|Maritime Museums as custodians of Maritime Heritage
Dr Hanna Hagmark-Cooper, Åland Maritime Museum
It is an honour for me to have been invited to speak before you today and I thank you for the opportunity.
I was asked to talk about maritime cultural heritage, which is a very broad topic, so I have taken the liberty of focusing on the role of Maritime Museums as custodians of maritime heritage.
According to UNESCO, heritage is “our legacy from the past, what we live today and what we pass on to future generations”. Maritime heritage is thus the maritime legacy we live with now and which we will pass on to the generations that will come after us.
In discussions on heritage we differentiate between that which is tangible and that which is intangible.
Tangible heritage is simply put the physical manifestations of a culture. It includes buildings, monuments, historic places, artefacts, works of art etc. In a maritime context it can be for example a ship, a lighthouse or a harbour. It can be instruments used for navigation, a seaman’s personal effects, sea charts, marine paintings or a ship-in-a-bottle.
Intangible heritage is made up of those aspects of a culture that hasn’t got a physical body; skills, traditions, rituals, music, storytelling, crafts, festivals etc. Maritime examples are the art of sailing, the skill of boat-building, sail-making, knot-tying, the rituals such as those associated with crossing the equator or performing a funeral at sea, the singing of sea shanties and the tradition of sailor tattoos.
Trade routes, such as those of plied by the Vikings and the Hanseatic League, and the Baltic Timber trade and the market voyages of Åland peasants to Stockholm are a part of our common Baltic maritime heritage.
In any discussion on heritage, it is worth bearing in mind that heritage is not a static relic from the past; on the contrary, it is mainly an ongoing process of interpretations, additions and omissions, as each generation makes its mark on that legacy before passing it on to the next generation. And whereas rituals may keep their structural format, the symbolic meaning continuous to change.
And so, back to the main focus of this talk, the role of maritime museums as custodians of maritime heritage.
Maritime museums have a central role to play in the upkeep and promotion of maritime cultural heritage, both within the framework of traditional museum work but also as a unifying force for external actors and initiatives.
There are all kinds of maritime museums in the world; from the big national ones to the small local ones, from those telling the story of a particular ship or person to those attempting to give an overview of all aspects of maritime endeavours over the past millennium. Common for all of them, however, is that they all see it as their mission to collect, research and disseminate human encounters with the maritime element – to be the custodian of a particular maritime heritage.
The role of maritime museums is to be repositories and conveyors of maritime heritage. The primary means is through traditional museum work; by collecting and conserving artefacts and archival material; by documenting and researching the skills, traditions and experiences of maritime life in all its diversity; and by disseminating the results from the work in exhibitions, in which we contextualise the artefacts we have collected through the stories we have recorded, thus linking the tangible with the intangible. And it is only when the tangible and the intangible elements are put together that we can begin to comprehend the full implications of our maritime heritage. There is little point collecting, for example, half models, drawings and ship building tools if we don’t bother to record the skills relating to ship building, the customs associated with the launch and the experiences of those involved in the process.
Most maritime museums have a strong and deliberate outreach commitment, working closely with the communities they serve. The purpose is to raise awareness of the regions maritime heritage and to make people consider the significance of the maritime element in shaping present-day society, in other words, to link the legacy of the past with the lives we live today. The outreach commitment is not only reserved for schools but is also present in various lifelong learning initiatives the museums engage in. On top of that, maritime museum also play an active role in promoting maritime heritage as a resource in the development of economic growth and social cohesion.
As established maritime heritage institutions in their regions, many maritime museums also take it upon themselves to act as focal points for and to offer support to all those diverse and dispersed actors and initiatives, who in their own ways contribute to the maintenance and development of various aspects of our maritime heritage. The museums engage in external maritime heritage activities; at times as active partners, at others in an advisory capacity.
Museums can also take the lead in campaigning for resources and initiating creative projects. As an example I can mention an initiative that the Åland Maritime Museum is pushing at the moment. It involves a long-term conservation plan, including organisational restructuring, for the unique sailing vessel Pommern, and in conjunction with that, a scheme to rejuvenate of the Western harbour of Mariehamn by creating a traditional dockside environment, complete with ship chandlery, sail-makers’ loft, sailor bar, boarding house and tattoo parlour. This project, particularly the latter part, is still in its very infancy. As a matter of fact, it may even be so recently conceived that my fellow Ålanders in the audience may not yet be aware of it.
Heritage is often perceived as something local but that is certainly not true when it comes to maritime cultural heritage. The Baltic Sea is and has been a link as well as a border between our countries. The maritime link is perhaps particularly strong between the islands and coastal communities in and around the Baltic Sea. For centuries we have traded with each other and as maritime peoples we have shared, and still share, an understanding of the sea that our countrymen, living further inland, do not comprehend. They may perceive us as living in the periphery, but to us these are peripheries of importance.
Maritime Museums have a strong commitment to international cooperation and there are a number of such fora of various size and scope. The cooperation between maritime museums in the Baltic Sea region is important and it is growing. Since 2003, five Baltic Sea Region Cultural Heritage Forums have been organised, the latest one in Tallinn in September 2013. In September 2012, the 1st Baltic Sea Maritime Museum Seminar was held in Gdansk, initiated and organised by the Polish Maritime Museum, with the 2nd seminar held at Forum Marinum in Turku, Finland, earlier this year. There are also ongoing academic research projects spanning the Baltic Sea region, such as the Baltic Sea History Project.
If I could wish for something, it would be to forge even closer links between maritime museums, heritage actors and academic institutions; not just locally but across the Baltic Sea region and beyond. So much is being done by each group individually, but to truly reap the full effects of all the efforts that are being invested in the upkeep of our common maritime heritage, we need to look at how we can join forces. And here I come back to the central role of the maritime museums as custodians of maritime heritage. The museums are in a perfect position to disseminate the results of academic research to a wide audience; and, by working in cooperation with universities, the museums’ own research efforts can be strengthened. The maritime museums also have a role in supporting, encouraging and promoting the efforts of various heritage actors and initiatives; be it large-scale boat-building projects, sea shanty festivals or lonely genealogists tracing their maritime roots, and in ensuring the professional documentation and storage of these traditions, skills and this knowledge.
Another wish I have is for the governing bodies in the Baltic Sea region to clearly promote and support the maritime cultural heritage efforts, to take it seriously and to acknowledge it as a valuable asset in regional economic and societal development, and in doing so, safe-guarding the maritime legacy of this generation to those that will come after us.