Virtual experiences have become so closely associated with the Internet, it's easy to forget that virtuality existed before computers.
But even 10 minutes — or, better still, an hour — spent meandering wide-eyed and fingers-ready through the spanking new Gorton's Seafood Gallery, an airy loft added over the winter to tie together three heretofore separate parts of the Gloucester Marine Heritage Center, will rectify the misconception that virtual reality is the dimension only of the Web.
Indeed, it won't take long for the "Fitting Out" exhibit, a gallery filled with examples of the many technological fields needed for a marine economy, to remind visitors that it doesn't take a computer or a personal digital assistant to enter a virtual world.
What could be more virtual than operating a scale model marine railway while gaping at the first full-sized one ever built that is still working, imagining what life was like along the great Gloucester waterfront during its heyday a hundred years ago?
Creating that sense from tangible insight is part of the mission of the non-profit Heritage Center, which was created at the start of the decade and has grown eccentrically — fitting for an institution that aspires to reflect the spirit of its place — as opportunities and funding have become available.
"This place could not exist except on this site," director Harriet Webster said.
Visitors to the Heritage Center will be able mix those hands-on and imagined experiences when the Gloucester Marine Heritage Center opens for the season Thursday, May 7, featuring the unifying, $550,000 addition.
Standing at the east-facing window, one looks down on the original Burnham Brothers Marine Railway that was built there in 1849 and 1850. Its owners later facing bankruptcy, the Gloucester Marine Railway was acquired in 2000 by the Heritage Center-in-the making, along with 36,000 square feet of waterfront land, not counting the piers.
Having just had two Boston Tea Party boats for 31âÑ2 years, the railway remains very much in service. And while pondering the history of the great fishing boats hauled up on the rails for the first time with the steam power of the first generation in the Industrial Revolution, the visitor is encouraged to fiddle with a scale model of the railway.
The fiddling exposes the simple mechanics of the machinery that enabled the pulling of those deadweight-heavy, wooden fishing boats and schooners.
Until the advent of the railway, boats' undersides were tidied, spiffed and fixed only at low tide.
Historian Joe Garland, who has written that the railway might be the oldest in the nation that has remained active, also notes that it was created on its spot just two years after the railroad pushed through from Boston.
The arrival of the railroad robbed Gloucester of its sublime isolation and must have been a breathtaking phenomenon for locals whose travel options until then were walking and horses.
"Do you suppose that's where they got the idea?" Garland wrote in a booklet about the marine railway. The booklet is available free of charge on request in the shop of the Heritage Center.
The railway exhibit — which combines visual, imaginational and digital experiences to impress on long-term memories a vivid sense of what was civilization's pre-eminent fishing port — is far from the only example of pre-Internet digital and virtual reality in the Gorton Gallery, which grew from an accumulation of philanthropic gifts totaling $100,000 from the city's oldest continuing business.
The entire addition adds a second and third story to the center's Sarah Fraser Robins Maritime Science Center, and adds a non-digital, non-virtual observation deck to the adjoining boat shop where actual boats are made by real people working for a fee with a professional boat-builder.
Virtual experiences abound virtually everywhere in the Fitting Out exhibit — indeed, throughout the Heritage Center, which, in its warrenish irregularity and incongruity, seems an ideal reflective of a waterfront that violates all rules of symmetry and geometry, yet still makes complete sense for those who venture in.
"It's not linear," concedes Webster.
The pieces of the Fitting Out exhibit includes sails, rope-making, a foghorn, ship models, oilskins, fish by-products including, honest to goodness, cod liver oil candies — proto omega3 capsules — and rigging, especially rigging.
Among the 80 or shoreside businesses around what we now call Harbor Loop in the heyday of sail (c. 1900), rigging is one of those essential crafts that is easy not to ever think about — unlike ice- or sail-making, for example. But that is only until one is exposed to the virtual lecture on the essential and high craft by Stan Dulong. The master rigger gave his tools to the Heritage Center and, before he died in 2008, was videotaped making rigging and describing the craft in exquisite detail. For example, the visitor can leave knowing what "worming the wire" involves.
Another virtual, digital experience can be found by continuing to work one's way clockwise around the walls of the Gorton's gallery, to where the pilot house of the Vincie N, a 1936 Gloucester dragger that was fished by the Novello family until 2000, has been reinstalled.
"Sam Novello, the last captain, donated the boat to us," Webster said.
Looking out from the pilot house, with its authentic mix of dials and controls, the eye peers through window framing of the busy Inner Harbor past the docks where the rowing boats await members of the Gloucester Gig Rowers, the Heritage Center's rowing program, which can be joined for $50 a year, in addition to a membership with the center.
Membership is priced at $35 for an individual, $50 for a family.
Then there is the 18-foot-high wall mural of a schooner with top mast and rigged sail right in front of the pilot house. Behind the pilot house is a theater — a tiny theater, but in the scale of the room, sized to fit right in. A many as nine people can sit and watch documentary video of schooners at sea. Narrated by the late poet Charles Olson, the experience has a virtual element to it. You'll feel for spray that has been conjured rather than splashed by Olson's vividity.
"We try to use marine science and this history to teach about the ocean," said Webster.
Elsewhere, return visitors to the Heritage Center will find the old favorites — starting with the gift shop at the entrance, through the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary's contribution, an exhibit featuring videos and touch screen kiosks and dioramas that focus on the flora, fauna and geology of underwater Cape Ann.
From there, the trail leads outside to to the Sea Pocket Lab, the aquarium which is the undisputed favorite of children, which then takes the visitor either into the digital microscope lab or offers the option of going out onto the piers.
The return brings the visitor past The Dive Locker, run by Paul Harling, that is a kind of diving museum with helmets that date to 1862. Last but not least is the dory shop over which Geno Mondello presides.
The paths taken by visitors this year are impossible to predict, but as Webster concedes, "As long as they get to everywhere, we don't care."
Richard Gaines can be reached at email@example.com
Celebrating harbor's history
The Gloucester Maritime Heritage Center hosts a three-day celebration May 7 to 9 to commemorate the opening of its Gorton's Seafoods Gallery and the start of the 2009 season. All events take place at the center, 23 Harbor Loop in Gloucester.
Thursday, May 7:
10 a.m. — Exhibits will open for the season.
7 p.m. — Bud Ris, president and CEO of the New England Aquarium, will present a free slide lecture, "The New England Aquarium Today and Tomorrow."
Friday, May 8:
7 p.m. — Erik Ronnberg, renowned New England ship model-maker, will present a free slide lecture, "New England's Earliest Otter Trawlers." He will illustrate his talk with slides of model of the Surf he built for marine artist Tom Hoyne. Ronnberg's model of the schooner yacht America can be viewed at the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester.
Saturday, May 9:
10 a.m. to 5 p.m. — "Demonstration Day." Events include an Historic Postcards Slide Show, seafood cooking demonstrations, live music by Not That Blonde, storytelling by Fred Dodge, and presentations focusing on whale tagging, shipwrecks and sustainable fisheries. Ongoing demonstrations include net stripping, sail making, dory building, and ship model construction. Visitors can also explore a simulated shipwreck with Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary maritime archaeologists and observe a boat being hauled out of the water on the center's 19th century marine railway.
Children's activities include fish printing, compass making and knot tying. Sea Pocket Lab, the center's outdoor aquarium with touch tanks, will be open.
The Gloucester Maritime Heritage Center, 23 Harbor Loop in Gloucester, overlooks Gloucester's industrial harbor. It is open seven days a week May 7 through October, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $2 for children; $10 family maximum. For more information, call 978-281-0470.