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Seaport Museum ties its fortunes to the river outside in $5 million makeover opening Black Friday

The permanent exhibit "River Alive!" ties the museum's fortunes to the river outside in a $5 million makeover.

"River Alive!" underconstruction at the Independence Seaport Museum
"River Alive!" underconstruction at the Independence Seaport MuseumRead moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Maybe the low point came in 2006 when the Independence Seaport Museum's endowment sank to about $7 million from highs in the not-distant past of about $30 million.

Or maybe the low came in 2007 when disgraced former chief executive John S. Carter pleaded guilty to bilking the museum out of at least $1.5 million to shore up his lavish lifestyle.

No one would argue that a decade ago the Independence Seaport Museum, which occupies prime real estate on Penn's Landing, was reeling. Staffers hunkered down. Funders backed away. Programs stagnated. The future looked grim.

But like a stout freighter in a rough sea, the museum rode it out. Attendance has grown steadily from about 60,000 in 2011 to 110,000 in 2017. Last year, more than 20,000 people made use of the museum's docks for rapidly expanding boating and kayaking programs.

The museum now operates within its $4.5 million budget, with chief executive John Brady's salary at $150,000, a considerable drop off from Carter's. The still-imprisoned former chief executive had an annual salary of $350,000 and lived rent free in a $2 million Society Hill townhouse. The museum sold the townhouse, sold the yachts Carter acquired, and won a $2.5 million judgment against him.

The endowment is climbing and is now back to about $24 million.

Coming on Black Friday: ‘River Alive!’

Under Brady, 66, who took charge in 2011, the museum has reconceived its future programming, attracted serious funding from foundations, and is about to open what museum officials hope is a transformational exhibition, "River Alive!" — a permanent addition that literally opens up the fortresslike building and brashly announces that the Independence Seaport Museum is not only about model boats in bottles or portraits of Admiral Dewey, as admirable as those things might be.

"River Alive!," a $5 million makeover which occupies 4,000 square feet on the museum's first floor and opens to the public the day after Thanksgiving, looks not at boats but at the entire Delaware River itself.

Through the clever use of videos, games, digital technology, and interactive elements of all kinds, "River Alive!" seeks to illuminate how the 14,000-square-mile Delaware River watershed functions and what it means for the millions of people who depend on it.

In the "Fishararium," river fish slap around in large tanks and mussels are being cultivated, preparing themselves for a lifetime of what mussels do best: cleaning the water.

Most significantly, perhaps, the eastern, river-facing wall of the museum itself has been opened up with glass doors and windows, revealing a panoramic view of the river (and some hot dog huts). Inside and outside reinforce and inform one another.

The key now: Become a destination

"Their location on the river is both an asset and a challenge," said Maud Lyon, president of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, a nonprofit service association. She noted that like the rest of the waterfront, the museum has suffered because of the city's neglect of the waterfront and the isolation imposed by I-95.

"The key thing is they have to become a destination to draw people in," Lyon said. "What they are doing [with "River Alive!"] is what people are interested in. There is a growing interest in the river and the environment. … It has a lot of potential."

People want to be near the water now, agreed Andrew Johnson, the program director for watershed protection initiatives at the William Penn Foundation, which has made three grants totaling $4.1 million to fund the new exhibition and related projects. "Look at the million-plus uses of Schuylkill River Trail," he said.

For each of the foundation's sizable grants, given in 2015, 2016, and 2017, the museum has had to go through a rigorous financial review process, and officials at the foundation believe that the museum has left its checkered financial history in the past.

"We do a very robust review," Johnson said. "They did well."

The River Alive! experience

In addition to the tech, the fish, and the views, River Alive! has an immersive theater that gives visitors a drone's-eye view of the whole length of the watershed.

There is a "water modeling table" that allows visitors to manipulate water flows to help them understand why the river exists where it exists. There are sound environments created by artist Will Owen and glass sculptural elements created by artist Stacy Levy.

A giant 32-foot-long undulating wall greets visitors with sounds and projections that "demonstrate the river as a continuum," said exhibition designer, Victoria Prizzia, president of Habithèque, a planning and design firm.

"You cannot look at the river as a single entity," Prizzia said. "All along the way, from the mountains, through the forests, through the agricultural land, through the cities, through the suburbs, and out to the ocean, you have different kinds of challenges and different kinds of solutions. We're giving you an entire foundation of this river as a continuum."

As she spoke, the sound of thunder rippled through the gallery followed by the pat-pat of pelting rain. A beaver scurried along the wavy continuum wall and the sound of a crow's caw pierced through the whir of drills boring into exhibition frames.

‘Go big or go home’

Guiding the museum's transformation from boats and sailors to this whole-river orientation is the soft-spoken Brady, who ran the museum's boat building operation for 30 years, left for a time, returned, and watched the unraveling at the end of the Carter regime.

"It was very clear to me that it was a go-big-or-go-home situation if there ever was one," Brady said the other day, describing what he found when he took the helm.

Brady and museum planners saw that boats may be cool, but they couldn't continue to float the institution.

"I credit John … for taking a broader view of what the museum could mean for the community and then developing programs and exhibits that reflect that broader view," said Peter McCausland, emeritus chairman of the museum's trustees. "We've come a long way, financially, programmatically, and management-wise."

"River Alive!" represents a big step toward a new identity, although Brady said he recognizes that the exhibition is part of a long-range evolution.

The next project, now in the planning stages, is "Working Port," a presentation that will continue the use of innovative technology – think ship simulations with visitors virtually driving tugboats up and down the river. It's in the planning stages now.

"Finally we want to look at the river prior to the European and African arrival," Brady said. "What's the geology? Who lived here? It's kind of our goal to get the river back to that state of health."

A longer, daunting, and more traditional museum project is restoration of the historic Cruiser Olympia.

In the wake of its Carter woes, the museum seriously sought to unload the ship, Admiral Dewey's flagship during Battle of Manila in the Spanish-American War. No suitable takers emerged, and now the museum is committed to doing a substantial – if not complete – preservation effort.

Estimated cost: $25 million to stabilize it for another half century or so.

"The Olympia is a treasure," says Brady. But right now the focus is on "River Alive!"

"I hope it brings a very different perception of who we are," Brady said. "Of course boats play a very big role and we have a very nice collection of them and we build them. But they are not the water. That is the big change."