An Interview with Susan Henshaw Jones, President of the South Street Seaport Museum

Since stepping in as President of the South Street Seaport Museum last year, Susan Henshaw Jones has been working non-stop to breathe new life into the Lower Manhattan destination. Today, the Museum unveils its latest exhibit, “Titanic,” which examines the disaster on its 100th anniversary and a century’s worth of fascination with the ship’s dramatic story. Henshaw Jones – who also serves as the Ronay Menschel Director of the Museum of the City of New York – recently sat down with the Downtown Alliance to discuss her role and her work.

Why did you want to undertake this?

All of us at MCNY believe that the missions of our two organizations are very similar and that the Seaport Museum is a highly important resource for Lower Manhattan and all of New York City. And we feel that downtown at the Seaport Museum we can and should move beyond maritime history and interweave exhibitions about the city and the sea and the neighborhood.

Also, uptown at the City Museum, we endeavor that to create exhibitions that relate to the present. History doesn’t have to be 19th century; it could be yesterday. That is why we held a juried competition for photojournalists who covered Occupy Wall Street—ours is the first museum exhibition in the country on this topic, with 125 photographs on view in one of the 16 galleries, on three floors, that we opened to the public on January 26.

How is it, doing double duty?

Things do fall between the cracks, and everybody uptown is stretched, too—the City Museum is providing oodles of in-kind services and creativity. There is a tiny full-time staff at the Seaport Museum, and they mostly relate to the waterfront.

The Museum has faced significant troubles. What are its biggest challenges?

I see two big issues at the moment, both of which can be solved, but the solutions take time—and we only have a limited amount of time! The first is the loss of brand: Folks who now live in Lower Manhattan don’t even know about the Seaport Museum at 12 Fulton Street. The second is the current low level of support from individuals, corporations and foundations.

How do you hope to overcome them?

We’ve got cyan—Caribbean blue– signage along Fulton Street and on John Street, and both doors are open to the public. Beyond the signage, folks just have to hear again and again about the new South Street Seaport Museum, and eventually they will come and like what they find. Contributed income builds slowly, but we are hawking memberships and more at every opportunity.  The income side is our real threat in the upcoming months.  We need lots of help if we are to save the Seaport Museum.

Where do you see the Seaport Museum five years from now?

I have a vision that the Seaport Museum in five years will be an attraction that combines the operating boats—the Ambrose and the Wavertree on Pier 16—with lively programming immediately adjacent in the buildings along South Street and Fulton Street in Schermerhorn Row. Bowne & Co will be thriving, children will be flocking in for school programs, adults and families will be educated and entertained by an array of exhibitions and public programs. This is my aspiration—heaven only knows.

How do you hope to draw visitors to the Seaport Museum?

I have this old-fashioned belief that if the exhibitions and content are good, people will come. But, obviously, this is not enough.  We are being helped by our neighbors in the Seaport District, including Howard Hughes Corporation, Circle Line Downtown, New York Water Taxi—and by The Downtown Alliance.  These collaborations will help bring in tourists. We have a spectacular 22-minute multimedia presentation called Timescapes that covers the history of the city. Lower Manhattan is an incredible tourist attraction, but we also need New Yorkers who will come again and again and become members.

Describe your management style.

Get it done!  That is very much our mantra at the City Museum, where the staff is nimble in large part thanks to our able team of curators, led by Sarah Henry, Deputy Director and Chief Curator.

What do you want your legacy to be?

I have never thought about my legacy.  But I’m a veteran of the Lindsay Administration, and so I am idealistic about improving New York’s civic and cultural life.