The Discovery Deck
“This is one of those little museums that you walk into, and you can actually learn lots of great information in a very small space,” says contractor Mark Holden. I do lots of reading and writing at Seamen’s Institute on Bowen’s Wharf in Newport. It’s a hideout. I was recently setting up my laptop to retool some scribbling ideas when Mark — an old Newport bud — came up to me and said, “Joey, come upstairs with me. You need to see what we’re doing up there.” Holden has a mind that never has a dull moment, and I sensed he had something very interesting to show and tell me next to the library on the second floor of the Seamen’s Institute.
Newport has many museums: The Newport Art Museum, The Breakers, The Naval War College Museum, and the Audrain Automobile Museum are a few places where we can wander around and take in historical information and see some interesting artifacts. What the City of Newport can now add to this list is a place hidden in plain sight at the epicenter of the comings and goings of the heavy tourist trade on the city’s waterfront. It is a little room called the Discovery Deck. I could see why Mark wanted me to see this place when I walked through the door and saw what he and his crew were doing. This place houses an inordinate amount of our state’s maritime culture. However, what struck me right immediately, was how well this small space was designed — every square inch is used. This is a great place to burn up the clock if you’re waiting to board the hi-speed ferry Islander and go to Block Island, or are simply wandering around Bannisters’ or Bowen’s Wharf looking to get out of the sun.
Inside the Discovery Deck we can watch the Matunuck Oyster Bar’s Perry Raso through projected images displayed on the floor as he explains how he developed his oyster farming operation. Visitors can sit in a circle on comfortable cushions and note things about oysters along with other little vignettes about Narragansett Bay fisheries. We can learn about the bay’s other maritime industries, boatbuilding, the United States Navy, commercial shipping and aquaculture. It’s small museum which begs big questions about the biggest little state in the union. And, this is a great place for students to unplug from their iPhones and get lots of nautical and scientific information, which will invariably lead to more questions — which is what learning is all about.
STEAM is the latest acronym for an educational approach to applied learning. STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics. (The famous TED Talks acronym stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design.) The Discovery Deck lends itself to this educational model, and is open for field trips for schools. Students can learn about pollution, wind farm technology, and the myriad types of international ships that enter Narragansett Bay. Of course, there is information regarding Newport’s storied sailing past, and what the City of Newport’s waterfront looked like back at the turn of the last century and visitors can learn about how vital Narragansett Bay is for maritime trade.
On the wall there is a display for the Northeast Marine Pilots Association. All foreign flagged vessels are required to take on a pilot before entering Narragansett Bay. The pilot’s job is to not take over the command of the ship, but to assist the ship’s master while navigating the bay in a safe and prudent manner. For a person who has never been to Rhode Island and never knew a pilot’s duties, the simple display explains the nature and importance of the pilot’s job. A student could see this information — and be so taken by what he sees — it could lead to a possible career path. The great thing about this museum is the austere nature of the information on the walls and floor, and how clearly it is presented. If a visitor is struck by something which sparks interest, then the Discovery Deck has lived up to its name and has done its job. It’s a place to experience a moment of interest that could perhaps lead to tracking down more information.
Another positive element about this small space is its proximity to Newport Harbor — about 100 meters — and Narragansett Bay itself. Harbor tours could be an addendum to a museum visit for students and teachers, and bring the STEAM experience in a more visceral way.
Additionally, a Harbor Seal tour could be tossed into the mix. Narragansett Bay begs questions because of its maritime past and its imminent future. It is a perfect addition to the Seamen’s Institute and the city.
The following is an example of how the bay can always create a learning moment. Two years ago, in late September, I was sailing north under the Pell Bridge and saw violent water breaks about a short distance from my bow. Curious to what was happening, I sailed my boat toward the breaking water and saw what appeared to be bluefish chasing bait.
It turns out that it was a pod of what looked to be about 100 dolphins, and they were chasing the bait fish, hard — herring probably. (This was a sign that the herring population is solid, which is very important to the food chain.)
Finally, after sailing north of the feeding dolphins, on my own discovery deck, I heard the whistle blow of an outbound car carrier steaming for sea, with a Northeast Pilot on board.