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After 60 Years, Vancouver Maritime Museum Sets Sail for the Future

It launches with an all-day, family-friendly musical bash. Don’t miss it.

By Jesse Donaldson 3 Jun 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Jesse Donaldson is an author and journalist whose work has appeared in VICE, Megaphone, the Calgary Herald, and subTerrain. His forthcoming work is 49.2: Tales from the Off-Beat, a series examining the weird and wonderful elements of Vancouver's history. The first installment, Land of Destiny: A History of Vancouver Real Estate will be published in fall 2019 by Anvil Press.

For the Vancouver Maritime Museum, celebrating its 60th anniversary is as much about looking forward as it is about looking back.

“The theme of this celebration is ‘Beyond 60,’” explains executive director Joost Schokkenbroek. “I think when it comes to an institution, it’s equally important to ask ‘What have we done?’ as it is to ask ‘What do we want to do next?’ If there’s another 60 years or more, how can we improve?”

The first major step in bridging the gap between past, present and future is the museum’s upcoming anniversary party.

On June 8, at the museum’s Vanier Park site, the daylong, admission-by-donation event will be packed with entertainment and fun, including a beer garden, food trucks from the likes of Chickpea and Tacofino, and music by roots trio Tiller’s Folly and Vancouver favourites Hey Ocean! (For the full schedule of events, and to register, go here.)

For adults and families alike, the event includes a children’s ventriloquist and access to the museum’s collection itself, including a new exhibit exploring the building’s long history.

And the anniversary celebration is intended to extend well beyond just a single day. Schokkenbroek considers it the kick-off for a whole year of events. “We’re throwing a party, but we’re also hoping to expand our reach in the minds of the people of Vancouver.”

A history lover’s paradise

The Maritime Museum, one of Vancouver’s most affordable attractions, has more than 15,000 artifacts in its collection, alongside rotating temporary exhibitions that explore various aspects of maritime heritage.

And it hosts the St. Roch, a fully-restored RCMP schooner that was the first vessel to complete the Northwest Passage, west to east. It’s housed at the museum within an elegant A-frame building constructed specifically as a home for the ship.

There’s also a Heritage Harbour just across the lawn, which has 12 historic vessels on display. It’s a researcher’s paradise, with an archive of more than 10,000 historical documents pertaining to the exploration of the Pacific and Arctic waterways, including some of Capt. James Cook’s original, hand-drawn charts.

But when the building first opened its doors in June 1959, things were very different. The official dedication (which took place on June 11) was attended by more than 500 people, including RCMP Supt. Henry Larsen, who had spent nearly 20 years on board the St. Roch. Unfortunately, other than the boat, the museum had almost nothing else to share with its guests. The building stayed open for only four days before shutting its doors again for almost a year.

851px version of VancouverMaritimeMuseumExterior.jpeg
The museum first opened its doors in 1959. Photo by Rui Nunes.

That has all changed. Today, executive director Schokkenbroek, curator Duncan MacLeod and the rest of the team work with local artists and local communities — both academic and First Nations — to create exhibitions that simultaneously explore the past and speak to issues in the present.

Previous rotating exhibitions have looked at the Komagata Maru, the founding of Greenpeace, climate change, the Japanese-Canadian internment during the Second World War, and the bride ships of Vancouver Island.

Schokkenbroek thinks of the museum as connected to a larger societal debate. “We ask ourselves, what are we talking about with our friends, and how can we relate to that with our mandate as a museum? How can we contribute? How can we even start a discussion?” he says.

“There’s always a theme or an idea we want to address,” MacLeod adds. “One of the things we try to do is see how we can highlight elements from our collection. But we also want to bring in the voices of people who were deeply involved.”

For example, the Lost Fleet exhibit — dealing with the seizure of Japanese-Canadian fishing vessels after Japan attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor in 1941 — explored Canada’s shameful history of immigration policy and how it has evolved. The recent Greenpeace exhibit unpacked the organization’s climate activism and evolving environmental consciousness.

Expanding horizons

Over the past five years, the museum has grown its team, and renewed its sense of purpose.

“We’ve got a lot of new people involved in the organization,” MacLeod says, “and we’re also committed to reaching out to new audiences and new partners than we have before. We love who we’ve been working with, but creating new community contacts — particularly with First Nations communities and academic institutions — is crucial, in that we can present their research and their culture to the public in ways they might not have seen.”

In fact, says MacLeod, further cultivating those relationships is a crucial part of moving forward, with the aim of developing a cultural gathering space that can educate as well as entertain.

Luckily, Schokkenbroek adds, there is no shortage of stories to tell: Vancouver’s status as a port allows for the exploration of maritime heritage, past and present marine industry, naval architecture, and ecology — in particular, debates about oil tankers and environmental impact.

Schokkenbroek hopes the museum can serve as a cultural bridge, a place where academic research and Indigenous history can be paired with art, visuals, and artifacts, telling complex stories in engaging, accessible ways.

“Public institutions have the power to bring people together,” he says. “We believe that we can be a fantastic intermediary between academia and the 7.7 billion people worldwide who might want to explore our narratives. That’s the key part of being a museum; it’s a meeting place. Why? To enjoy the exhibitions, sure, but also to enjoy just being in this beautiful spot, and have a conversation.”

While to some, the 60-year-old museum and the maritime history it presents might seem like an antiquated element from a distant past, Schokkenbroek notes that when it comes to Vancouver, it’s more relevant than most people realize — and will undoubtedly remain so for the next 60 years and beyond.

“Vancouver is the largest port city in Canada,” he explains, “larger than the five smaller ones combined. It’s the third-largest in North America. The city of Vancouver deserves a major maritime museum telling that story. Talking about how it developed. Talking about First Nations. The land and the sea. It’s a gripping story to tell.”

Don’t miss the Vancouver Maritime Museum’s 60th anniversary bash. Registration is free, and admission is by donation. Register here. The museum is always open to feedback: send your ideas on how the museum can be more meaningful to you here.  [Tyee]

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