The Sacred Grove: A Dedication Address

by Brian D. Rogers, Special Collections Librarian of Connecticut College, as part of the dedication of the Frank L. McGuire Maritime Library on May 8, 1998.

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In 1969, near the end of a period of great social upheaval in this country, the director of the Smithsonian Institution, Dillon Ripley, published a book of essays on museums.  It was called The Sacred Grove, and it discussed the uncertain state of many museums at that time, suffering as they were from a lack of popular support, often operating without a clear mission, and regarded by many of the younger generation as dusty anachronisms with little relevance to a changing society.

Dillon Ripley was profoundly disturbed about this, and his essays were an attempt to begin to turn the tide, to remind readers of the value of museums, whether vast, national collections housed in many buildings, like the Smithsonian, or small local museums like ours.  Happily, the situation for American museums three decades later is much improved.  As a society we have come to recognize the importance of museums and of historic preservation in all its forms.  We now understand the folly of destroying our architectural heritage in the name of progress.  I do not know if this granite Custom House was ever in serious danger, but most of us remember that Union Railraod Station came very close to falling to the wrecker's ball, as had so much of central New London, in the name of urban renewal.  Somehow we have come to more fully appreciate the importance of our history, not merely as isolated facts only partly remembered from our school days, but as a metaphysical or psychological link between ourselves and those who walked these streets, came into these very rooms, planted our great trees, and sailed on these waters, over the past three and a half centuries.

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Museums thrive, and history comes alive, when people of vision and energy make it happen.  Frank McGuire was instrumental in establishing the New London Maritime Society and re-imagining this Custom House as a maritime museum. One of the features of the restored building that he and the late Lucille Showalter and others envisioned was a library.  Frank was a member of the first Library Committee in the mid-1980s when discussions were held about which of the then-decrepit rooms would be suitable for a library.  

Although it was decided to postpone the decision until the Robert Mills building could be stabilized and restored, we continued to share the vision of a library of books and other research materials on the subject of New London's glorious maritime history, with perhaps some emphasis on the commercial history of the port and the customs activity in this building which, when completed in 1835, stood nearly at water's edge.

A reconstituted Library Committee, chaired by Pamela McNulty of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy library, is reaffirming and refining these ideas with the benefit of several new and committed members.  I hope the Committee will not think me presumptuous if I suggest some of the subjects that, in my view, would be appropriate for the Frank L. McGuire Maritime Library.  One approach might be to say that the Library would contain materials relating to virtually anything that could be seen in the harbor from the windows of this building, or indeed from the buildings that stood here before construction of the Custom House began in 1833.  This would include 18th cetury coastal schooners and warships, whaling ships, the historic arrival of the Amistad, the great Long Island Sound passenger steamers, the New London-Groton ferry, navy ships and submarines, recreational boats, the cutters of the U.S. Coast Guard (notably America's tall ship Eagle,) commercial shipping, shipbuilding and overhaul, the railroads, the piers, and of course the ubiquitous modern ferries, whose comings and goings are the central feature of today's harbor life.  

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And we also see the Library complementing and cooperating with others nearby: the Public Library of New London, the collections at the New London County Historical Society's Shaw Mansion just down the street, the Charles E. Shain Library at Connecticut College, the Coast Guard Academy Library, the U.S. Submarine Base Library, and of course the G. W. Blunt White Library at Mystic Seaport, one of the finest maritime history libraries in the world.

In The Sacred Grove, Dillon Ripley tells us that the Greek word mouseion means a place or homa for the Muses.  The Muses, if I may refresh your memories, were the nine goddesses of the arts and sciences.  Clio was -- or shall I say is --  the goddess of history. Accordingly, Plato's Academy in the 4th century B.C. was a "museum."  Members of the Academy were organized as a thiasos, or "sacred band," dedicated to the service of the Muses.  In Plato's Academy and in Aristotle's Lyceum lay the seeds of today's institutions of higher learning.  The museum in Alexandria, founded by Ptolemy I, was a state-supported research institute to which scholars from all over the western world came to work in association with Alexandria's great Library; a place where the Muses were venerated, learning took place, and knowledge and wisdom cultivated.

But these were not museums in today's definition, with collections displayed for public viewing. Not until the Roman Empire do we see the first examples of collections of treasures and art housed in buldings, which were temples dedicated to the Muses.  Most of their dazzling contents, it must be said, were plundered from conquered lands.  In relating this early museum history, Ripley claims that by exposing the Roman citizenry to beautiful objects, in helping them to acquire taste, some good followed from the original evil of the acts of pillage from which the first collections were assembled.

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As it happens, there is a curious link between the ancient origins of the modern museum and our own Robert Mills Custom House, opened in 1835 after two years of construction.  Mills used Greek and Roman orders and other classical features for many of his buildings, including the modest portico of this one, and somewhat more spectacularly, the heroic colonnade of his U.S. Treasury Building in Washington.  Moreover, he also used the Egyptian obelisk as the model for his most famous work, the Washington Monument.  The Greeks, Romans and Alexandrians would have recognized these ancient architectural forms, and much else in neo-classical Washington.  [Another McGuire Library digital display is devoted to the work of Robert Mills.]

The Frank L. McGuire Maritime Library will contain at least one certifiable treasure, one that would be a credit to any library of architectural history:  the Robert Mills portfolio, which is the architect's own set of large, detailed, elegant renderings for this building.  [Mills altered the roof design after making the drawing shown below.]  Mills is a talented, engaging figure in 19th century architectural history, and we will hope to supplement the portfolio with books and articles about him and the Greek Revival Movement that left many houses in New London and elsewhere that remain the dominant feature of certain streets and neighborhoods.

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In conclusion, let us return to the notion of a museum and its library as places where the Muses are venerated;  a sacred grove, if you will, where artifacts and books provide information, inspiration, education, and even, from time to time, amusement.  A place where we can immerse ourselves in the evidence of history, and let that evidence trigger our imagination and increase our understanding.  For those who harbor a romantic conception of the possibilities inherent in a library --  and I am one who does --  as well as those who take a more practical view, it is difficult to think of a more fitting memorial to Frank McGuire than the library we are announcing today, for Frank was keenly alert to the possibilities of things.  The library that now bears his name will be a well-appointed space with a growing collection of books and other materials that offer, in text and image, important facets of the history of this city he loved so well.  It will be a place where information is discovered and education takes place, where the facts and lessons of history will, in one way or another, affect those who visit.  Who knows: Maybe some of the inspiration or learning that occurs here will in some way influence the future of New London.  

For as Frank knew, and as I think you will agree, the true glory and value of a library lies not in its physical accoutrements, whether modest or grand, but in the spirit of possibility that hovers about it like a gentle breeze in a sacred grove, waiting for the next fruitful encounter between an imaginative reader and Clio, the Muse of History.

May 8, 1998

The Sacred Grove: A Dedication Address