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    38th Voyage as Franchise Reboot
    From: Frank Reed
    Date: 2014 Jul 30, 12:42 -0700

    What is the 38th Voyage? How can you define its purpose to a broad audience? Lately, I have been calling it a "franchise reboot" in analogy with the reboots of popular movie and ficton series in recent years, which, I hope, is an analogy that many people can relate to.

    Attendance at Mystic Seaport declined steadily, steeply during the 1990s and into the first decade of the 21st century. For a variety of reasons, some external, some internal, the museum had lost its spark and its ability to inspire. "Mystic Seaport" was a childhood memory for many people in New England and elsewhere, but no longer an appealing place to visit or a place to recommend. Certainly not a place for adults. In this respect, it resembled a dying Hollywood movie franchise that spawned sequel after sequel bringing fans back for more with each new release but eventually fading, mired down by tired storylines and characters so familiar that they no longer surprise. A product shifting gradually from child-friendly to merely child-ish. And like a Hollywood movie franchise, at some point you have to throw in the towel, admit that you can't just rework and rewrite; Mystic Seaport could not fall back on its standard model for serving its audiences of visitors, students, and others. We've seen it all before. It was time to "reboot the franchise". In the universe of movies and other fiction series, a reboot is a gamble but one that can pay huge dividends.

    Here's how the Wikipedia article describes it:

    Reboots remove any non-essential elements associated with a franchise by starting the franchise's continuity over and trimming it down to the core elements and concepts.   For consumers, reboots allow easier entry for newcomers unfamiliar with earlier titles in a series.   With reboots, filmmakers revamp and reinvigorate a film series in order to attract new fans and stimulate revenue.   A reboot can renew interest in a series that has grown stale, and can be met with positive, mixed, or negative results by both the consumers and film critics.

    The 38th Voyage of the Charles W. Morgan has been functioning as a "reboot" of the Mystic Seaport "franchise" --reinventing its brand, concept, and goal. Mystic Seaport has written off its traditional model as effectively obsolete, its traditional audience as "non-growth". The game now is revolution: downplay whaling history and replace it with eco-conscience, downplay curated exhibits and replace them with experiential learning, emphasize the subjective impression of authenticity over the objective authenticity of historic artifacts. And the Charles W. Morgan itself has been reinvented as part of this revolution. It is no longer a historical artifact, and it has assumed the role it has been destined to fulfill since the early 1970s: it is a living ship, extensively restored, with modern construction and a modern role, while it retains its legacy as a historic vessel.

    As with a Hollywood reboot, there is a conflict between the money and power and the artists and fans who honor the original story. Some of you "38th Voyagers" may not be aware how deep the rift was during the past decade. Unique among museums, the staff of Mystic Seaport attempted to form a union in 2012. The unionization vote failed with over 60% voting 'no', but their goal was in many ways part of the same revolution. The staff members who organized and promoted unionization maintained that their goal was not the usual goal of unions, focusing on higher wages and benefits, but rather they wanted influence and a formal voice in the decision-making process --the directors and actors wanted more seats at the table with the producers and the studio (and many staff whom I have spoken to who voted 'no' agreed with that concept, but they were convinced that a union would inevitably revert to the usual wage and benefits advocacy role). Although this unionization trauma ended two years ago, there are still deep divisions at Mystic Seaport, and the conflict remains. From my perspective, despite the divisions, this is a constructive process. A staff uninterested in big issues is a roomful of sycophants. Mystic Seaport doe not need more "yes men" and "yes women". Mystic Seaport needs to have its assumptions questioned if this "reboot" --this revolution-- is to succeed.

    Will it succeed? I personally think they (and "we" as members, and therefore part-owners of the museum) have an excellent chance. The voyage itself was carried out with skill and perfection, and the gods granted us excellent weather and friendly whales. Indeed such skill and perfection and luck during the voyage may even have become a weakness. Where was the challenge? Where was the drama to attract media interest? A one-day weather delay departing New Bedford got as much news coverage as any other event during the 38th Voyage. Some of the media coverage has been fantastic (if you haven't seen it, take a look at this finely-crafted video and well-written, brief article at nationalgeographic.com). And Mystic Seaport has already begun advance sales of its "coffee table book" tribute to the Charles W. Morgan and the 38th Voyage.  But the media coverage has also been narrow and shallow. There have been numerous articles and some television coverage, too, within ten miles of each of the ports of call of the 38th Voyage, but have they heard of it in New York? Continuing the Hollywood analogy: "will it play in Peoria?". Even here in Rhode Island, the "Ocean State", most people have only a vague awareness of the 38th Voyage and even Mystic Seaport itself. The success of this reboot all depends on follow-through and pushing this story out to a vastly larger audience. That process, of course, depends on new media. Mystic Seaport's web site now functions professionally after many long years in limbo. Thousands of Facebook followers are thrilled by the photos that have been regularly posted on Mystic Seaport's page there. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of Wikipedia readers are left wanting. Success in a "reboot" is not guaranteed, but there is powerful inertia and positive energy today at the end of the voyage. The next twelve months will tell. 

    Frank Reed
    Conanicut Island USA


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