The Olympia was a successful museum vessel, at least according to the numbers. More than 100,000 visitors annually paced the same decks where Dewey uttered the immortal fighting words, "You may fire when you are ready, Gridley."
In 1996, the museum, flush from a six-year $15 million capital campaign, took control of the Olympia. The future looked bright. But now, 14 years later, the nearly broke museum is giving up the distressed vessel, claiming her maintenance poses an insurmountable fiscal challenge.
What has been steadily sinking the ship? Not disinterest. Instead, more modern American vices-greed, corruption, and civic disengagement-may have overpowered this monument to the strong, optimistic America of old.
As the Olympia sat deprived of basic maintenance, the Independence Seaport Museum's chief, John S. Carter, enjoyed perks far above compensation provided at peer institutions. In 2004, his salary exceeded $350,000, and he lived rent-free in a $1.7 million executive mansion bought, maintained, remodeled, and even furnished with museum funds, according to news reports.
The criminal complaint against Carter claimed that by 2006, the museum had been billed more than $335,000 for work on the director's Massachusetts home. While Carter charged the museum over $280,000 for personal purchases of jewelry, home electronics, designer clothing, and rare artwork, almost $200,000 dollars in maritime artifacts-including a rare print of Dewey-went missing.
Rather than support the Olympia, Carter defrauded the museum of more than $900,000 dollars in a scheme to restore and resell-for personal gain-several antique pleasure boats.
The museum faltered. Between 1999 and 2005, its endowment went from $48 million to a mere $7.7 million. Admission receipts tumbled by half. And all this time, the final arbiters of fiscal management, the museum board, did nothing.
Outside the museum, interested stakeholders did little more. In 2002, after the U.S. Naval Institute's own Naval History magazine published a devastating article detailing the Olympia's dire condition, Carter flatly rejected the story in a letter, claiming the account was "somewhat dated and generally uninformed." This strange rebuttal evoked little response, even though the Olympia's decay, well documented by photographs in the magazine, was undeniable.
Carter's looting of America's historic treasure continued unabated. Apparently gambling on a federal bailout, the museum director carried on until his house of cards began crumbling in 2005.
In 2007, Carter was sentenced to a 15-year prison term for defrauding the museum of more than $1.5 million over his 17-year tenure.
Saturday, July 10, 2010
The U.S. Naval Institute reports the story of a modern American entrepreneur: