Today, a tale of two museums. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Yesterday we discovered a new
museum here in Houston. And to say what it was, I
need first to say what it was not. To do that, I'll
tell you about another museum I recently saw, in
There, mobs of raucous school kids raced past
artifacts along the way to each gathering point.
Here they'd be briefly lectured and turned loose
among the next group of push-button displays.
I dodged the hurtling bodies, trying to absorb a
Model-T Ford -- the embryonic family car that
reshaped America. No hope of letting it seep into
my system where sense and meaning could merge. Here
you poked buttons, made incomprehensible things
happen, and gained only kinetic satisfaction in a
world without meaning.
That was last month. Now, a radically different
experience: Houston's Maritime
Museum occupies a house in a quiet
neighborhood. We expected something minimal and
were amazed when the house opened into room upon
room -- each offering new surprises.
it a display of top-quality, highly-detailed, model
ships would be true, but misleading. These models,
some eight feet long, are rendered in an
astonishing wealth of detail and range of examples.
They're also surrounded by every kind of historical
artifact -- a whole case of items from and about
the Titanic, a
nineteenth-century diver's helmet, ancient anchors,
and so much more.
You cannot race, unseeing, past these displays. The
muted surroundings compel you to slow down and seek
out meaning. You find yourself comparing forms of
late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century
warships -- frigates, ships of the line, and
corvettes. You begin to see the subtle changes in
shipbuilding that shifted naval greatness from
Great Britain to its upstart
equally caught up in the history of oil tankers,
oar-powered galleys, fishing ships, and commercial
ocean travel. You also encounter things you'd never
expect: Here's a Spanish-built hand-powered
submarine, made in 1864 -- same year as the
well-known Confederate submarine, Hunley,
here in America. But the Spanish one is actually
At the heart of all this is marine engineer James
Manzolillo, the museum's founder and director.
Manzalillo served with the Merchant Marine in
WW-II. He survived torpedoes, and he went on to
become a shipbuilder in Mexico.
There're few ports Manzolillo hasn't visited. Now
he combines his collected artifacts with
contributions. The result is more an act of love
than a museum. What he's accomplished, and what
that other museum did not accomplish, is to create
a dimension of reverence.
For the past emits a presence. Move by it too
quickly, fail to engage that presence, and the past
will be no more than yesterday's junk. But this place
slows you, and engages you. As I left Manzalillo's
Maritime Museum, I could hear the creak of a wooden
hull and smell the creosote. I could actually taste
the salt air.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
The web site of the Houston Maritime Museum is:
For a display of images from the museum, and links
to information on each of the images, Click Here.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.