Camden Shipyard and Maritime Museum
The Camden Shipyard and Maritime Museum is dedicated to preserving the city’s shipbuilding legacy. It opened in 2016 in a converted, historic former church building, after years of planning and fundraising. The museum features exhibits on the maritime and shipbuilding history of Camden. One exhibit explores the life of African American Arctic explorer Matthew Henson due to his interesting connection with the church building. The museum also includes the Waterfront South Artist Residency, a program designed to support artists working on beautification projects in the Waterfront South neighborhood.
Backstory and Context
The City of Camden was formally incorporated in 1828, and initially its economy centered primarily on the ferry industry. During the latter half of the nineteenth century industrialization and the introduction of railroads allowed Camden to prosper. In the 1900s the city became home to a number of shipbuilding companies. The most famous of these was the New York Shipbuilding Corporation (known as New York Ship for short), which was said to be the largest shipbuilding firm in the world. Camden’s shipbuilding industry peaked during World War II, with the New York Ship alone employing 34,000 workers. After World War II the industry declined for the next few decades, and New York Ship closed in 1967. By that time Camden had produced hundreds of commercial and naval vessels for the United States.
Efforts to develop a museum began in the 2000s when a group of people, including former South Jersey Port Corp. head Joseph A. Balzano, Rev. Michael Doyle, Helene Pierson, Michael Lang, and Jim Cummings came together for the purpose of preserving Camden’s maritime history. The idea was first suggested by Michael Doyle who, after seeing Joseph Balzano’s large collection of maritime artifacts, commented that he should create a museum with it. The group started by acquiring the former Church of Our Savior Episcopal church in 2006. The church, built in 1893, had been closed in the 1990s and sat vacant for years. It has a small connection to maritime history; a 1905 addition to the building was constructed with stones from Greenland, which were used as ballasts on board the Kite, a ship from one of Matthew Henson and Robert Peary’s expeditions to the North Pole in the early 1900s. The Camden Shipyard and Maritime Museum was officially established as a non-profit organization in 2008. It spent the next several years raising money to convert the church into a museum. It managed to secure $1.5 million in grants from various sources such as the New Jersey Historic Trust, the state Neighborhood Revitalization Tax Credit program, Camden County, and city Community Development Block Grants. The Museum was completed and held its grand opening on September 20, 2016.
The Camden Shipyard and Maritime Museum has several exhibits on Camden’s history and maritime history in general. A large amount of the museum’s artifacts came from the personal collection of Joseph A. Balzano, with the rest mostly being donations from local residents. The Maritime Hall exhibit, located in the former church sanctuary, highlights Camden’s shipbuilding history, with particular focus on the New York Shipbuilding Corporation. The Shipyard Worker House Exhibit explores the history and everyday lives of the thousands of shipbuilding workers and their families in Camden. The Matthew Henson Arctic Explorer Room and Community Gallery is dedicated to the life of the African American explorer, who accompanied Robert Peary on his expeditions to the North Pole and originally went unaccredited for his efforts. Outside the museum is a statue of Matthew Henson, sculpted in 2009 by John Giannotti, in honor of the American explorer. The museum is also home to the Waterfront South Artist Residency, located in the former church rectory, where artists are provided with free living space while they work on public projects to improve the local community.
Comegno, Carol. “Camden shipyard museum opens to raves.” USA Today. September 11, 2016. Accessed March 27, 2018. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/local/south-jersey/2016/09/11/camden-shipyard-museum-opens-raves/90240270/
Comegno, Carol. “Ships shape new Camden history museum.” Courier Post. August 15, 2016. Accessed March 27, 2018. https://www.courierpostonline.com/story/news/2016/08/09/museum-salute-camden-shipbuilding/88004912/
“History.” Camden Shipyard & Maritime Museum. Accessed March 27, 2018. https://www.camdenshipyardmuseum.org/history
“History.” City of Camden. Accessed March 28, 2018. http://www.ci.camden.nj.us/history/
Riordan, Kevin. “In Camden, new museum to enshrine city’s maritime history.” Philadelphia Inquirer. July 17, 2016. Accessed March 27, 2018. http://www.philly.com/philly/news/local/20160717_In_Camden__new_museum_to_enshrine_city_s_maritime_history.html
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