Previews of the 50th International Congress of
For many, the ocean is life. It provides transport, work, commerce, food, recreation – stories as old as time and shared by people across the world. These stories are lived day by day, transmitted from generation to generation and shared with the public through different media. Maritime museums take responsibility for sharing these stories while honoring the exploration and trade of the oceans shaped by communities. In a decade where ocean health and climate events have become a priority, museums have the added challenge of sharing the urgency of marine conservation while engaging and educating through immersive stories and experiences. How do they do it all at once?
The International Congress of Maritime Museums (ICMM) was recently held in Halifax, Nova Scotia to tackle this task. The gathering was special, achieving several historical markers simultaneously such as the first since the pandemic, the 50th Congress since its official creation in 1972, and coinciding with the 500th anniversary of the return of Ferdinand Magellan’s fleet after circumnavigating the globe in 1522 This year’s Congress also featured full carbon offsetting, thanks to donations made to the Ocean Foundation’s SeaGrass Grow program. Hosted by the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in downtown Halifax, the conference proceedings were held at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. A fitting location, the facility is not only the last former port Canada’s existing immigration center, but it received almost a million migrants who arrived by boat from 1928 to 1971. Today, the seaport is also a common docking point for cruise ships, which were visible at through the conference room windows all week and provided ample reminders of the role of tourism in maritime livelihoods and history.
This year’s congress focused on ocean health, conservation and community wellbeing, said Dr Matthew Tanner MBE, ICMM President and Chief Executive of the SS Great Britain Trust, in his keynote address. opening. There is a predominance of art museums in culture, he added, but maritime museums often have even more to say about today’s world when you consider exploration, trade, immigration, livelihoods and that more than a third of the total population lives within 60 miles (100 km) of an ocean coast, according to NASA.
Listening to Indigenous Voices
As a country trying to make amends after centuries of Indigenous genocide and land colonization, Canada has begun to emphasize inclusivity and diversity in many discussions, including maritime museums. Dr. Jerry Bannister, director of the maritime affairs program at Dalhousie University in Halifax, explained that museums have the power to set up the infrastructure of what tourists should see and learn when they visit. When working with and on settled lands, he advised, there are three angles to keep in mind:
1. Content – what stories are we discussing?
2. Perspective—how do we frame these stories?
3. Staff—who designs the exhibits and who do you hire or involve in the collaboration?
These are some of the many critical questions facing museum boards, historians and artists today. “Talking openly about the past and embracing stories and forms of storytelling are powerful actions to begin to correct our mistakes,” Bannister said.
When creating inclusive exhibits that address traumatic stories, museums must be prepared to manage tense discussions and possible conflict within communities where members have unique perspectives and identities to share. “Start partnerships early, before you start working on exhibits,” Bannister said. Accept that conflicts may arise between people who want different parts of their stories to be shared and allow space for self-definition within a group – keep in mind how heterogeneous and complex each culture is . “What I have,” he added, “is that when you put things in an Indigenous context or an African-Canadian context, there’s so much diversity within a particular group in depending on how it defines itself. Don’t enter into a dialogue thinking that because someone belongs to one group, the other group is necessarily unified.
One example is the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic exhibit, Ta’n me’j Tel-keknuo’ltiek: How Unique We Still Are, which shares the Mi’kmaq people’s traditional and ongoing connection to the land and waters of Mi’kma’ki (most of the area called Atlantic Canada). “Each time we work with the museum’s advisory board on a new exhibit, we bring diverse opinions to show the diversity that exists within Mi’kmaw culture,” said Raymond Sewell, a L’nu poet, author- singer-songwriter and English teacher from Pabineau, First Nation, New Brunswick. “We have people from Cape Breton, New Brunswick, different areas, and a lot of those stories are included. We have all kinds of opinions, but we make sure they are all taken into account. So we may have less content in terms of fewer digestible sections of an exhibit, but we have more types of stories.
However, not all exposures are equally inclusive the first time around. In 1987, the museum opened a temporary exhibit on the infamous Halifax Explosion of 1917, A Moment in Time. Thanks to a massive public response, a permanent version of the exhibit, titled Halifax Wrecked, was created several years ago to commemorate the 100th anniversary of this devastating event. Museum curators and artists have redesigned the exhibition with a lens of inclusion and diversity, with the aim of sharing stories that had previously been overlooked. Kim Reinhardt, general manager of the museum, explained how two important communities were excluded from the original exhibits: the Mi’kmaw community known as Kepe’kek, or Turtle Grove, which was almost entirely wiped out by the explosion, and the riverfront community of Africville and its African Nova Scotian residents who were both killed by the impact and contributed greatly to remediation efforts afterwards. The updated exhibit, Explosion in the Narrows, opened in 2019 and provides an important lesson in reviewing, listening to and commemorating maritime museums around the world.
A narrative that flows like the tide
Museums also play a dual role as the oceans face increasing rates of temperature and sea level rise, loss of biodiversity and the impacts of severe storms. In difficult times, museums are a form of communication, explained Anya Waite, CEO and scientific director of the Ocean Frontier Institute and associate vice president of research (ocean) at Dalhousie. “They influence how we engage and interact with the oceans commercially, socially and scientifically.” Waite also thinks that museums have a role to play in telling a new story about the sea, a story where the ocean is the main character: “We have to understand that the ocean is not only influenced by the climate; the ocean controls the climate and provides climatic results to the world. So I think it’s this shift in narrative between the ocean being a victim and the ocean being a powerful actor. By moving beyond the act of mercy, humanity can begin to understand the full capabilities of the ocean and act accordingly to mitigate future impacts and conserve ecosystems and resources.
Ocean literacy is the second most important role museums should take on regarding the sea and climate change, and its popularity as a topic is growing as more scientists, communicators, historians, policy makers and artists learn of its importance. According to the UNESCO definition, ocean literacy is “an understanding of the influence of the ocean on you and your influence on the ocean”. In short, an ocean literate person understands the reciprocal relationship between the oceans and humanity – a necessary skill when trying to communicate about climate change and its impact on the seas and dependent communities around the world.
Look to sea more
Beyond sharing knowledge and exchanging advice, no museum conference is complete without announcing exciting new projects and exhibits. Overall, museum staff and representatives shared plans to focus content and engagement on sustainability, ocean conservation and climate impacts, diverse and inclusive history, and environmental justice. Some, like the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, have launched climate and environmental initiatives to consider humanity’s changing relationship with the world, inspire thought and discussion among visitors, and spark the action.
Others boasted new and updated museums, some of which have yet to open.
-The Hong Kong Maritime Museum shared its recent move and expansion of its public and educational programming and the future opening of its Swire Marine Discovery Center next year.
-In Sweden, Vrak – Museum of Wrecks opened its doors a little over a year ago with the aim of broadening views, knowledge and experience by focusing on wrecks in the Baltic countries. The Maritime Archeology Museum uses digital technology to bring the public closer to a few tens of thousands of shipwrecks without having to remove them from the seabed where they are well preserved.
-The National Maritime Museum, spread over five sites in France, will reopen its site at the Palais de Chaillot (Paris) after nearly seven years of renovation to create and rethink exhibitions to share the history of France, the humanity and the sea. Vincent Campredon, director of the museum, declared that the space aims to be a “bridge between history and legend, between awakening and dream, between the past and the future”.
Charting a course for the future of ICMM
The week’s talks, with activities like a trip to Lunenburg, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a ride on the historic schooner Bluenose II, rounded out a week of in-depth discussions on ocean history, science of the climate and the future of the work of maritime museums. He also set the tone for the next congress, scheduled for 2024 in the Netherlands.
Additionally, this year’s ICMM not only celebrated 50 years of collaboration and knowledge exchange with maritime museums, but marked a milestone for the next 50 years, according to Tanner. There are three major contemporary issues, he explained – migration, climate change and international relations – that will determine much of how humans engage with and understand maritime history and industry. . These are “living stories” and the responsibility will fall on museums to convey the stories of millions of people while engaging the public about the past, present and future of our shared ocean connection.