Imagine walking into a new exhibit at the South County Museum that lists as many local commercial fishermen as can be identified — past and present — and features stories of notable fishing families, artifacts of the fishing industry, a parade of historic photographs on large video screens, and even an oral history booth where present-day fishermen and their families can tell their stories.
That’s just part of the vision the museum’s staff and board of directors have for creating a comprehensive history of the commercial fishing industry in Point Judith and the surrounding area. Eventually, it may also include an expansion of the museum to house a permanent fishing exhibit.
The museum, founded in 1933 and located at Canonchet Farm in Narragansett since 1984, has always included artifacts from the fishing industry in its collection. But it has never told a complete history of this enterprise.
“We’ve always had a small collection related to fishing, but we didn’t always know what some of the artifacts were. Some weren’t even classified as fishing objects,” says Daryl Anderson, a museum board member. “We never were able to see the whole picture. So what we want to do now is tell the history of the fishing industry in Point Judith with a two-year exhibit that tells this story, with the hopes of eventually having a permanent exhibit.”
Part of the inspiration for the exhibit came from retired Narragansett High School English teacher Sharon Webster, who assigned her students from 2000 to 2003 to conduct oral history interviews with commercial fishermen. Recordings of those interviews and other documents from her students’ projects were donated to the museum in 2019.
“Our goal is to complete that work by going back to the people who were interviewed and doing additional interviews to preserve more of their history,” says Heather Kisilywicz, executive director of the museum. “Point Judith was once the No. 2 commercial seaport on the East Coast, and it needs to be celebrated and show how it’s changed. Commercial fishermen are the most adaptable, industrious individuals who are running a business, but are also doing it because it’s a passion in their life.”
“They not only had to be fishermen, but also carpenters and electricians. They had to catch fish and sell fish. Their work ethic is amazing,” Anderson added. “They knew what they had to do and how to do it, whatever it was.”
Kisilywicz notes that local indigenous people were the first fishermen in the area, and they will be featured prominently in the exhibit. However, the primary focus will be on the commercial fishing industry, which got its start in Point Judith in the late 1800s.
“They became fishermen because they loved it and would rather be on the water than anywhere else,” Anderson says. “We don’t always see that in the work ethic of today. It’s been interesting for me to understand that process and try to find a way to relate it to our audience.”
Additional information for the exhibit is being collected via a Facebook page called Galilee Commercial Fishing, which already has a following of more than 1,400 people from around the country. The museum is using those followers to help identify artifacts already in its collection, gather additional antiquities from the early days of the industry, and locate fine art, crafts and other relics for inclusion.
“We’re taking the stories from these folks and attaching them to the objects,” Kisilywicz says. “We’re not just collecting objects; we’re collecting people.”
And it’s not just the fishermen themselves who will be celebrated in the exhibit. People who were in supporting roles will be featured as well, from marina owners and fish processors to ice plant workers and net makers. Modern aquaculturists will have their place in the exhibit, too, as will Robert Merriam.
“He was a famous electronics person who kept everyone’s boats working,” Anderson says. “He was called on any time of the day or night to fix their boat radios so the fishermen could go out and fish.”
Numerous partners are helping with various elements of the project, including the Point Judith Fishermen’s Memorial Foundation and the Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island.
The plan is to have the fishing exhibit fill most of the museum’s main exhibit hall for a two-year run beginning in May — assuming the COVID-19 pandemic eases and allows the museum’s interior spaces to reopen to the public by then. At its conclusion, museum staff will seek ways to incorporate some of the exhibit into its permanent displays.
A committee has also been formed to explore the possibility of launching a capital fundraising campaign in several years to fund construction of a permanent fishing exhibit, which Kisilywicz believes will become the largest collection of commercial fishing artifacts in the Ocean State.
“That will depend upon the support of the community,” Kisilywicz says, “but if Rhode Island wants to preserve the story of the people who have taken care of them and put food on their plates, then we’ll be able to do that.”
In the meantime, a full schedule of online speakers will be offered this spring as part of a commercial fishing lecture series in anticipation of the reopening of the museum and the opening of the fishing exhibit. And the gathering of additional artifacts for the exhibit will continue.
“We’ll never be finished,” says Kisilywicz. “That’s the beauty of history.”