A New Concept for the 21st Century Maritime Museum

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Hong Kong Maritime Museum

I recently attended the bi-annual conference of the International Congress of Maritime Museums, an organization of some 150 maritime museums worldwide, meeting for the first time in Asia, in Hong Kong, with the theme “Connections,” as a means to attract the new museums in China and East Asia that have not previously participated and have much distinguished history to share.

My role was to present to the delegates a new World Ocean Observatory program for sharing digital versions of temporary exhibits, extending their reach and life through Internet connection, and to give a public presentation on a vision of the maritime museum in the 21st century. My premise for the latter was that maritime museums are paralyzed in an outdated and apparently ineffective model that relies on collections of maritime art, artifacts, and historic vessels to tell a local or national history that does not necessarily connect to visitors in the numbers required to sustain operations. Attendance is down, despite efforts to re-install displays and re-invigorate programs. Some progress has been made in public outreach and educational services, but these, while good for the community, do not necessarily create the “magic” that appeals to donors and bureaucrats in times very competitive for available funds. There is a question of relevance, indeed whether or not such history matters.

My argument was that it matters very much indeed, and that every one of the historic maritime themes evident in all these museums — fisheries, immigration, trade, technology, scientific research, among many others — are extremely visible and relevant today, very much in the public view, and perhaps better understood in the context of their history, just as that history would be better contextualized by the understanding of their manifestation now and in the future.

Fisheries, for example, is a huge contemporary issue. Trade: Over 90% of all goods exchanged do so via maritime trade aboard container ships, oil tankers, and other vessels. Immigration: The news media is filled with images of “boat people,” refugees fleeing war, religious tyranny, and poverty, reaching new places and, hopefully new opportunities, via the sea. Science: Ocean technology is reaching new levels of sophistication — offshore applications, ocean-derived energy, sophisticated devices for ocean research and exploration, new tools to identify and understand ocean species and systems for better awareness of their potential contribution to human health and community well-being. In fact, the ocean has never been more relevant than it is today, and, if there is a failure, it lies with museums that choose to ignore this fact and its contributory value to public engagement and new audience development.

Globalization, as evinced by the worldwide exchange of goods, people, and ideas, has never been so advanced and integral to local, regional, and international events. The ocean is also the place on which we will inevitably depend for our future survival — for climate, fresh water, food, energy, health, security, individual and community sustenance. Without the ocean we are at fundamental risk, and if that is not a relevant story to tell, I don’t know what it is.

I delivered this message with some fervor, but I have no idea if it was received in any meaningful way. I was asking for radical change in the definition of a museum as a “retrospective” place, looking back through history through material culture. I was asking for a radical new “prospective” place where the disciplines of the humanities and sciences are mixed, where the story is not inhibited by locality when that locality was not longer limited in the contemporary moment. I was asking for the transformation of a passive place where people come with a determined set of expectations into an active space where artifacts and themes are juxtaposed in time and place, connected in unexpected ways. Irving Johnson, an American seaman well known for his descriptions of passages aboard square-rigged ships around Cape Horn, had an exhortation about survival aloft in a storm and for life in general: “Lean forward.” he said. That is what I was asking these museums professionals to do: to, to open their minds to the winds of change, to dare to challenge and explore as sailors have always done from that first moment they left the shore for a future unknown.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean, providing links and proactive services to individuals, aquariums, science centers, educational institutions, governmental and non-governmental organizations to build public awareness and a global constituency for the ocean. “The 21st Century Maritime Museum” was originally published as an audio podcast on WORLD OCEAN RADIO.

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Dedicated to sharing information about ocean issues: climate to trade, culture to governance. The sea connects all things. Online at WorldOceanObservatory.org.

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