Editor’s note: This story appears in the winter issue of Aspire magazine.
MYSTIC – Nicholas R. Bell counts an undergraduate history class and his grandmother’s artifact-packed house in Idaho as the touchstones on his career path to museum curator.
Since arriving at Mystic Seaport Museum in June 2016 as senior vice president for curatorial affairs, Bell has embarked on an ambitious campaign to bring world-class exhibits to the museum.
The Seaport was the international debut and one of only three U.S. sites for “The Vikings Begin,” an exhibit of Norse boats and artifacts on loan for the first time from Uppsala University in Sweden. And the Seaport is the only U.S. site to exhibit “Death in the Ice: The Mystery of the Franklin Expedition”, now on display through April 28, 2019.
Bell, fresh off trips to Rome and London to view upcoming exhibits, seemed bemused when asked how and when he decided that museum curating might be a career path.
“I became fascinated with objects,” he said finally, recalling trips from his childhood home of Vancouver to his grandmother’s home in Idaho, which was still replete with five generations of family items.
There were boxes of old cigarette lighters, military uniforms, paintings and photographs. His father’s old toys, “mountains of National Geographics,” and family correspondence. Sifting through these heirlooms “indoctrinated me into the power of things.”
Of course, he was too young to sense a vocation in the family attic. It would take an undergraduate history course at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, “Things & Stuff,” to make him realize he might not want to spend the coming decades as a political scientist.
That class, he declares, “changed the course of my life,” teaching him to see objects in new ways. He moved onto a graduate program at the prestigious Winterthur Program in American Material Culture at the University of Delaware.
Bell was the Fleur and Charles Bresler Curator-in-Charge at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery when Mystic Seaport contacted him two years ago. The museum was about to make a substantial financial commitment to programming as it prepared to unveil the Thomas Exhibition Building at its new north entrance.
“I was deeply impressed with the museum’s willingness not only to talk the talk but walk the walk,” he said, noting the “great leaps” the Seaport has made in the last few years in funding and programming.
Bell sees his job as building relationships with institutions across the world to reimagine the types of exhibits the Seaport can host. A museum’s first duty, he believes, is to tell stories in new, culturally relevant ways.
To that end, both the Viking exhibit and the survey of the Franklin Expedition are cultural touchstones. With so many people researching their family history, the Vikings – who roamed throughout Europe and as far west as Newfoundland – have become a surprise element in DNA profiles.
The Franklin expedition, meanwhile, was dramatized by AMC in its adaption of the Dan Simmons novel, “The Terror.” Even more apropos, both ships – the Terror and the Erebus – were discovered recently miles away from where they were believed to have been lost.
Sir John Franklin, in 1845, was looking for a Northwest Passage to Asia when he and a crew of 128 men vanished in the Arctic. Simmons’ novel and the AMC series focus on the Inuit belief that Franklin’s men brought evil spirits with them.
“Death in the Ice” is a traveling exhibition developed by the Canadian Museum of History (Gatineau, Canada), in partnership with Parks Canada Agency and with the National Maritime Museum (London, UK) and in collaboration with the Government of Nunavut and the Inuit Heritage Trust. Bell was in London recently for its opening there. While the Seaport has a “very strong, long-standing relationship with Greenwich,” Bell had to build a connection with the Canadian museum.
“They could see that we were a worthy venue for that project,” he said.
Even more ambitious is the tour of J.M.W. Turner maritime watercolors from the Tate museum; Bell was in Rome in August for its opening. Mystic will be the only North American site to host the exhibition, which is now on view in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
“We’re muscling our way into a new league,” he said.
If all this makes Bell sound brash and self-important, he is nothing of the sort. Erudite and filled with a child’s wonder, he seems to have taken the attitude that no world treasure is beyond the Seaport’s grasp – in other words, it can’t hurt to ask.
This was the attitude he took when contacting Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library about the Vinland Map, a purported 15th-century document that is now believed to be a forgery.
“We did walk into the Beinecke cold,” he said, “and we didn’t know what they would say … there’s no shame in picking up the phone and calling a complete stranger, and some of these programs have really developed that way.”
In his office, a large white board is like a ship’s prow sailing into the future. Notes chart an exhibit on streamlined boat design, drawing from the Seaport’s own extensive collection; the J.M.W. Turner paintings; and Bell’s most ambitious project: an original Seaport exhibition on the discovery of Antarctica.
That show will begin in 2020, the bicentennial of the continent’s discovery in 1820.
For those who would like to attribute that feat to Stonington ship’s captain Nathaniel B. Palmer, Bell says it’s not possible to determine whether expeditions of the Royal Navy of Great Britain or the Russian Imperial Navy beat him to it. All three sighted the continent that year.
“The exhibit will take Palmer as an opportunity to talk much more broadly about what our relationship has been with Antarctica, but also what Antarctica does for us,” Bell said, adding, “It’s turning out to be a massive subject.”
The Seaport has sought expertise from scientists and historians and will lead a Seaport expedition to Antarctica in January of 2020.
Bell’s job may seem cosmopolitan, with all the jetting around to London and Rome, but he’s quite happy to be working and living in Mystic, where he and his wife, Allison, are raising their three young children, daughters aged 7 and 6 and a 3-year-old son. Living five minutes from work is quite a change from the D.C. rat race, and during our interview his wife and kids showed up with his lunch.
At heart, he’s still the young boy at grandmother Huldah Bell’s Idaho house, poring through family boxes.
“I believe wholeheartedly that museums exist to remind you how glorious the world is,” he said.
Mystic Seaport Museum is located at 75 Greenmanville Ave., Mystic. For more information, visit mysticseaport.org or call 860-572-533.