Comment: Maritime Museum of B.C. seeks to go national

Exciting plans are being advanced by the Maritime Museum of British Columbia, its board and its director, David Leverton, to transform the institution into a national institution called the Canadian Maritime Museum.

If realized, the new Canadian Maritime Museum would be the first national museum west of Winnipeg.

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The board, by its recent proclamation, challenges the province of British Columbia and the government of Canada to work together to effect the desired result.

The current museum board has begun applications for funding to bring the project into existence. The courage and determination exhibited are laudable. So are the visionary capacities already demonstrated that are ever so important to bringing the desired results.

Canada will benefit from this new project. Exhibitions on loan from other museums will be possible in a state-of-the-art facility that will be of world-class standard for humidity and temperature control. The nation will benefit by a strong Pacific Coast presence in the interface of marine science and cultural studies.

The proposed site for the new museum is 28 Bastion Square, a former home for the Maritime Museum of British Columbia. The building, a National Historic Site, was the first large provincial building built in British Columbia after joining Confederation in 1871. British Columbia has long been in need of a museum that will honour our province’s entry into Canadian Confederation and showcase our achievements on all three oceanic frontages of Canada.

Perhaps the most exciting news is that a key requirement has been met: Songhees First Nation has come forward with full support to design and build its exhibition in a newly renovated building and proposed annex. Museum professionals will partner in this outstanding development, the first of its kind for a maritime museum, and make it a centrepiece for the museum.

It is imagined, too, that the new museum facility will allow for an arts hub in the Bastion Square area. Plans call for a corridor of visual delight that will lead to and from the Wharf Street waterfront. At last, a location on the waterfront, though small, is within the realm of possibility.

These plans, if brought to fruition, will regenerate the premises in Bastion Square. The Canadian Maritime Museum will be situated there, in the revered location where the British Columbia Maritime Museum was housed for decades. In doing so, we will have state-of-the-art exhibition space in downtown Victoria and be able to offer superb community sharing possibilities in Victoria’s Old Town.

Rejuvenation of the existing structure at 28 Bastion Square is the first requirement.

Architectural visioning proposes a new entrance, a working theatre space for video production, and enhanced shops and public facilities. Training and apprenticeships would provide employment opportunity for those participating in video production. Plans also envision a refurbished courtroom plus exhibition halls for the museum’s world-class heritage artifacts.

For the past several years, the Maritime Museum has exercised a strong public presence and kept alive our maritime heritage. It has done so despite makeshift premises. Its travelling exhibit on the loss of the coastal steamer Princess Sophia met with great success here, in Vancouver, in Ketchikan, in Haynes and elsewhere.

The Lost Fleet exhibit, all about seized Japanese fishing boats during the Second World War that resulted in human tragedies, provides the most recent example of the creative and innovative ways in which our marine and human histories are being told. Many stories await technical production and dissemination.

The days of static exhibitions are almost a thing of the past. The new museum would have a department that would bring active, technologically driven productions that give understanding to our changing oceanic world.

These will serve to link heritage matters to those of human endeavour and survival. As our oceans and shores change, and they are doing so dramatically, the new Canadian Maritime Museum will have a grand opportunity as well as public responsibility to educate the visiting public on these critical matters.

Plans call for the new Maritime Museum to have a purpose-built annex. This will provide 11,400 square feet, with ground-level space for Songhees canoes and pole-carving activities. Prized ship models and marine-related exhibits drawing on the museum’s artifact treasures will be displayed on three upper storeys.

The physical linkages drawing all the segments together are superb. The whole would be connected by upper-level bridges from the annex to 28 Bastion Square and, on the north, to the Yates Street Parkade.

The repurposing of existing and underused courtyard space, coupled with a new public entrance, would ensure active civic presence and bring value to the whole.

Today, as in past times, the lifeblood of the modern province of British Columbia and of Canada as a whole rests strongly on our gateway to the ports of Asia, notably to Japan and to China, but also to Russia, Singapore and Malaysia. We are therefore guardians of our history of trade and commerce.

Canada’s window on the Pacific runs through the portals of Prince Rupert, Vancouver, New Westminster and Victoria. The historic centre of this is Victoria, the provincial capital.

The curatorial holdings of the Maritime Museum are of world-class quality. In terms of navigational implements, charts, items of clothing, marine art, ship models and other artifacts, we have treasured cultural resources. That these are of interest to people of all ages, and are of educational benefit to school age children and college and university students, speaks additionally of their value. The Maritime Museum is charged with protecting these vital artifacts of the history of our coasts, straits and oceans.

The project aims to enhance the public’s understanding of the interface of maritime heritage and ocean science. Nothing quite so bold as this has been advanced here in living memory. However, the carefully worked-out scheme has full backing from the museum society’s board and the membership, as demonstrated recently at its annual general meeting.

We have always regarded ourselves as keepers of the flame for our history that is demonstrated in ships and sailors, ashore and afloat. It is a global story of seafaring, an important variant of a large and important human story. The challenge is now ours to share, and to back the Maritime Museum in its most worthy and imaginative project.

Barry Gough is a maritime and naval historian.

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