News that New London is planning a $100 million Coast Guard Museum was reported with the finality one might expect if someone had won the lottery. Facts don't lie. But this report was a puff piece, based on a rollout, based on a wish and a prayer.
My initial response was "here we go again," because the evidence is overwhelming that grandiose, government-driven museum projects are not how effective, sustainable museums happen. At least it isn't in the United States, where institutions like Mystic Seaport and the Florence Griswold Museum achieved excellence after years and years of private (and occasionally public) vision and generosity.
Could this be different and better? Absolutely. Is the Coast Guard a story big enough to warrant this kind of investment? Probably not. Are 1 million people per year likely to visit a flashy Coast Guard Museum as projected? The U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the Naval Academy at Annapolis both have outstanding museums and neither presently does one-tenth that number. Will Coast Guard loyalists and the federal government pick up most of the tab for this? Perhaps.
That said, here's why a right-sized Coast Guard Museum in downtown New London could be transformational.
Greater New London is one of a handful of places in Connecticut with substantial untapped potential as a cultural heritage destination. With almost 20 attractions and a handsome, walkable downtown, New London has a lot of the right stuff. It is close and thematically related to Mystic, Connecticut's leading tourism destination, and thus offers the potential for branding multi-day experiences that compete nationally and internationally.
New London looks, sounds and feels like a real place with a powerful narrative and a compelling on-the-street, waterside allure. It is, to cite the National Trust's campaign, a place that matters — a place worth caring about.
Imagine what a difference it would make if the cultural assets — especially in New London, Waterford, Ledyard and Groton — were operating at their full potential! From boats and battlefields to fabulous regional art, African American history, ethnocultural history, whaling and the industrial age, greater New London can provide a full-blown, multidimensional New England experience.
Alas, many of the attractions struggle or have low visibility because there has never been a coherent and compelling plan to develop the visitor experience. Typically, the attractions are so preoccupied with self-preservation that they don't grapple with how to transform their constellation of disconnected elements into a destination experience. It's not easy. It costs money and New London, despite a rich history, is not affluent.
Connecticut's Office of Culture and Tourism (part of the Department of Economic and Community Development) has a vision — under the rubric of "placemaking" — for how museums, cultural resources, the arts, historic preservation and tourism can transform those communities that have the assets and desire into successful and competitive destinations, business and lifestyle environments. New London is potentially a perfect case study.
A new Coast Guard Museum — whether it's scaled to $100 million or, more realistically, $30 million — may be necessary. But it is far from sufficient. If it is built and properly endowed (anyone who insists these things are sustainable without endowments has never worked in the industry), its success will depend largely on whether the greater New London experience comes together in a marketable and visitor-friendly way.
Imagine improvements and increased operating support at Fort Griswold. Imagine the whaling story brought forward. Imagine New London's historic Old Mill restored, developed and operating as living history. Imagine an outdoor dramatization of the Shakespearean tragedy of Benedict Arnold or the life of Nathan Hale. Imagine improved way-finding and signs, programming, marketing and new media applications that create a 24/7 experience. Imagination is as important as money.
The challenge isn't a lack of things to show and tell. A Coast Guard Museum, with the USS Eagle moored at river's edge adjacent to the busy Cross Sound Ferry and landmark Union Station, could be the start of something big. As urban space, the New London waterfront is handsome and walkable. But it must go well beyond that to succeed.
New London is a place where Connecticut can succeed at tourism. But to do so we need to embrace the wider elements of placemaking with a strategy that leverages its attractions and compelling geography.