Special Events Ride a Wave of Popularity at Maritime Museums

When guests attend private events at maritime museums, they are looking to enjoy a unique party experience. The private events also give museums the opportunity to showcase their galleries and educate the guests on regional maritime history and the importance of preserving the marine environment.
In 2005, the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum purchased 34,000 square feet of waterfront property in the Fun Zone on the Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach, Calif. The expansion plan also included the adjacent docks, which will become the home of the museum and its Tall Ship program. The new facilities have attracted not only museum guests but organizations and individuals interested in hosting private events at the museum.
“It is a beautiful location for an event,” said Janis Dunwiddie, independent event planner
for the museum and owner of Dunwiddie Events in Newport Beach. “There are two galleries, the East Wing Learning Facility and the Richard and Betty Steele Model Pavilion. In between the galleries, there are patios and a courtyard that can fit up to 400 guests plus a rooftop area for those who want a more sophisticated atmosphere. The museum is also home to a boardwalk area that can be used for special events only once a year as it is still owned by the city and considered a public sidewalk.”
Since the property was once a Fun Zone arcade and amusement area, a carousel and Ferris wheel still sit on the site, which lends a carnival atmosphere to the museum. Many private event hosts embrace the carnival theme and want it reflected in the menu. Dunwiddie provides a select list of caterers who are used for events at the museum and works with the caterers and the clients to find the perfect mix of food and drink for the events.
“Often, the people having the event or party like to incorporate the Fun Zone theme, so the caterers will serve food, such as sliders and mini-milk shakes, which are flavored with liqueurs,” she noted. “For our museum fundraiser, we had a carnival food-on-a-stick menu. It was a lot of fun, and the guests really get into the theme. We also hold elegant events, such as one hosted for Riviera Magazine. For this event, we served a specialty drink called a Three-Sheets-to-the-Wind Martini which complemented the nautical theme perfectly.”
As one of the best known maritime museums in the United States, the Historic Ships in Baltimore is a sought-out venue for private events, from corporate meetings to weddings. Hosts can select from the four ships, including the USS Constellation and the USCGs Taney, and the 7-foot Knoll Lighthouse for their parties or receptions. Depending on the venue, private parties can range from 10 to 500 or more guests.
“Typically, most events take place on and around the Constellation. The ship can hold 250 people but if the guest list grows, the party can overflow onto Pier 1,” explained Laura Givens, director of Promotions and Special Events for Historic Ships. “The lighthouse is on Pier 5, which is a short walk to everything else. For the lighthouse setting, we privatize the pier and put up tents for the occasion. For those who attend receptions on the ships, they are allowed access to the ship and guided tours are provided as well.
“We truly make the event special. For example, for wedding receptions, the announcement of the couple is preceded by cannon fire. Guests and the bridal party can take photos on the ship or the pier – there are so many wonderful settings.”
Givens provides a long list of exclusive caterers for each event, who take care of both food and beverages. Both local and out-of-state corporations and organizations choose traditional Maryland foods for their menus.
“Since we are in Baltimore in such a historic setting, most guests prefer our local and regional cuisine for their events. Since Maryland is noted for crabs, they are the most popular menu choice.”
As chief executive officer for the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Mantowac, Wis., Norma Bishop oversees approximately 100 private parties and events at the museum annually. The museum can accommodate up to 120 guests.
“Each October, we host the Commodore’s Ball, which is an elegant event,” said Bishop. “We also host everything including wedding receptions, high school and ship reunions, sleepovers for private organizations and children’s birthday parties.”
As the largest maritime museum on the Great Lakes, the Wisconsin Maritime Museum is home to the most historically intact submarine in existence, and one of 28 submarines built in Mantowac during World War II. Guests at private events can walk through the galleries and interpreters are also on hand to explain the Great Lakes Nautical history.
“Our events are held in a large room that has a beautiful view of Lake Michigan and the lighthouse, or they can be held on the deck of the submarine. Many couples choose the submarine deck as the site for their actual ceremony.”
The museum specializes in menus that reflect Wisconsin and Great Lakes.
“Obviously seafood is big here. We have fish fries and boils too. Since Wisconsin is known for dairy as well, we have lots of cheese and ice cream too.”
Set in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State on Blue Mountain Lake and the Marion River, the 32-acre Adirondack Museum shares with its guests the history of the Adirondack Mountains, and its use of railroads and steamboats that connected people in this wilderness region to the outside world.
“We are seeing an increase in interest from people who want to host their wedding or corporate event here,” said Ann Carroll, Coordinator of Special Events for the museum. “We are opened from May through mid-October, and people are seeking us out for special parties during this time. We do weddings and reunions too.”
Private parties are held outside or in the café, which overlooks the lake. The café can hold up to 100 people, while events held outside can accommodate 500 or more guests. The museum galleries are open for private events, and guests are encouraged to tour the facility. Those who select the Adirondack Museum for their event must hire their own caterer. While the museum does not provide a specific list, the museum does have the right to approve or disapprove selected caterers.
“I have not noticed any one popular menu item because the events are so different and there are many caterers,” Carroll said. “Seafood is always big with maritime locations, but I would say that our guests are all over the board with cuisine choices.”
When guests attend private events at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Nova Scotia, they learn firsthand about the nautical history of Nova Scotia as well as the maritime history of Canada. Located in Halifax, the Maritime Museum of Nova Scotia can accommodate 110 guests for a seated private party or 250 guests for a standing reception. While the Maritime Museum does not cater any event, Visitor Events Coordinator Ian Mullan does provide lists for local catering companies.
“We are a museum and our job is to teach guests about Nova Scotia and its traditions,” Mullan said. “Private parties are a great way to reach people who might not have come here on their own. They can tour the galleries and learn and have fun. We also have kid-friendly activities such as sailor costumes and a boat where they can sit, or play or color. We want the event to be remembered by all ages.”
The museum does not cater events, but they will give a list of selected caterers to clients. Fiddlers and pipe music are popular at the museum events since Nova Scotia, which means New Scotland, celebrates the Scottish culture in everyday life. Seafood is also the most popular menu item for receptions and private parties.
“We are so close to the waterfront, so obviously, seafood is here and it’s fresh, and everyone wants it on their menu.” –

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