'Watercraft of the World' Buoys the Copeland Maritime Center

Bob and Marilyn Forney’s extensive collection of model ships is on permanent display at the museum.

It took more than 50 years and travel to 130 countries for Bob and Marilyn Forney to amass their collection of 72 model ships. And yet, when it came time to give back to Delaware, a state that had given them so much over the years, they didn’t hesitate for a minute when deciding who to donate them to.

The benefactor? The Copeland Maritime Center, where all 72 replicas are permanently on display for anyone who wishes to see them. The Forney Collection, titled “Watercraft of the World,” offers a look at models of crafts from a 5th century B.C. Greek trireme to a modern San Luis fisherman’s boat from Brazil.

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The Forneys met while studying chemical engineering at Purdue University in the 1940s. After graduating, Marilyn went to work while Bob continued pursuing his master’s degree. The young couple married in 1948. In 1950, Bob accepted a position with the DuPont Company, prompting a move to the East Coast.

Bob and Marilyn Forney

Though their young family moved 20 times over the course of Bob’s career, it was an opportunity to work on the commercialization of Dacron, a groundbreaking thermoplastic polymer resin, that provided the couple occasions for travel around the world. Their collection began in the U.S. and British Virgin Islands.

“Bob and I always loved being on the water and were attracted to sailing, ever since moving to the East Coast,” says Marilyn. “We were fortunate enough to amass such a unique collection that even the Smithsonian showed a lot of interest.”

Marilyn says that, despite the Smithsonian Institution’s international reputation, she and her husband wanted to keep the collection in Delaware. Bob’s great-great-grandfather was a member of Old Swedes Church, so the family had a connection to the 7th Street Peninsula where the Copeland Maritime Center now sits.

“I feel like, from a historical standpoint, the Kalmar Nyckel and its landing at the rocks needs more attention,” Forney says. “Everyone knows about Plymouth Rock and Jamestown, but the Kalmar should have more recognition. I hope that our donation to the museum helps in that regard.”

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Kalmar Nyckel Foundation chairman John Morton says that when the Forney Collection was bequeathed in March 2014, it was such a welcome addition to the Copeland Maritime Center that the architects had to stop their plans midstream to create space for it. 

“You can’t put a price on this collection, especially when you consider the educational value,” says Sam Heed, senior historian and director of education for the foundation. “Along with the folks at Capitol Museum Services, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help document and curate this exhibition. It really came together as part-and-parcel with the museum itself, and it was fortuitous that we were in the right spot at the right time.”

Each of the 72 models includes a QR code that visitors can scan on their smartphones to learn the history of each vessel. A passport system compares and contrasts models over time, across cultures and by technology. A book, “Watercraft of the World: The Forney Collection,” is also available for sale. Written in part by the Forneys and Heed, the book gives an in-depth account of each ship, its history, and when and where the Forneys purchased the model.

Director’s chairs with the Forneys’ names sit in the exhibit room, and the couple visit often to reminisce. “Sometimes museums can be a bit dry, but this little gem of a collection has these icons and presents things in such a fascinating way, I’ve seen schoolkids amazed by it,” Marilyn says. “From a cultural and historical standpoint, I think the museum and, in part, our collection, is a wonderful addition to Wilmington—and Delaware as a whole.”

The Forneys’ model ship collection  

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