Surfing and museums don’t often find themselves on common ground, or in common waters as the case may be.
Looking to change that, The Montauk Oceans Institute and Surf Museum, aka the Montauk Surf Museum, softly opened two weeks ago, marking the start of what the museum’s board hopes will be an ongoing discussion around surf culture and ecology.
The goal of the museum is education. “We thought it would be great to use surfing to get to the science behind it, to create a place where surfing served as the entry for visitors to learn about marine science, oceanography and physical science,” says Rusty Drumm, one of the museum’s board members and a Montauk resident who has been surfing there for the past 50 years. Drumm, along with an array of other passionate Montauk surfers including Jimmy Buffett, Bettina Stelle, Chris Gentile, who owns the surf shop Pilgrim Surf + Supply with locations in Williamsburg and Amagansett, N.Y., and Julie Gilhart, a fashion consultant and former fashion director of Barneys New York, started getting serious about this project a year ago.
Stelle, who grew up in Switzerland and has lived in the U.S. for the past 29 years, started surfing in Montauk in 2000, when her children got older. Not only did it become a family pastime, but it gave her an in with the Long Island locals. “It really embedded us in the community of Montauk,” she says. She met most of the other board members naturally over time. “When you surf for that long you meet all the people,” she says. Her neighbor and friend Jimmy Buffett was one of the pioneers of the museum, and slowly the group of them began crafting the idea. “We would have lunch and say ‘you know, we should do something,’” Stelle says.
Drumm approached the Montauk Lighthouse Museum, which is part of the lighthouse that was commissioned by George Washington in 1792. “We were just looking for a little corner,” he says. What they got was the 1,000-square-foot space constructed in 1896 that originally housed the fog-whistle machinery, but in recent years had only been used for storage and was in need of some renovation.
“The Montauk Lighthouse is a national landmark, which means that whatever improvements you make have to be done according to the way that those buildings were originally created,” Drumm says, “which is expensive.” The funding for this, and the rest of the museum’s first steps, came from a Kickstarter campaign and two fund-raising events held this summer. The board members were fortunate to have relationships with Long Island construction businesses, who fronted them the money to get the museum renovated.
The space will play host to rotating exhibits and displays, all centered around the theme of oceanic education. The current exhibit is a celebration and history of surf culture; the sport was almost banned in Montauk in 1967. Surfers instead had to register with the town and were required to wear a copper medallion around their necks or on their boardshorts. Such medallions, along with boards, clothing, magazines, photographs and other memorabilia, make up the exhibit. Drumm is close to several surf industry people, including those at Bunger and Hobie surf companies, “so I knew who to reach out to,” when it came to curating the exhibit.
The result is a labor of love for the group who call the Montauk waters home. “The reason that I love the museum is that it’s a combination of the surf culture, which I’m super passionate about, and the ocean. We all use the ocean and need the ocean, so we need to be stewards of the oceans,” Gilhart says. “Surfing and ocean stewardship go hand in hand. You do not want to be on a coastline that’s dirty.”
Gilhart, who is the most recent addition to the board, has been coming to the surf town for the past 10 years. She had just started surfing and was looking for a place with good waves on Long Island. The beauty of Montauk drew her in, and has motivated her to get involved in preserving it. “The conversion of the ocean there with the tip of Long Island — it feels very powerful,” she says. “It gives you this feeling of ‘we have to keep this.’”
Gentile adds that the combination of locals and tourists in Montauk can be a positive thing, and that both are needed in the discussion surrounding the ocean. “Montauk has commercial fishermen, and farmers, and people who have an affinity for the ocean, and then we have people who are incredibly wealthy and come out there to enjoy it, and surfing is this great equalizer,” he says. “The thing that you can’t take away from anyone is a love of surfing.”
“We’re in trouble,” Stelle adds. “We’re at a point where we need to do something or it’s going to be bad. The water in Montauk, the levels are so high people can’t swim and people get infections.”
The board is still determining just what kind of programming they will pursue. The aim is to continue the education of surfing on the East Coast and combine that with ocean science. They hope to use the space to facilitate discussions — on topics ranging from erosion, endangered species to the science behind how to surf a wave — as well as partner with other groups, like the National Resources Defense Council and the Montauk School.
“It’s a small museum with big ideas,” Stelle says, with Gilhart adding, “Montauk is definitely a small town, but it has a big audience.”