By Dyke Hendrickson
A new calendar will do more than help area students keep track of the day and month next year. The 2011 wall calendars are also a reminder of the maritime events and moments that go down in the annals of Newburyport history.
Acknowledging that the joy of history can sometimes be elusive to young students, a team from the Custom House Maritime Museum is reaching out to area schools and communities to offer support in helping students recognize major developments in Greater Newburyport's past.
The museum's board recently sent out a packet containing a calendar and other material offering ideas on how the historic property on Newburyport's waterfront might be used as a relevant resource for local schools.
Museum leaders say the goal of the initiative is to reenforce that the Custom House has an important collection of primary-source material highlighting much of Newburyport's rich history.
"We are reaching out to suggest to teachers and administrators that they use the facility as a resource, because students can learn a great deal by participating and seeing for themselves what life was like years ago," said Bob O'Brien, a member of the Newburyport Maritime Society board and chairman of its education committee.
Each month of the calendar features an image of a significant painting or artifact tied to the maritime history of Newburyport.
For instance, August is illustrated by a photo of a wooden model of the revenue cutter Massachusetts, built here in Newburyport in 1791. Newburyport is considered the birthplace of the U.S. Coast Guard, as the cutter was the first of 10 approved vessels to enforce collection of duties - a function that later became the genesis of the Coast Guard.
Museum leaders say ship models like that of the Massachusetts and other maritime artifacts can offer an opportunity to discuss local history with students, especially at the younger grade levels.
The calendar also includes paintings of clipper ships, a circa 1860 painting of the Newburyport harbor by famed American artist Fitz Hugh Lane and an original ship's log from 1844 chronicling a local brig's voyage to Hawaii.
In addition, the calendar includes an illustrated book jacket from the novel "So Little Time" written by Pulitzer-Prize winning author John Marquand, a native of Newburyport. The museum hosts an entire room of Marquand's historic memorabilia.
Last spring, a class from the Bresnahan School in Newburyport visited the museum and went on a walking tour of nearby sites, including the U.S. Coast Guard station on the Merrimack River. Board members hope other classrooms will consider a tour of the Custom House in the spring, when the museum re-opens for the season.
"Those kids had a terrific time, and I think will remember a lot of history because they actually got to see and experience some aspects of the past," O'Brien said of the visit by the Bresnahan students.
In a letter accompanying the calendar, which was sent to about 250 teachers, administrators, municipal officials and financial supporters, Mary Guay, chairman of the maritime society's board, said, "From visiting artifact presentations to maritime adventure walking tours, we strive to sharpen students' skills and understanding. We invite and encourage your inquiry of the many ways in which our education initiatives can help bridge and augment your community's curriculum."
One challenge museum leaders say they face is the tendency for education leaders to teach to standardized tests, meaning teachers may be reluctant to spend time on subjects that might not be relevant to answering questions on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test.
Museum Director Keith Manville, a former superintendent of schools in Saugus, said they are gearing their approach to this reality.
"I understand the concern about MCAS scores, and that's one reason we want to go to the schools and talk with teachers and administrators," Manville said. "We want to tell them what we have, and how it might be used. We are hopeful that we can fit into their teaching needs."
Month by month
Here are some of the historical artifacts highlighted in the Custom House Maritime Museum in Newburyport's 2011 calendar and recommendations for ways schools can incorporate them into the curriculum:
Ship's logs: Long before it was called globalization, Newburyporters sailed the high seas with purpose and regularity meticulously recorded in ship logs. The logs in the museum collection can be used in the study of geography and written expression. Logs were kept so there would be a written record of every day at sea. Were anything to go wrong, the log would be used to recreate the actual situation. Students might consider how the logs would compare to the recordings reviewed after plane crashes today.
Washington proclamation: In 1790, one year into his presidency, George Washington signed a document in New York City appointing Abner Lowell superintendent of lighthouse on "Plumb" Island. The document might serve as a teachable moment about the nation's capital before it was established in Washington, D.C.
Alice Brown quilt : Young Alice accompanied her father, renowned Newburyport sea captain Lawrence Brown, on distant voyages to the Orient in the 19th century. She spent much of her time at sea chronicling those journeys in a quilt fashioned from exotic fabrics, materials and notions collected at ports of call. The quilt might serve as a jumping-off point for a discussion on how kids spent their time before cell phones and video games, the role of the schools in the 19th century and which children had the opportunity to attend school and why.