MYSTIC, Conn. -- Let me guess: You visited Mystic Seaport as a kid on a school field trip and haven't been back since. You're not alone.
''People constantly tell us they haven't been here since they were little," says Mystic Seaport spokesman Peter Glankoff. ''We hear that even more than the question, 'Where's the men's room?' "
This phenomenon has some folks at Mystic Seaport: The Museum of American and the Sea, as it's officially called, scratching their heads. Why, they wonder, does it take so long for a return visit? Shouldn't their beloved seaport, a world-class museum of maritime history less than two hours from Boston and New York, be a destination for frequent stops, just the way one might put the Museum of Modern Art or the Guggenheim Museum on their must-see list every time they pass through Manhattan?
They have a point. Mystic Seaport is a somewhat-forgotten jewel that deserves to be rediscovered.
Hoping to turn things around during its 75th anniversary year, a reinvigorated Mystic Seaport is offering an exciting array of exhibits and special events on its 17 acres along Connecticut's Mystic River. All this is in addition to the re-created 19th-century coastal village with historic ships and working preservation shipyard, for which it is most known.
Eugene Frankel, a guide at Mystic Seaport for the past 17 years, wistfully recalls when people had to wait in line to board the Charles W. Morgan, the last wooden whaling ship in the world and one of Mystic Seaport's four National Historic Landmark vessels.
''They lined up on the gangway," he says, ''and then I had to carefully detour people around, making sure weight was evenly distributed. If not, she would start to heel!"
He's hoping that the renovation of the 133-foot Morgan, which begins next year, will bring the crowds back just the way the building of the Amistad replica and the subsequent filming of Steven Spielberg's movie of the same name did in the late 1990s. New England's other outdoor history museums have been struggling, too, especially since Sept. 11. Interest peaked at places like Sturbridge Village, Plimouth Plantation, and Mystic Seaport in 1976, the year of America's bicentennial. Steadily declining ever since, attendance at Mystic Seaport now hovers at about 320,000 visitors per year, with most of them showing up during the summer.
Mystic Seaport has a little more competition in its southeastern corner of Connecticut these days. In addition to the Mystic Aquarium practically down the street, two nearby mega-casinos, Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods, attract busloads of visitors daily. Occasionally, the buses shuttle gamblers to Mystic Seaport. On a recent afternoon, several visitors told of plans to hit the slot machines after touring Mystic Seaport. But that doesn't happen often enough, says Michael O'Farrell, spokesman for the Seaport.
''It's a challenge to tap into that," he said.
The new exhibits are a fine place to start.
The first show commemorating Mystic Seaport's 75th birthday is a breathtaking display of 40 black-and-white prints from Mystic Seaport's collection of nearly 1 million Rosenfeld maritime photographs, taken by two generations of the family, that were acquired in 1984. In the Mallory Exhibit Hall, the collection includes images of steam yachts, naval vessels, powerboat races, and every America's Cup race from 1885 to 1992 -- but the exhibit is not just for boating types. These large, luminous images, which feature a platinum palladium print process dating back to 1875, can be appreciated as works of art. Many people have done just that, scooping them up in calendar, postcard, or poster form to take home and admire.
In the adjacent gallery is a completely different kind of show. ''How Boats Float" is a colorful, interactive exhibit featuring six stations with eye-catching murals, where one can experiment with such principles as buoyancy, hydrodynamics, stability, hull design, displacement, and propulsion. On a recent afternoon, the gallery was packed with young visitors who were clearly delighted with the hands-on display.
A third and far more scholarly exhibit highlights the important role women have played in maritime history. ''Women & the Sea" in Schaefer Exhibit Hall takes visitors far beyond mermaids and sea nymphs to women's adventures as seamen in disguise, merchant and sailing wives, marine scientists, commercial fishermen, competitive sailors, lighthouse keepers, and members of the US Navy and Coast Guard.
Still, some visitors would rather enjoy Mystic Seaport's natural beauty than anything on its gallery walls.
''We came here for fun and relaxation, and to get a break from our jobs," said Kathy Tkazyik, one of three sisters from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who were kicking back on a bench alongside the river. Tkazyik, Mary Ellen Farrier, and Diane Mackey see one another often back home, but they still like to get away together for a few weekends each year. Farrier, the only one who had been to Mystic Seaport, insisted to her sisters that it would be worth the 2 1/2-hour drive.
''It's just so beautiful," she told them.
Nearby on another bench, Joan and Lee McCamant, a retired couple from Chicago, sat in awe of the Morgan.
''I like the big ships and old buildings best," said McCamant, who knows a few things about big ships, as he was stationed on the USS Newport News for four years during the Korean War. ''All I can think of when I look at the Morgan is what a lot of work it must be to take care of it. I am amazed how well they keep it up."
The McCamants hope to return one year for the July 31 celebration of Herman Melville's birthday, when Mystic Seaport hosts its annual Melville Marathon, a 24-hour reading of ''Moby Dick" aboard the Morgan, the last wooden whaleship in the world.
An educational component anchors all offerings at Mystic Seaport even those presented in the most entertaining manner such as the 18-foot sailing ship that sits outside ''How Boats Float," inviting children to climb aboard and explore, or the relaxing ride along the river on one of Mystic Seaport's water taxis, which takes visitors from one end of Mystic Seaport to the other, allowing for a striking view of all the buildings, grounds, and tall ships.
Some programs are more obvious in their educational mission. A sailing camp for children ages 10-15 teaches them how to tack in high winds and about the spectacular, square-rigged ship, Joseph Conrad, where they sleep every night. The Conrad was originally used as a training vessel in Denmark, and in keeping with Mystic Seaport's devotion to authenticity, it has stayed true to that tradition.
Camper Patrick Duffy returned for his second year, this time with a couple of friends from home in Somers, Conn. He grew up learning the basics of sailing on a lake in Maine, he said, but it wasn't until he came to Mystic Seaport that he gained the skills to feel confident on his own. But most of all, Patrick said, he likes the atmosphere at camp.
''We get to sleep on the Conrad, which is really cool," he said, ''and the river is really peaceful once all of us settle down at night. I love to be near the water."
O'Farrell believes that all people have a connection to water in one way or another, whether it be recreational, related to military experience, or simply part of their ancestral background.
''Our job is to help every visitor find that connection," he says. ''When that happens, they come back again and again."
Contact Jennifer Wolcott, a freelance writer in Sudbury, at email@example.com.