Shipwrecks seen as international tourism draw for Portsmouth

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PORTSMOUTH — Teaching about shipwrecks and how to salvage historical marine artifacts would be the key to a successful marine archeology center at Fort Butts, Rhode Island's director of tourism said this week.

“If your museum becomes a teaching place … I think that’s where your money is," said Mark Brodeur, state director of tourism at the R.I. Economic Development Corporation. "It will be more than just the $5 paid to come into the museum. You could actually teach the science of recovery. It becomes much more than just a place where stuff is at.”

Mr. Brodeur made his comments at a sparsely attended meeting Tuesday at Town Hall that was hosted by Kathy Abbass, executive director of the Rhode Island Marine Archeology Project (RIMAP).

RIMAP wants to build a maritime museum and major archeological research facility at town-owned Fort Butts, the largest Revolutionary War earthwork in Southern New England and a strategic encampment during the Battle of Rhode Island in 1778. Using a grant from the National Park Service's American Battlefield Protection Program, RIMAP has created a master plan for the facility.

The genesis of RIMAP's idea came in 1999, when its researchers discovered evidence that the Lord Sandwich transport — one of many ships sunk by the British in Newport Harbor in 1778 — was formerly known as Capt. James Cook's HMS Endeavour, which carried Capt. Cook, his crew and scientists around the world in 1768-1771. Although Capt. Cook was never here, Rhode Island has seen five of the ships associated with him, according to RIMAP, adding that the four vessels that were lost here may eventually be found.

Capt. Cook is among history's most famous naval explorers. His Endeavour, a British Royal Navy research vessel, surveyed the eastern coast of Australia, leading to the British claim and colonization of that continent. The ship is revered by Australians the same way the Mayflower is treasured by those interested in early New England history, according to RIMAP.

Capt. Cook doesn't have the same name recognition as he once did in America, she acknowledged. Ms. Abbass often asks people, "'Hey Capt. Cook, you got your sea legs yet?' Where’s that line from?"

It's from the 1946 movie, "It's A Wonderful Life." Uncle Billy yells it to George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) as he was trying to leave town on his way to travel the world. (Technically, the line was, "Avast there, Captain Cook! You got your sea legs yet?")

Back then, Ms. Abbass said, everyone got the reference. Not today, though. “It drives me crazy,” she said.

Partly for that reason, the nonprofit organization doesn't expect to receive much, if anything, in terms of funding for the project around these parts. Dollars could, however, pour in from international markets, according to Ms. Abbass.

“We don’t think that the Town Council will give us any money” nor the federal government, she said. "But when the Australian National Maritime Museum wants to be with us and other countries come calling, that tells us that Rhode Island has something special going on.”

With all due respect to Newport, she said, Australians won't come to Rhode Island for the mansions. "But they will come because Capt. Cook was here. Australia considered the Endeavor their founding vessel,” said Ms. Abbass. “We want to build a museum that will feature all of this and attract an international audience.”

How to bring dollars in

The museum is another six years away if it happens at all, said Ms. Abbas, noting that RIMAP would like to open it on June 3, 2019 — the 250th anniversary of the date, in 1769, that Capt. Cook, British astronomer Charles Green and Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander observed the transit of Venus on the Tahiti during Cook's first voyage around the world.

RIMAP will be spending the next three or four years studying the project's business plan to see if it's economically viable.

Ms. Abbass said a marine archeological lab would be a key part of the museum, which would be located on the 6.75-acre Fort Butts just north of the high school. Ideally, the museum would also have a restaurant and store, although most sales would be done online, she said.

Mr. Brodeur, however, said RIMAP should sell its expertise on how to recover ships and artifacts.

"The word 'museum' today — it's just, 'aargh!' But for an exciting center for shipwreck exploration or whatever, it is a very timely thing and it’s new and exciting," he said, adding that the center could have summer camps and other education programs that would bring in big dollars.

Rhode Island, he said, "is a huge place for shipwrecks," and that should be used for marketing purposes. Mr. Brodeur pointed to the "huge increase" in attendance at the Newport mansions thanks to the popular PBS show, "Downton Abbey."

For more information about the The Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project, visit www.rimap.org.

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