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Maritime Museum sets course for free admission

SUSAN EVANS MCCLURE

MIDDLEBURY — The Lake Champlain Maritime Museum (LCMM) on May 22 will emerge from its year-long, COVID-induced hibernation with a cornucopia of outdoor exhibits, self-guided tours and a new admission fee that features nothing but zeros.
Yes, Maritime Museum officials are banking on the free-admission to provide a powerful inducement for locals and tourists to rediscover — or see for the first time — the museum’s many treasures that evoke the rich maritime history of one of the nation’s most storied lakes.
The bargain 2021 season, which will run until Oct. 17, will also extend to its summer camps and expeditions. They’ll be offered on a pay-what-you-can basis, to “make sure that all children have equal access to a great summer on Lake Champlain,” according to LCMM Executive Director Susan Evans McClure.
Camp participants can pay anything ranging from zero to full price (or more, as a donation to help other campers) for their experience this year. Historically, full price for a weeklong camp has been in the $350 range, according to McClure.
Museum admission has been $10-$15, depending on age and other factors.
“We have done a lot of thinking about our relationship with the community, what we do and what we research here, and for us, what it comes down to is we don’t think cost should be a barrier to access a lake that belongs to the people,” McClure said during a recent phone interview.
“We’re hopefully almost in a post-COVID world, and we wanted to take this opportunity to do something new — recognizing that people have had a hard year and we want to be part of the recovery effort,” she added.
The LCMM’s generosity is in part being made possible by an approximately $32,000 grant through the Lake Champlain Basin Program. Various business sponsors are also kicking in, and museum officials continue to raise funds to help keep the LCMM admission free this year, and hopefully in future years.
“We are really committed to it,” McClure said.
It’s a commitment that took shape last September. The LCMM had scuttled its 2020 season (except for online programming) due to COVID-19 concerns, but it did open for Labor Day weekend — for free.
“We had several people come in, mainly people with kids, who told us, ‘I live like a mile away, I’ve never been here before, but I saw it was free and I thought I would check it out,’” McClure said. “For all of our staff, it was an eye-opening moment: $15 was preventing people form accessing the lake. We decided to try and replace that $15 in another way.”
The LCMM will largely be an outdoor and/or online experience this year in order to protect people from the coronavirus. Vermont is on track to offer the COVID-19 vaccine to everyone ages 16 and older by mid-April, but museum officials want to be super-cautious.
“We’re moving a lot of our exhibits outside, and are installing new exhibits,” McClure said. “Some of our ‘tighter’ buildings will stay closed (to the public), but we really want people to use the site.”
The LCMM’s 2021 outdoor exhibits will cover:
•  “Women at the Helm,” focusing on women’s long history of leadership in the Champlain Valley. This exhibit is also available online.
•  Prohibition and the temperance movement in the Champlain Valley. This exhibit will also include a digital component.
•  The health of the lake. It will touch upon micro-plastics, aquatic and invasive species, and other issues menacing the lake.
•  Various maritime history objects. This will be a walking tour, with signs explaining each item.
Museum research will proceed this year, including an effort to determine the exact location (in Arnold’s Bay) where Benedict Arnold’s gunboat fleet was scuttled on Oct. 11, 1776, during the Battle of Valcour Island. This project will involve both underwater and on-land archaeology, according to McClure.
While the LCMM grounds have been quiet this past year, the museum has still been active — virtually. Zoom and other social media platforms have allowed museum staff to promote museum programs far and wide. For example, a Michigan-based student of quagga mussels can tap into the LCMM materials on how those mollusks are affecting Lake Champlain and its artifacts.
The internet has removed a lot of barriers.
With just a few key strokes, viewers have been able to take virtual tours of some of the lake’s many historic shipwrecks. Lake Champlain was a critical pathway for commerce during the 19th and 20th centuries, and was a prominent maritime battlefield during the Revolutionary War and War of 1812. Its bottom is strewn with a treasure trove of vessels that played key roles in the region’s economy and fight for independence.
The LCMM, in partnership with Middlebury College, has through the years mapped hundreds of shipwrecks, including the Revolutionary War gunboat “Spitfire,” part of Arnold’s fleet.
“(2020) gave us a chance to think about reaching broader audiences, and we’ve been able to share some great content online,” McClure said. “We have almost a new museum assigned to us. We’re still doing our classes in boatbuilding, still doing our archaeological research, still running as a museum — and now we’re running as a virtual museum.”
Families can see the 2021 camps and expeditions line-up and register online at lcmm.org/Camps.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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