Maritime Museums in a Modern World

Maritime museums are key elements for public understanding of the maritime contribution to the history of a place, a region, a nation- - indeed the world -- that has been explored and measured by sea since the first intrepid sailor pushed off from the security of land into the oceanic unknown. Maritime museums look back, typically through the prism of a collection of artifacts, at the meaning of things, actions, and collective history; through ephemera, objects, paintings, boats and ships, museums illustrate and argue for the significance of the exchange via the sea of goods, people and ideas. There are more than 350 such museums worldwide -- and, sadly, most of them are struggling.
Why? Well, the cultural world is generally stressed by financial limitations, the proliferation of causes and organizations, and alternative, seductive use of leisure time. When most of the museums were founded, television, films, and computer games were not the overwhelming cultural force of today, nor were museum-goers torn between more conventional exhibits and programs and the high entertainment value of the competition. Museums have responded with new buildings, blockbuster exhibits, some innovative educational programs, and marketing, but nonetheless the numbers reveal increasing costs, decreasing visitation, and subsidy and philanthropy radically curtailed by the global financial crises and other pressing social needs.
The decline can be felt most palpably in the program premise for the recent meeting of the International Congress of Maritime Museums in Lisbon, Portugal, which read as follows: "The face of the maritime landscape has changed and there is no longer a self-evident presence of the maritime experience in modern life." Such a statement is an astonishing expression of lost confidence and defeat by the terrible assertion that the very nature of maritime history, and thus of its interpreting institutions, is irrelevant.
But what if you rephrase the statement as follows? "The face of the maritime landscape has evolved, but remains the self-evident rationale for maritime museums as interpreters and advocates for the relevance of the maritime experience to modern life." If that simple understanding can be advanced and accepted, it can then support an entirely different set of answers to the very same questions posed by the conference agenda; suggest new emphases resulting in new programs and structures; and relate the material collection to the great themes that prove the relevance, indeed the ascendency, of maritime forces and connections at the highest level of meaning and critical significance today. Maintain the premise, then accept the continuing decline. Change the premise, and use the new perspective to envision a new organization of collections, programs, and outreach, to invigorate staff, supporters, and visitors, to enhance public engagement at every level, and to rationalize the argument for public and private funding by the revitalized demonstration of local heritage in relation to future-directed world themes critically relevant to a new audience.
The enduring themes of maritime history are as follows:

  • Exploration and scientific discovery
  • Transportation and trade
  • Immigration and emigration
  • Naval Warfare and territorial expansion
  • Fisheries
  • Natural resource exploitation
  • Ship and boat construction
  • Technology, art and artifact
  • Social dynamics and folk-life
  • Politics and governance
  • Cultural and spiritual traditions

Let's just take one example from this list: exploration and scientific discovery. Today we are in the midst of one of the most extensive and exciting periods of ocean science and technological advancement ever. For the first time we have reached the deepest point in the Mariana Trench. We have extended charts and maps beyond the coasts to a full digital profile of the ocean floor. We have developed tools for exploration heretofore only envisioned in speculative fiction. We have discovered literally millions of marine species and microbes never known before. We are transforming that knowledge into medicine, synthesized protein, energy production, and much, much more -- knowledge that equals, perhaps exceeds, everything discovered by Darwin and Cook and Shackleton and all the other ocean explorers we so revere from the past. Consider the other themes, and you find equally persuasive manifestations of ocean relevance now.
What I am asserting here is the cross contextualization of our history with the present and future as a powerful means by which to show the public exactly why the ocean matters, as history yes, but as importantly now as part of the global present and as the locus for future human survival. This simple, but fundamental shift in approach provides museums with a very different opportunity for interpretive program and a revitalized perspective on historical mission. Let me say it without hesitation or equivocation: The face of the maritime landscape has not changed in significance, and there is without question a self-evident presence of the maritime experience in modern life. To deny this fact, frankly, is to keep one's head underwater where one should not be surprised by the consequences.