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Various scrimshaws dating back to the late 1800s - many of them a little risque - are on display. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)
Various scrimshaws dating back to the late 1800s - many of them a little risque - are on display. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

ON CULTURE

The long-struggling Vancouver Maritime Museum charts a new course Add to ...

In-your-face contemporary photography of sailors’s elaborate tattoos, detailed pornographic carvings on whale teeth: this is probably not what the typical visitor expects from the staid, predictable Vancouver Maritime Museum, tucked away in a scenic, if not exactly central, waterfront spot on Kits Point. But it’s the kind of out-of-the-ship-bottle programming with which the museum is trying to make waves, as it charts a course for new relevancy.

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“The museum, because of its ambitions to move, has been telling the world for years and years and years that we’re a failing institution, in order to build the case that they need to move,” said executive director Simon Robinson. “Well, guess what? Perception is reality. And if you tell everybody you’re failing, it starts to happen.”

For years, the museum ran deficits; suffered as trolley buses were prohibited from delivering tourists to its parking lot; and most significantly, was in a holding pattern with an uncertain future. At one point, the museum was told by the city that it was to close by the end of 2010, as attention shifted to the National Maritime Centre, planned for North Vancouver. But when provincial and federal funding was withdrawn from the North Shore project, it became dead in the water, and things changed for the little Kitsilano museum.

Later that year, the Vancouver Maritime Museum’s board made a decision to “devote the organization’s full energy and time to reinventing the VMM in its present location,” as noted in the museum’s strategic plan for 2012-2016. The city, Mr. Robinson said, has been supportive.

That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. “Challenges for the VMM remain significant,” acknowledges the plan, which lays out a new vision for the museum, beginning with “expanding community engagement to develop a diverse and thriving museum community.”

Enter tattoos and whale-tooth porn.

“The Maritime Museum was never someplace that I thought I wanted to go to,” said Patricia Owen, curator of Tattoos & Scrimshaw: The Art of the Sailor. “Most people come as kids and then they don’t come back. So I wanted this to be a place where I wanted to come to and I think that kind of is reflected in the exhibits that I’ve put on so far, because I’d come to this,” said Ms. Owen, 35, who joined the museum about two years ago.

The smart little exhibition, which opened this week, documents the instrumental role sailors played in the evolution of Western attitudes toward tattooing. It also includes work by several artists, including photographer Kathryn Mussallem, who has been documenting naval life.

Rarely displayed scrimshaw works offer a different window into the maritime life. Sperm whalers had an awful lot of free time, and spent some of it engraving whale tooth and bone. They also spent very long stretches at sea, which explains a consistent theme in the scrimshaw work of the “first night ashore” variety. (One small section of the show comes with a parental warning.)

With exhibitions such as this (and earlier exhibitions such as last fall’s Lured, which included work by Stan Douglas and other contemporary artists), the hope is to open up the museum beyond its core, niche audience (boaters, families with young children) to a younger, more diverse crowd.

“We’re a little bit like the Catholic Church,” said Mr. Robinson. “We’ve seen our audience get older and older and older, and the pews aren’t being filled up.”

For many, the Maritime Museum is about one thing: the St. Roch. The RCMP schooner was the first ship to completely circumnavigate North America, and the first to sail west to east through the Northwest Passage. A National Historic Site, the St. Roch is beloved by visitors: children climb on it, tourists come from all over the world asking for it. When the exhibit closed down temporarily last summer so skylights could be replaced, admissions dropped 30 per cent.

“People were coming in, learning that it was not open, turning around and walking out again,” said Mr. Robinson. “Because the perception is, I think, that that’s what we are: we’re a big A-frame tent with a ship in it. And people are not aware of the depth of the collection in the rest of the galleries.”

Since arriving in 2010, Mr. Robinson has been working on turning things around. For the past three years, the museum has balanced its budget (which runs about $1.2-million annually). And with funding from the city, upgrades are underway at the facility, which was built in 1958 – and looks it. Nothing sexy – those skylights, double-glazed windows, new carpeting in the children’s area – but all important, in particular the new fire suppression system for the St. Roch. For the first time, the museum has a full time marketing officer, and a new website is coming.

Also, with a 2007 council resolution, one trolley bus company can now deposit tourists to its parking lot – very important when tourists account for 50 per cent of your summer admissions.

What’s ahead? Maybe a more ambitious renovation far down the road, but in the meantime, programming that is increasingly robust, relevant and bold – leading discussion on topical issues such as oil tankers off the coast. “I see a real opportunity for the museum,” Mr. Robinson said,“regardless of whether it’s seen as a destination or not, to be a destination for balanced information around difficult subjects.”

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