Front Matter - Editorial

Front Matter


Garth Wilson
National Museum of Science and Technology

1 During the golden age of postwar prosperity in the West, maritime museums, together with the academic disciplines of underwater archaeology and maritime history, underwent a remarkable period of growth. Moreover, this was very much a mutually reinforcing expansion, with developments in one area lending strength to the other two. Beginning in the late 1950s, and gaining momentum throughout the 1960s and 1970s, public interest, scholarship and funding directed at maritime heritage increased across the board. Though some of this growth was rooted in existing institutions, the unprecedented nature of this expansion is reflected in the foundation of publications such as The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and Underwater Exploration (1972), academic enterprises such as the Atlantic Canada Shipping Project (1976) — which itself gave rise to important monographs and serials — as well as organizations such as the International Congress of Maritime Museums (1972), and the International Symposium of Boat and Ship Archaeology (1976), to mention only the best known.

2 By all accounts, these decades were formative and hopeful times which, from the besieged perspective of the late 1990s, cannot but be remembered with a certain wistfulness and worry. Yet beyond such feelings, this legacy of rapid expansion provides an apt background against which to consider the social function of maritime material culture today. With institutional soul-searching, redefinition and reorganization currently such common elements in both the academic and museum world, it may well be worth considering the forces and circumstances that have shaped developments in this area. Writing as someone working within a museum, the emphasis here will be on the dynamics of collection development; yet as a curator, my underlying concern is essentially with the meaning and value of material culture. From this vantage point, three separate but related issues appear particularly relevant to this discussion and, by extension, to this special issue of MHR: (1) What is the social function of maritime museums in contemporary society? (2) What role should collections play in maritime museums? (3) What sort of maritime artifacts require/deserve special attention today?

Maritime Museums and Contemporary Society

3 On the face of it, the defining characteristics of maritime museums are obvious enough. Maritime museums concern themselves, broadly speaking, with humanity's relationship with the marine environment. Their collections generally focus on the social, political, economic and, above all, technological aspects of living, working and playing on, or at the edge of, navigable waters. Many maritime museums have a regional focus, though some of the best known follow a national mandate and enjoy international stature.

4 As a defining framework, this is as good and viable as any. Yet as with most museums dedicated to industrial or transportation history, there is often a strong inclination among maritime museums towards a whig view of progress, one in which technology, along with its makers and users, is portrayed as triumphant. There are, of course, some notable exceptions but they simply serve to prove a rule, the roots of which may be found in a natural desire to preserve and honour the remnants of past glory. Thus, writing with obvious concern about the prospects of provincial maritime museums in the UK, Stuart Davies observed that "the majority have been founded since 1960 as part of a broader preservation movement to save the historically important remains of the first Industrial Revolution and subsequent Victorian industrialization."1 Similarly, one finds that the celebration of naval power past and present serves to sustain the numerous maritime museums and heritage sites established around preserved war ships.

5 By contrast (and it is a contrast that is more striking with each passing day), postwar Western society has become increasingly removed from traditional sea-borne and coastal trades. The causes of this stem from mechanization, containerization, flags of convenience, the global transfer of heavy industry and, in the case of the fishery, serious stock depletion. Thus the immediate social relevance of maritime endeavour — and by extension the social function of maritime collections — has of late become obscured. The historical resonance remains intact, but the triumphant narrative line seems strangely unfinished. This is perhaps most evident in the nature and make-up of many maritime collections and their interpretation. Exhibits and discussions of contemporary maritime activity are all too rare and celebrations of past, particularly nineteenth-century, greatness, are all too abundant. More often than not, an informed visitor will be struck by the silence concerning the very real, dramatic changes of recent years.2 Observing something similar, the editors of the literary magazine Granta offer some hint of the reasons behind this in their introduction to a special issue dedicated to "The Sea:"

The sea can still make us scared and wistfulthe Titanic, Charles Trenet singing La Mer — but it also seems to have lost its power. The tide of images, metaphors and stories has been steadily retreating. There are some great and popular exceptionsthe novels of Patrick O'Brian, Hollywood's new Titanic — but even these see the sea as history, evocations of the way we were. Why should this be? One obvious answer is that as travellers we no longer need the sea. Another is that ships have deserted great cities and their shorelines...With the ships have gone the men who sailed them, their waterfront bars long closed, the old piers turned into museums or marinas.3

6 In view of this, maritime museums arguably face a problem of a greater magnitude than other general history or transportation museums. Moreover, the implications of this are worthy of serious consideration; for it places many maritime museums and their collections in the awkward position of being rooted in a meta-narrative that has been fractured by contemporary events and trends. Collections that once reflected active political, social and economic forces in Western society, now seem transformed into a kind of lesser collection of antiquities.

7 This is not absolutely the case, of course. In some areas — the history of yachting comes to mind — the historical continuum still seems vibrant enough. Furthermore, historical collections will always retain significant didactic value. And yet the problem of fading social relevance remains and cannot be dismissed as merely an abstract matter of self-definition and interpretive direction (though for those within the profession these aspects may be real enough). Rather, the urgency of the matter rests with the very practical concern of trying to promote and develop maritime museums and collections at a time when public funding is being reduced, and the competition for admissions, attendance and private-sector support is growing.4

The Role of Collections in Maritime Museums

8 In addition to the challenge of a changing social context, maritime museums, in common with all museums, are under increasing pressure to offer visitors more than "just" traditional displays of artifacts, text panels and audio-visuals. There is today an increasing push for more active or activity-based interpretation, all of which tends to reduce the interpretive role and recognition given to collections. More to the point, with this role reduced, the costs of collecting and collections have generally been subjected to greater critical scrutiny; against which long-held arguments for the preservation of "study collections" often seem to pale. Fortunately, this scrutiny has only rarely developed into an open call for deaccessioning or an overt halt to collecting. Nevertheless, it remains true that whereas active collecting was once a very prominent aspect of museum work — and identity — this is no longer the case. Indeed, real acquisition accounts are now quite scarce. Curators are therefore increasingly reliant on donations and gifts which, though welcome, are subject to that self-perpetuating dynamic wherein what we collect and display influences the potential donor's sense of what is valuable and hence what is donated.

9 Beyond reduced budgets, the role and value of collections has been affected by a greater division of labour and with it a further division of limited resources. As part of changing professional trends and in the face of greater competition, many museums have hired full or part-time fund-raisers or promotions experts. In addition, resources have been devoted to expensive new interpretive, often interactive, technologies aimed at augmenting or enhancing visitor experience.5 Higher standards of conservation and collection management have also been introduced and almough these have certainly helped consolidate artifact holdings while improving access, higher standards have also brought higher costs. And none of this, it must be stressed, is necessarily a bad tiling, though it has generally put further pressure on collection development and management.

10 On the other side of the equation, there is still much to be said for artifacts as unique, authentic, even numinous documents of our past.6 The arguments have been made often before, but bear repeating in this context (it might even be said they very much need repeating). Collections of artifacts constitute the traditional heart and still lingering soul of museums; they are the defining institutional characteristic. In fact, as Dr David Wilson, former director of the British Museum, once noted, "a museum that does not collect is a dead museum."7 Speaking in support of the study of material culture, Henry Glassie has argued that "the artifact is as direct an expression, as true to the mind, as dear to the soul, as language, and, what is more, it bodes forth feelings, thoughts, and experiences elusive to language."8 Perhaps more importantly, however, for the visiting and tax-paying public, there remains an enduring association between the idea of the museum and collections; the former are still viewed as custodians of public heritage and the latter as the physical embodiment of a common culture and history.

11 Yet these are issues and values common to all collections. If there is a characteristic that sets maritime collections apart, it may perhaps be found in the odd marriage of triumphant progress — so often reflected in the artifacts of maritime technology — with social separation — manifest in the cultural remnants of the mariner. This, again, is a generalization. Nevertheless, viewed in the context of the whiggish origins of so many maritime collections — evident in the over-representation of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — the awkwardness of this particular mixture of forward-looking technological determinism and backward-looking social anthropology becomes apparent. On the one hand, any survey of maritime museums reveals a striking degree of similarity and repetition (not to say redundancy) in the substance and spirit of the technology preserved. These artifacts tend to follow a narrative of Western progress and triumph, ideas that are particularly evident in the areas of shipbuilding, navigation, shipping and naval warfare. On the other hand, the life and work of the mariner are represented by artifacts that tend to represent an unusual sub-culture, distinct and separate from the main current of Western society. Whatever the actual extent of this separation, it may fairly be said to be the pre-eminent theme of the cultural collections, for it is the distinct nature of the mariner's life and work (now scarcely visible in contemporary Western society) that we seem most anxious to preserve. These two themes — triumphant technology and lost subculture — thus share a common, if largely unreconciled, co-existence in maritime museums; so common in fact that it is seldom, if ever, the subject of formal comment.

12 In light of this, the continued development of collections in maritime museums today represents a particular challenge for the curatorial imagination. How are collections that generally combine a once triumphant technology with the artifacts of a virtually extinct Western sub-culture (the tribe of the mariner), to be justified, developed and interpreted in a meaningful way without surrendering entirely to the notion of "the sea as history"?

Contemporary Collecting and Contexts

13 Whether discussing the difficulties arising from the contemporary context, the combined effects of budget cuts and new interpretive approaches, or the particular character of maritime collections, it is the problem of social relevance that remains the constant. To pursue this is not to suggest that historical collections are less important or meaningful than artifacts that are more readily recognized by current generations. Obviously to do so would be to negate the existence of some of the most significant and fascinating museum and scientific collections known. It would also be to deny the very real importance of history in the identity and self-understanding of any society, something which, like personal memory, is an essential source of orientation and coherence (notwithstanding the current weakness of history as a subject in some school curricula). Rather the issue of social relevance speaks to the need for all concerned with maritime history and heritage to complement the historical by addressing the contemporary situation.9 This may be done by finding new subjects, or equally, by recontextualizing and thereby developing contemporary perspectives on the old and established. Maritime collections must reflect what our relationship with the sea and waterways once was, but they should also serve to extend their narratives, both descriptive and analytical, into the present and thereby provide points of departure from which contemporary viewers can reflect on their ongoing relationship with the marine environment.

14 Perhaps the single best example of a large-scale institutional effort to re-orient the uiematic basis of maritime collections, and thereby rein-vigorate the narrative line, can be found at the Maritiem Museum "Prins Hendrik" in Rotterdam. Using the construct of a vade mecum, the Museum divided the history of shipping into four principle parts including: the purpose of shipping (of which six purposes where selected); nine necessary conditions for the function of each stated "purpose"; the assertion of shipping as a cultural phenomenon fully integrated with the surrounding culture; and sources, wherein the museum explores its own historical means and methods.10 Admittedly, this construct is abstract and the result, for some, too coldly analytical to inspire imitation. Nor did it always readily capture the hearts and minds of the traditional maritime museum constituency. It was also a transformation born out of the infrequent opportunity inherent in building a new institution around an established collection. Even so, by departing from the established chronological, triumpant approach to maritime history, the Maritiem Museum "Prins Hendrik" greatly facilitated the inclusion of contemporary issues. Indeed, one might even argue that this new approach made contemporary concerns an imperative. In addition, perhaps more than any other maritime museum, it encouraged visitors to rethink the meaning of the objects on display.

15 While such a radical redevelopment may be impossible or undesirable for many maritime museums, the ideas inherent in the "Prins Hendrik" model can be adopted into both the collection policies and the exhibit programs of existing museums and heritage sites. Indeed, material culture research, with its emphasis on context as a key to understanding meaning, provides a natural and obvious formula for arriving at this end. And while this is generally true, certain subject areas seem particularly worthy of greater consideration. One such area is small craft. Though traditionally a stalwart part of maritime museums, the potential inherent in small craft collections is seldom fully realized and boats are usually relegated to a supporting role (relative to the place of prominence usually assigned to ships and shipping).11 In fact, small craft can serve both as a microcosm of maritime technology and culture, and as an effective medium by which museums can appeal to immediate contemporary experience; for today most people's experience on the water occurs in boats.12

16 Boat liveries, boat-building programs and the expanding practice of experimental archaeology all offer interesting active ways of increasing the interpretive benefit and appeal of small craft collections. Different intellectual approaches are also important. A greater emphasis on the social context of technology may also serve to keep the human dimension of the maritime endeavour front and centre. Similarly, greater attention to process, rather than just the end products, may also enhance our selection and understanding of maritime technology.

17 Finally, there is also rich potential in the realm of cultural studies, developing themes in the world of ships, seafaring and small craft that resonate in the human imagination and are thereby transformed into objects and images. This, of course, includes the traditional maritime fine arts — paintings, figurehead carvings, scrimshaw, models — though here too new interpretive concerns will inevitably reveal new meanings. One very good example of this was an exhibit undertaken by the Altonaer Museum in Hamburg, which examined the documentary aspects of the ship portrait.13 Yet, just as important, cultural studies ought also to extend to the world of popular culture and kitsch. In view of the absence of contemporary attachments to, and associations with, the sea, it is surely worth considering areas where historical experience has been vividly transformed into popular, even cliché, images and ideas.14

18 In keeping with the above, the papers presented in this special issue of MHR represent, each in its own way and with its own emphasis, subjects and approaches that should encourage further consideration of what maritime museums collect and why. The volume has been organized into five themes: Small Craft, Ships and Shipbuilding, Coastal Communities, Pictures and Portraits; and Cultural Traditions.

19 Under "Small Craft," John Summers reflects on the creation and perception of object meanings and then examines these issues in the context of one well-known North American boat type: the St Lawrence skiff. Hallie Bond focuses her attention on the evolution of the "Pack Canoe," a boat closely associated with the Adirondack region of New York State. Her paper reveals how technology, patterns of consumption and fashion influenced its particular development. Both papers reinforce the importance and potential of studying inland marine traditions. The section concludes with a research report by Charles Moore chronicling the interpretive reconstruction of one of the oldest European boats in North America: the Basque whaling Chalupa.

20 Turning to "Ships and Shipbuilding," special attention is here given to the process of ship design. Brad Loewen combines the study of Renaissance shipbuilding texts with knowledge gleaned from shipwreck archaeology to shed new light on hull design, ship typology and the important role of wood analysis in our understanding of early modern shipbuilding. David McGee examines an overlooked artifact in the history of naval architecture, the Amsler integrator, and finds in its use a better understanding of the progress of science in the history of shipbuilding. Scott Stroh, on the other hand, concerns himself with museum practice and the question of how best to interpret the ship as artifact. He chronicles the experience gained and approaches used in the case of a West Coast, steam-powered snag boat. Daniel LaRoche's account of recent archaeological investigations of the wrecks of the famous Canadian ship Marco Polo, rounds out the second section.

21 Section three, "Coastal Communities," is concerned with aspects of the material culture of coastal fishing communities. Paula Johnson examines the contemporary folklore of the watermen of Maryland. Here she finds objects and activities that are both a response to, and cultural reservoir of, a fading way of life. Nicolas Landry's study, however, is more overtly historical in focus. His article documents the relative wealth among fishermen of eighteenth-century Plaisance and Ile Royale, as reflected in post-mortem inventories of their material possessions.

22 The two papers presented in the section "Pictures and Portraits" are, as the title suggests, dedicated to maritime imagery; albeit of widely differing form and content. Laura Brandon's examination of the naval war art of the Canadian painter Jack Nichols reveals the artist's profound concern for the stark experience of war, notably death and its emotional entourage. In contrast, Patricia Bixel's contribution looks at photographic ship portraiture through the lens of one family studio and within the broad context formed by the centuries-old traditions of marine painting.

23 The final section, loosely defined as "Cultural Traditions" contains three diverse studies of humanity's complex mytho-poetic relationship with the sea. Alberto Baldi presents a study of the magical-religious traditions and practices manifest in the vessels and equipment used by the fisherman of Italy's Tyrrhenian coast; traditions of ancient origin that nonetheless persist into the present day. Maurice Duval offers an ethnological analysis of the ceremonial practice of crossing the equator, where-in he reflects on the meaning of the ritual and the role of the artifacts employed in its execution. Finally, in what is arguably the most eclectic of the papers contained in this issue, Michael McCaughan looks not out to sea, but rather skyward, to trace one intriguing aspect of the multifaceted allegorical power of the ship in Western civilization.

24 Part of what is most refreshing in an age of increasing specialization is the multi-disciplinary nature of the field of material culture studies. Indeed, this quality may well serve as a useful tonic against those forces which, tied too closely to short-term commercial and quantitative measures, threaten to reduce what we preserve, study and interpret, to merely what is tried and true. In other words, to the limited perspective and context of what we know, or think we know, already. These papers, together with an assortment of related reviews and review essays, constitute a modest effort to expand our contextual horizons by both combining (in a single volume) and contrasting (by juxtaposition) the wide variety of topics, issues and approaches that concern the material culture of "Ships, Seafaring and Small Craft."

25 To the extent that this special issue has achieved its goals, the credit is due to the many contributors and to the editorial board of MHR, whose service and vision have made this issue possible. The National Museum of Science and Technology is, as always, the founder of the multi-disciplinary feast that is the Material History Review. In this instance, however, that generous support has been further augmented by the allowance of additional dedicated staff time. In particular, a very great debt of thanks is due to Ms Danielle Naoufal, assistant to the curatorial division of NMST, without whose kind and dedicated assistance this project and its guest editor may well, on more than one occasion, have been "caught off a lee shore and run aground."

Garth Wilson
Curator, Marine and Forestry
National Museum of Science and Technology.
1 Stuart Davies, " 'There May be Trouble Ahead': Maritime Museums in an Uncertain World," Proceedings of the IX International Congress of Maritime Museums (Greenwich: National Maritime Museum and National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside, 1995), 14.
2 As just one example of this tendency, the recently published book Elements of Navigation in the Collection of the Mariners' Museum by Willem F. J. Morzer Bruyns (Newport News: The Mariners' Museum, 1996) ends its coverage at 1914. As the author notes in his introduction, "Although the Mariners' Museum has more recent navigating instruments, the period between 1700 and World War I is best represented," 8.
3 "Introduction," Granta, no. 61 (London: Spring, 1998).
4 Anyone doubting the urgency referred to here need only consider the bottom-line thinking that has fostered the recent spate of exhibits concerning the Titanic and "pirates." The effort devoted to such popular topics, whatever else it may indicate, reflects an attempt to maximize public interest in our maritime past by an appeal to die dramatic impulse, whereby history is, above all, entertainment (a similar impulse gives rise to the abundance of military stories on the television history channels).
5 A very similar point was made by Michael Ames in his discussion of museum authenticity, wherein he describes an "implied shift of power and status away from curator, registrar, and conservator towards those more directly involved in public programming, performance, promotion, marketing, other public services, and revenue generation." Cannibal Tours and Glass Boxes: The Anthropology of Museums (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1992), 159.
6 Authenticity within museums has become contentious, as Michael Ames has also noted, with the authenticity of visitor experience being touted above the authenticity of the object. Ibid, 158.
7 David M. Wilson, "National Museums" in Manual of Curatorship: A Guide to Museum Practice, 2nd ed. (London: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1992), 84.
8 Henry Glassie "Studying Material Culture Today," Living in a Material World: Canadian and American Approaches to Material Culture (St John's: Institute of Social and Economic Research, 1991), 255.
9 One good example of an attempt to address the issue is: B. A. G. Fuller, "Towards a Maritime Interpretive Model," MSCA Transactions 1 (1993/94): 19.
10 Leo Akveld, "The Maritiem Museum 'Prins Hendrik' and the Analytical Approach to Maritime History" Proceedings of the Sixth International Congress of Maritime Museums (Amsterdam: ICMM, 1989), 27-28.
11 John Summers, "In Small Things Remembered: Historic Watercraft and Canada's Maritime Heritage," The Northern Mariner 2, no. 1 (1992): 15-23.
12 This argument has been particularly well articulated by Ben Fuller: "Towards a Maritime Interpretive Model," 17-24.
13 Das Schiffsportrat: Dekoration oder Dokument? Altonaer Museum in Hamburg/Norddeutsches Landesmuseum (September 26, 1989 to February 4, 1990).
14 Alan Gowans "The Case for Kitsch: Popular/Commercial Arts as a Reservoir of Traditional Culture and Human Values," Living in a Material World: Canadian and American Approaches to Material Culture (St John's: Institute of Social and Economic Research, 1991), 127-143.