At 4 a.m. on a cold winter morning, men and women, black and white, all gathered together for one unsegregated purpose; shucking the oysters of the Chesapeake Bay. This may have been almost a century ago, but the inspirational gospel songs sung by these people still echo through the McNasby Oyster packing plant; now known to the public as the Annapolis Maritime Museum.
Founded in 1986, the museum’s staff and volunteers work tirelessly to ensure that the community and its visitors of all ages are educated in the history of Annapolis’ maritime heritage as well as the ecology of the Chesapeake Bay.
“This is not your typical ‘Smithsonian’ type of museum, its focus is very programmatic,” said Jeff Holland, executive director, as he discussed the limited space of the building. “Our programs here are a vibrant focal point for community engagement.”
Those who simply know Annapolis for its sailing and shopping will truly be enlightened as they experience the variety of interactive exhibits featured inside, as well as outside off of the pier. The current exhibit, Oysters on the Half Shell, showcases the importance of the oysters, the industry and the hardworking people who made the booming business possible. Sadly, the industry has slowed down significantly over time.
The docks that sit behind the museum were once a prosperous and profitable market place. In the 60s and 70s, McNasby’s son William Jr. (who eventually took over the company) would tally the bushels of oysters being brought in. At that time in history, it was common to see men selling 100 bushels, a rate that is simply impossible now. Holland noted that now, even eight bushels would be hard to accumulate in a day’s work, as we are left with only 1 percent of the historic oyster population. Problems like pollution, disease and overharvesting have created the severe change. The staff is active in the Oyster Recovery Partnership, which helps stabilize the population through sanctuaries and planting spat (oyster larvae).
Despite this harsh impact, the museum hosts a tank containing a living oyster reef. The water inside is surprisingly clear, as the cleaning is done by the oysters themselves! Holland commented that a single oyster can filter an entire bathtub’s worth of water. The tank is custom-designed, and its C-shaped arch allows children (and anyone small enough!) to immerse themselves in the habitat of one of the bay’s most cherished creatures.
The exhibit also features a large-scale oyster (for a closer look at their fascinating anatomy), actual equipment used for packing and processing, and the V-shaped deadrise boat Miss Lonesome. Kids are encouraged to climb aboard the workboat and learn how the watermen once tonged oysters off of this very vessel.
Oysters on the Half Shell may primarily celebrate the impact that these critters had on the past of Annapolis, but the legacy of the business is still very much alive in the city.
“Just the other day a woman came in here to see the museum and was pointing at many of these photographs, identifying people that she knew,” Holland said. “It’s fun seeing what information some of our visitors share back with us. Some of those watermen still live in the area today.”
The Buchanan Bay Room is a multipurpose area in the back of the museum, primarily used as an art exhibit. The staff replaces its photographs and paintings every six to eight weeks with new exhibits, which all showcase the work of local artists. It is also used as a classroom, lecture hall and concert hall. Last year the museum connected 2,237 kids with the culture of the bay through their educational programs.
While walking outside on the pier, guests may notice signs instructing them not to loiter, fish or crab. The staff at the museum instructs their visitors to do the opposite; ignore them and enjoy the splendor of the Chesapeake Bay! Throughout the year, visitors are encouraged to canoe, kayak, fish, crab and sightsee as this location provides an excellent view of the gleaming Chesapeake at the mouth of the Severn River.
Tied to the wooden docks of the museum are a number of boats with incredible history behind them. One particular boat, the Stanley Norman, a skipjack built in 1902, is truly one-of-a-kind. Known for their large triangular sails, the boats were used for oyster dredging. Attaching a motor to these vessels was prohibited by law,so watermen would sometimes attach pushboats to better mobilize the ships. Holland stated that 100 years ago, there were around 1000 skipjacks. Now there is said to be between merely six and eight, the Stanley Norman being one of them!
Inside and out, the Annapolis Maritime Museum is a treasure chest full of interactive history, education and fun, waiting to be opened by visitors, locals and maritime enthusiasts alike.
Through their conservation efforts, tours, educational programs and concerts, the staff’s passion for the bay and getting the community involved is clearly evident.
Make sure you don’t miss out on a Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse tour this year; the next is Saturday, July 28. For more information on the tours check out: