The first thing that strikes me about the Vancouver Maritime Museum is that it serves as an example to those who might wish to use our vast open waters for the purpose of smuggling: you’re more likely to be overlooked if you hide in plain sight. I’ve lived in this town for over fifteen years now and not once had I thought to venture into the pyramid-shaped building in Hadden Park, which, until this very moment, I erroneously thought was a part of neighbouring Vanier Park. See what I mean? Anyhow, the odd shape is due to the museum’s primary function, that of housing the St. Roch, the renowned RCMP schooner that was the first ship to traverse the Northwest Passage in both directions. The Northwest Passage is synonymous with dead nineteenth-century explorers, many of whom, lured by the promise of fame and a prize purse from the many European states looking for a shortcut to the lucrative Orient, set out with grand romantic ideals but ineffective transport and often insufficient supplies. The result was usually mayhem and murder, which, as the gentleman standing beside me reading about the tiny Norwegian fishing boat GJØA quipped, seemed inevitable considering the insanity of eight men trying to live in six-by-nine-foot quarters on a sloop in the middle of a frozen hell. That cannibalism also occurred too seemed inevitable: I imagined the remaining crew staring down at their lifeless shipmate and one plucky opportunist remarking, “He wazza good man, that Charlie, but na sense in ‘em goin’ ta waste now.”
Prefacing the St. Roch is a series of exhibits about the Inuit. The exhibits were interesting but as a writer I have one complaint: I found the plethora of typos and grammatical errors in the signage hugely irritating. English might be the second language of the Inuit but, really, is there a need for the text to mimic this? Anyhow, the Inuit exhibits lead into stories about the European obsession with conquering the Arctic, which then lead into modern Canadian issues of sovereignty: in other words, nothing new from the perspective of our Aboriginal peoples. (Though to be fair, technically speaking the Inuit aren’t Aboriginals but colonialists, too: around 1000 years ago they migrated from North Asia and conquered the Paleoeskimoes who’d been there for 3000 years prior. Just saying …)
After you’ve learned about its historical context, you get to board the St. Roch and nose about, though glass partitions separate the viewer from the interior displays of the officers’ tiny cabins. Still, it’s more privacy than the eight subordinate constables got in their shared abode down below: no masturbating here, thank you very much. (Which makes me wonder if the slang for the bathroom, “the head,” really came from the toilet’s position at the bow of the ship. But I digress. Again.)
After mucking about onboard the Roch, you head into the west wing where more treasures await. Here the museum really defines itself as maritime, covering a variety of topics: Native fishing and travel artefacts, the great ocean liner/immigrant ships of the past (I see a pattern here), the working boats that service our coast and the tug boats that run our harbours, firefighting on the water (where at least you don’t need to be near a hydrant), naval participation in world wars and colonialism, and everyone’s favourite, piracy — which, like Arctic exploration, was really way less fun than its romanticized image. What I found particularly interesting about pirates was the uncomfortable relationship between them and privateers, that is, government-sponsored pirates: much like today, whether you were labelled a soldier or a terrorist was purely rhetorical. Also intriguing was this gem among “The Pirate’s Code of Conduct” found on the ship of pirate Captain Bartholomew Roberts, a.k.a. Black Bart: “No boy or woman to be allowed among them. If any man were found seducing any of the latter sex, and carried her to sea disguised, he was to suffer Death.” No mention is made of the punishment for seducing a boy, another similarity to today’s mercenaries and terrorists.
Despite the onerous impediment, women pirates did exist, the most famous being Anne Bonney and Mary Read. They had initially disguised themselves as men and distinguished themselves in battle, but obviously the pretence was dropped at some point: when their ship was captured, both women were spared the gallows because they were pregnant. (Note to self: this should not be considered a viable strategy when contemplating a capital crime: you’re no spring chicken.)
The museum houses some exquisite, meticulously built model ships — and some equally ornate but creepy models built by POWs out of bones from their rations — beautiful antique instruments, naval-themed paintings, and antique nautical charts that are amazing for their detail and complexity. There’s two additional galleries for temporary exhibits, and, for the kids, a discovery centre with interactive displays. I was particularly charmed by a small gallery of old panorama photographs of Vancouver: viewers on the day I visited, myself included, in our own version of Where’s Waldo? were taking delight in finding the city’s historic landmarks among the buildings now long gone and forgotten.
Despite believing I’d be bored, I really enjoyed the museum and, to my surprise, stayed almost three hours. The museum’s website suggests you allow 1.5 to 2 hours to view but I’d recommend you give yourself more time — if only to contemplate the perils or advantages (your choice) of spending years at sea with only sweaty men for companionship.