Ausmarine Editorial - February 2016
Over the years, particularly the last couple when I’ve had more time, I have visited, viewed and occasionally been impressed with a large number of so-called “maritime museums” in many parts of the world.
I use the expression “so-called” advisedly. Too many of those museums are much too narrowly focused to be described as “maritime”. Some are entirely focused on naval history and would be more accurately described, as many are, as “naval museums”. Some are focused on exploration and too many others, such as Britain’s National Maritime Museum’s branch at Falmouth, are largely restricted to leisure boating.
There are a number of excellent fisheries museums such as in Concarneau, Grimsby and San Sebastian. They are clearly named as such and deliver exactly what they promise. They obviously record the history of an important sector of the maritime industry but nowhere near all of it so they are properly named.
The same applies to marine archaeology museums such asthe brilliant one in the old Crusader castle in Bodrum. The one in Cartagena is very good also. They cover a wide spread of maritime activity but their displays have generally been recovered from under the sea or ground, and are usually, very old. They don’t try to pretend to be anything else.
Naval museums usually describe themselves as such. I have in mind excellent ones such as the Museum of the Armada in Madrid which contains much to inform and even surprise Australian maritime history enthusiasts. The small one at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis and the big WW II museums in Pearl Harbour are first rate. Portsmouth and the submarine museum in Southampton are other fine examples.
There are very good exploration museums of which the ‘Fram’/Arctic museum in Oslo is a fine example. The Paris and Amsterdam maritime museums cover their countries’ exploration histories well too as does the Museum of the Armada in Madrid.
All-encompassing maritime museums are another matter altogether. The Amsterdam Maritime Museum is excellent as is the little private one in Hamburg. There are very good smaller ones in Barcelona, Dubrovnik, Brest, Hong Kong and Newcastle (Australia). The National Maritime Museum at Greenwich has a wonderful collection but it is very difficult to access most of it because its director has chosen to severely “dumb down” its displays in an attempt, presumably, to appeal to school children.
Regrettably, the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney has been given the same treatment as Greenwich. I understand that it possesses a diverse and high quality collection but on several visits there I have always come away disappointed. So much so that I have nick-named it the Sydney Yachting Museum. I don’t go to a maritime museum to see displays on bathing suits, surfing or migrant luggage, let alone a dominance of leisure boats.
Despite its “sea-blindness”, Australia has a long and fascinating maritime history. Whaling and fishing are probably too politically incorrect for the director of the Sydney museum but they have been important components of Australia’s economy in the past. They are truly maritime activities as too is shipbuilding. Australia has been a shipbuilding nation since the earliest colonial days and is still the world leader in high-speed aluminium ships. You wouldn’t learn that in Sydney. Coastal shipping, ferries, tugs, pearling and politically incorrect sealing, for example, are other important components of our maritime history that you won’t learn much about in Darling Harbour.
Western Australia is very fortunate to have the Fremantle Maritime Museum which I believe is one of the best multi-sector maritime museums in the world. That state has a long and fascinating maritime history covering all imaginable aspects of maritime activity but so does the east coast. If Fremantle which, presumably, benefits from much less funding than does Sydney, presents its maritime history so well, why can’t Sydney?
The ANMM in Sydney benefits from a brilliant location, presumably plenty of money and a comprehensive collection. It is sad that its management chooses to focus on populist frippery when there are so many people, like myself, who would appreciate serious displays covering real and important maritime history.