinity, labor, and leisure in this corridor is a succinct and powerful visual landscape. It asserts its impact on a wide variety of visitors even in the absence of explanatory text, which is a remarkable and exceedingly rare thing. I wonder if the clash of cultures could be enhanced in other subtle, sensory ways? The simulated engine sounds do a great deal of interpretive heavy lifting (no pun intended), so could the auditory contrast be heightened with some period-appropriate music playing “on the gramophone”? Sensory input plays to the associations that visitors have already formed about the era, validating some impressions and refuting others. I love the idea of more sensory engagement within the ship, and for that reason, I suggested food-related programming. Everyone has to eat, and therefore can understand the sensory associations of food production and consumption. That establishes a solid basis of quality-of-life comparison that could be engaging to new as well as existing audiences.

Lastly- and this idea isn’t as well formed- but to speak to the theme of contrast, I think that it could be valuable to point out to visitors that, despite the obvious differences in living and working conditions on the ship, being a sailor in the US Navy was infinitely preferable to alternative maritime employment of the era. Throughout 1907, reformer Frances Anne Keay produced “Sailor in Port: Philadelphia,” “The Wages of Seamen,” and “Oyster Boats on the Chesapeake,”[1] articles in which she highlighted the difficulties faced by sailors not affiliated with the Navy, based on her own experience as attorney for the Seaman’s Branch of the Philadelphia Legal Aid Society. Just a few of the issues she addresses are kidnapping, extortion, robbery, and deadly working conditions, revealing a miserable and exploitative industry. Navy life was hard, but it did not involve near-starvation or regular beatings. In the physical location at which Olympia is currently docked, directly adjacent to what in 1911 was still known as “the Bloody Fifth Ward,” the status differential would have been depressingly obvious to everyone in the vicinity.

[1] These articles may be found in Charities and the Commons. “Oyster Boats on the Chesapeake” appears in v. XVII no. 14 (January, 5, 1907). “Sailor in Port: Philadelphia” was published in v. XVII no. 16 (January 19, 1907). “The Wages of Seamen” was printed in v. XVII no. 18 (February 2, 1907). I am happy to provide copies of the articles upon request.