This past January, staff member Sam McLean visited the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Shortly after his review was published, he received a response from Roger Marsters, Curator of Marine History at the museum. In his email, Roger addressed Sam’s comments. It is Sam’s view that this response provides important context for that review. In this post, we are publishing Roger’s email (edited to post form, but only lightly). Thank you to Dr Marsters for agreeing to allow us to do this.
One of our staff members brought your very recent review of the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic to my attention, and I would like to thank you for it: I think that your assessment is an accurate, measured and appropriate one, and that your positive criticism points to exactly those deficiencies in our public-facing work that we have identified as well, and that we’re working to address in both the short and longer terms.
The Museum’s collection has some truly spectacular artifacts, as you note, which in many cases convey compelling narratives. But it is also true that our permanent galleries in particular reflect the social and cultural context of the era when they were first conceived. Often this means that there are assumptions built into our interpretation—assumptions about who and what is worthy of consideration, dictated by implicit preconceptions about ethnicity, gender, and class—that convey a very partial picture of the manifold maritime experiences of this region, past and present.
While it isn’t yet sufficiently clear on the surface, we are working hard on many fronts to address this situation. As you note, for example, our lack of public, critical perspectives on settler colonialism and its legacies means that we’re lagging behind the public conversation in Nova Scotia, where Edward Cornwallis has quite rightly become a lens through which to examine the character of the colonial past and its continuing impact on people’s lives today. The same can be said for women’s maritime experience, for the experience of people of African descent (whose long and vitally important maritime history in this region has largely gone unexamined—with the exception of scholars such as Amani Whitfield and Afua Cooper), of recent migrants, and for other historically under-represented communities.
Making change of this sort is challenging and does not always (ever?) proceed as quickly as we want it to. As I suspect you can appreciate, the same implicit assumptions noted above have historically shaped collecting practices as well, which limits our ability to develop the sorts of programming and exhibitry that is now overdue. Our approach to overcoming these impediments is, roughly speaking, threefold.
First, we have for many years been opening the museum to events and programs that do reflect the reality of the province’s cultural difference and diversity, and that present critical perspectives on the society we inhabit. This can take the form of large, professional productions , such as the “Black Halifax” film series or Eastern Front Theatre’s “Lullaby” production in 2017, or more modest gatherings that simply allow people to know not just that they’re welcome here, but that they belong here. One result of this openness is that it serves to make us ever-more aware of the inadequacies of our public interpretation, as individuals and communities come to the museum for events and do not see their experience represented in our exhibits.
So our second approach is to form and nurture relationships with individuals and institutions—Indigenous and African-Nova Scotian, for example—that can guide and direct our efforts to more fully and appropriately represent the maritime past of this place. In my experience this can be an extremely valuable process, but it is one that can’t be rushed.
Our third approach—dictated by the relatively scant resources we have for interpretive renewal—is to develop temporary exhibits (in consultation with the communities concerned, in the spirit of “nothing about us without us”), the content of which can then be added to our permanent exhibits. In conjunction with an overarching plan for interpretive renewal, this incremental change will ultimately result in a museum that is both more fully representative, and more engaged with the crucial social and cultural debates of our time.
I was struck by the aptness of your criticism, and thought you might be interested in a glimpse of how one maritime museum is working to address these necessary and overdue changes. I very much hope that you’ll have the chance to pay us another visit in the coming years, and that you’ll see very different stories and perspectives on our walls.
Thank you again to Dr Marsters for this response. The Museum’s newest exhibit is The Sea in Her Blood
“Living in Mi’kma’ki-Acadie-Alba Nuadh-Nouvelle-écosse-Nova Scotia means living with the sea. Like the land we call home, every generation of maritime women is shaped by the sea – through maintaining tradition and pushing boundaries, work and play, struggle and triumph. Many of their stories have been lost to time. Today maritime women continue to both redefine traditional ways of living with the sea, and shape new ones. The Sea in Her Blood highlights 17 of these extraordinary women.”
The exhibit runs until 1 Feb 2020.