So now that the year has ended, I wanted to do a bit of a recap on all the museums, collections and libraries with maritime collections that I have been to over the last 12 months. Before Curio•sea•ty launched officially in June – actually, since 2013, when I was artist-in-residency in Hull, I have been interested in maritime museums not just for their contents but for themselves, their space, the atmosphere in which we experience them. It started with the whale skeletons at Hull Maritime Museum. I started taking footage of the bones, suspended from the ceiling with chains, while a projected blue light simulates the ocean reflections on the dark carpet and humpback whale song can be heard when the museum is quiet. I started thinking of museums as a second natural habitat for these bones, artificially arranged in full shape.
I have been taken footage and photographs of whale skeletons in all the other museums we have visited. But also of the different ways each museum displays their contents. Some in a very theatrical, constructed way, like the fantastic dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History. The Ocean wing has a single life-size model of a blue hanging form the ceiling, presiding the darkened room majestically, miniaturising the surrounding dioramas of oceanic life. The model at London’s Natural History Museum sadly seems a bit underwhelming after that; as it stands in a crowded room, rammed against many hanging skeletons and other animal models.
National Maritime Museum (Amsterdam)
After over a dozen maritime museums, I feel I’ve got a reasonable idea of what I am going to find. And is I mentioned in a previous post I am particularly fascinated by the differences between research centres and public facing collections. Still, each new museum always manages to surprise me with a slightly different feeling. Some have an audio-visually immersive and high-tech (yet minimalistic) atmosphere, like the recently renovated National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam. With astrolabes and other instruments floating on invisible glass cabinets in rooms that remind you more of science fiction film set than of times long gone. In others, you can think yourself walking inside a victorian cabinet of curiosities, mismatch of beautiful old wooden cabinets filled with objects in slightly discordant order. Old dollhouses and miniatures are next to fossils and harpoons, in the wonderful Whitby Museum.
Either with futuristic style or a ‘frozen in-time’ approach, each museum’s own idiosyncrasies are inseparable from the cities that hosts them. Each museum presents the particular relationship between its city/country and the sea. I think in a way, they reflect the conversations and the contradictions between the past of the objects they are home to and the ever changing ‘now’ they themselves inhabit.
Complete list of museums visited this year (with a maritime connection):
Hull Maritime Museum (UK)
Bilbao Maritime Museum (Spain)
National Maritime Museum (Netherlands)
Rijksmuseum Amsterdam (Netherlands)
Whitby Museum (UK)
Rotterdam Maritime Museum (Netherlands)
Museu Marítim de Barcelona (Spain)
Mystic Seaport The Collections Research Center (USA)
Mystic Seaport The Museum of America and the Sea (USA)
American Museum of Natural History (USA)
American Folk Art Museum (USA)
New Bedford Whaling Museum and Library (USA)
Natural History Museum (London, UK)
National Maritime Museum (UK)
Cantabrian Maritime Museum (Spain)