By David Lewis
1But any instinctual fear quickly subsided, giving way to applause as the Custom House Maritime Museum fired its one-eighth scale working replica of a USS Constitution 24-powder cannon to signal the opening of its fourth annual model ship exhibition.
"Fighting Sails — Conflict at Sea in the Age of Canvas" highlights famous warships throughout history. Primarily focused on vessels from the 8th century Viking Era through the War of 1812, the display includes model replicas of the USS Constitution, HMS Victory, Sweden's Vasa and the USS Raleigh.
Bill Partridge, the museum's vice president and Collections Committee chairman, says the exhibit offers a three-dimensional education on maritime history.
"Reading about ships out of a book is difficult to visualize, but with exhibits like this, you can excite all age levels," Partridge says.
The 15-member Collections Committee has been meeting since January to pull together the exhibit. They settled on the theme after what the group says was strong public support for a display of wartime boats among those who came out to see last summer's model show.
"Fighting Sails" spotlights the efforts of 32 ship modelers from across New England, some independent and some members of modeling clubs. Sponsored by the Newburyport Five Cents Savings Bank, the exhibit will be on display through September.
One of Mike Swanson of Rowley's models — the massive HMS Victory — was completed over the course of 25 years. He spent three years on the ship model's hull alone. Swanson then took a 20-year hiatus from the project, during which time he researched the vessel's rigging. He spent another two years incorporating all the detail work.
"Ship modeling is artistic and problem-solving," Swanson says. "There's no instant gratification. It's always a long process."
The retired civil engineer views ship modeling as a therapeutic hobby.
"A lot of people leave behind a pile of uncashed checks," Swanson says of the legacy his models hold. "I can leave these models behind maybe at a museum or with family."
Robin A. Neil of Salem, N.H., another featured ship modeler, also acknowledged the patience and precision that goes into model building.
"Ship modeling requires some optimism," Neil adds.
Visitors to the exhibit this summer might catch a glimpse of some of the ship modelers at work. The modelers will be leading weekly discussions while assembling their replicas at the museum. Lectures and presentations by various maritime experts are also planned, and feature films such as "Master and Commander" starring Russell Crowe will stream on a television screen to further illustrate the exhibit theme.
In conjunction with the exhibit, the Newburyport Maritime Society, which operates the Custom House Museum, is working with school officials on using the models to help students visualize oceanic war techniques discussed in class.
"We try to recapture what it was like to be on these boats or be part of this lifestyle," Partridge says.
With past displays focused on schooners and ships from the World War II and Civil War eras, the model exhibits have generated the most interest and anticipation at the museum in recent years. Last summer's exhibit attracted about 1,000 visitors, and museum officials expect more to turn out for this year's installment.
"People are already asking, 'What's next year,'" says Partridge, adding officials have decided to devote the 2011 show to clipper and merchant ships.
Whether motivated by historical, artistic or personal objectives, the people behind the creation and public display of the model ships all agree that the overriding goal is to capture the maritime story in miniature form.
IF YOU GO
What: "Fighting Sails — Conflict at Sea in the Age of Canvas," exhibition of wartime model ships
When: Through Sept. 26
Where: Custom House Maritime Museum, 25 Water St., Newburyport
How: Admission $7 adults, $5 students and seniors, free active military and children under 6.
Museum hours Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday and Monday holidays, noon to 4 p.m. Call 978-462-8681 or visit www.customhousemaritimemuseum.org.