• Benji Sills

Zwaanendael Museum

Updated: Aug 29, 2020

Paige’s family has very kindly allowed me to tag along on their annual beach vacation several times now. Every year, they relocate for a couple weeks down to the Wildwood shore - a New Jersey beach packed with thrill rides, extravagant desserts and, new for 2020, coronavirus. To escape the throngs of beach-goers, we set sail on a day trip to Delaware.

The ferry between New Jersey’s Cape May and Lewes, Delaware is a monster machine. It’s a floating hulk consisting of three decks, one of which is a carport that can sustain 100 cars, yet against all odds it doesn’t sink. I sat waiting to board with Paige’s family, slightly alarmed by the line of cars that stretched on in front of us. All thoughts of a Titanic-style journey were soon forgotten however when the car in front of us popped the trunk and revealed a large and unmistakable toilet. We all spent the next few minutes deep in delighted debate over the reason for the trunk toilet, and before I knew it we’d already driven onto the ship.

Paige and I passed much of the 90 minutes on board spying on other passengers. We watched from the second deck, nominally to enjoy the sea view, but truthfully to gossip about people below. Our favorite was a couple composed of an average looking frat boy and his girlfriend, who’s hair was tucked into an elegant headscarf that matched with her puffed floral dress, making her look precisely like Little Bo Peep. Baffled by this dynamic, we decided that the most likely explanation was he had accidentally released her from a fairy tale and now had to make a pilgrimage to a Delaware used bookstore to return her home. If this wasn’t the case, it’s certainly a direct-to-Netflix film I would watch.

She was not to be the most Dutch thing we saw that day however. Our plan for the afternoon was to explore Lewes' Zwaanendael Museum. This typo is a small collection stored inside a beautiful historic Dutch building: intricate stonework and colorful shutters harken back to its inspiration, a town hall in the Netherlands. The roof is even adorned with a figurine of the Dutchman who founded the settlement. The only thing it’s missing is a family enthusiastically clog dancing in the foyer.

We had an appointment for a self-guided tour and stood outside, awaiting our time slot. A few locals stood in front, clad in signs protesting Trump. We watched in amazement as the frat boy from earlier, who had apparently driven to the same area as us, stormed up to the protestors and began to yell at them. He then huffed and stormed off, dragging his shepherdess girlfriend behind him. It looked like all the frolic had gone out of her.

When our time slot came, it was embarrassingly revealed that Paige had made a reservation for an entirely different museum, apparently at a dull courthouse almost an hour away. “Oh god...they sounded so excited to have someone visiting” she mumbled sheepishly, before calling and explaining that we weren’t actually interested in courthouses at all. Thankfully, the Zwaanendael Museum is not exactly a hot commodity and we were able to snag the next reservation.

We were let in by two very pleasant museum staff, who explained the tour was self-guided and offered to answer any questions. Of course, we had many, as we always do. One of the most pressing was referencing an oddity we had read about online. The museum is home to a Fiji Merman - the shriveled head of a monkey sewn inexplicably on the body of a fish. Reminiscent of P.T. Barnum’s famous con, where he displayed a very similar “mermaid” and convinced many of its authenticity, we wanted to know the story and most importantly, to see it. The girl on staff explained, extremely apologetically, that the mermaid was on the second floor which was currently closed.

Even sans mermaid, the museum had an interesting collection of local maritime artifacts. It’s a quick visit, especially with just the ground floor open, but we enjoyed the small collection of treasures. We had a laugh guessing the number of sailors aboard a model ship, a contest which I sorely lost to Paige’s mom after discovering a trio hiding below deck. But most profoundly, Paige’s dad reminded us about the intuitive but overlooked fact that nothing in a museum is meant to be there. No matter how many times I’m told this, it never ceases to give me a moment’s pause that every object was at one point held and treasured by someone as a possession.

For the generous sharing of other’s most important and personal memories just so we can understand the character of a forgotten town a little better, I will always be thankful for places like Zwaanendael.

Currently, the museum is open Thursday-Sunday and is free, although you do need to phone in advance to make a reservation. The museum's number is 302-645-1148. You're only allowed a maximum of four people (although they let us sneak a fifth in), but the benefit is that you have the entire exhibit to yourselves for exploration!

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