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The impressive exterior of the Custom House Maritime Museum, with its stately position on Water Street in the heart of downtown Newburyport, is nearly impossible to miss. Complete with a granite facade, this handsome building (which has been many things throughout its lifetime, including a Custom House and a manufacturing site for the heels of women’s shoes) almost looks like it could be some sort of grand historical residence that has stood the test of time perched on the banks of the Merrimack River.

Newburyport is so full of maritime history that it can be surprising even for locals to learn how much they don’t know about the extremely diverse and wide-ranging history of this seaside city. Which is exactly why the museum recently underwent a major transformation with the hopes of bringing maritime history to life for people of all ages. From a look into the past featuring artifacts from families who lived in 19th-century Newburyport to a deep dive into the modern-day U.S. Coast Guard, the museum has positioned itself to be a one-stop shop when it comes to local maritime information.

James Russell, the museum’s executive director, has been overseeing the museum’s “total reimagining,” as he regards it. This winter, the museum was redesigned, thanks in large part to an energetic team of volunteers and board members including vice chairman Jack Santos. As Russell says, “Volunteers have really led the transformation and made it as impressive as it is and will continue to be. They have donated over 1,000 hours since January. People have divided into teams and explored areas of interest to them, which has allowed each space to be different and have its own personality.”

In addition to volunteer manpower, “support from various foundations has also allowed renovations and gallery updates to occur in ways that are both impactful and meaningful” for museum visitors, explains Russell. “We want this to be the very best museum it can be, with high production value and deep, engaging exhibits. We don’t want visitors of any age to stop by for thirty minutes and feel that they have seen it all or that they want to leave. We want to exceed expectations,” he says.

Russell feels strongly that a series of “rotating exhibits and touchpoints will interest visitors whether they are locals or tourists,” he says. To this end, museum staff and volunteers have spent months mining the museum’s extensive collections, actively restoring pieces, and adding new treasures from around the world, including items that haven’t been shown for years, such as artifacts brought back to Newburyport by whaling captains and items from 19th-century Asia.

While the museum is for people of all ages, visitors might be surprised to learn just how much of it is made for children to experience. On the museum’s lower level, a Discovery Center for families and kids has been redesigned so that children can explore and learn the way they love to do—by touching, feeling, and seeing. Know of a student with a maritime history research project or paper? Many North Shore students are given assignments such as this, and Russell says, “our newly redesigned website and hands-on museum is the perfect place for students to carry out maritime research.”

Field trips and student groups are also welcome. The museum currently works with the Boys and Girls Club of Lower Merrimack Valley in Salisbury, whose members visit twice a week, as well as with Newburyport Youth Services on programming. The museum offers Saturday morning art classes led by a museum volunteer for budding artists and crafters. One beloved activity that remains unchanged is the museum’s scavenger hunt, which features an easier hunt for smaller children and a more sophisticated hunt for students who can read. Of course, a prize is available at the end for anyone who completes the activity.

The museum now has audio tours in English and Spanish to accommodate a wider range of visitors. The museum actively works with other area museums and well-known institutions, including the Museum of Old Newbury and the Plum Island Lighthouse, enjoying a reciprocal relationship of shared goals and interests as organizations that are happy to promote one another’s events and initiatives.

Given its location and stunning waterfront views, the museum is no stranger to rental inquiries for special events and coordination of these types of requests is done via the museum’s partner, Catch Events. Come summertime, passersby should expect to see the museum doors wide open, complete with music playing, part of the effort to draw in visitors and let them know this is a place to learn and have fun.

25 Water St., Newburyport, 978-462-8681,