How a new focus can change the way a museum works
The excitement was enormous, when on May 18, 2018, a camera crew invaded our museum. They came bringing good news. We had won the BankGiro Loterij Museumprijs 2018! After five months of persistent persuasion to get votes, we had become "Museum of the Year". As a consequence of the 42, 477 people who voted for us, the Museum has a new course set for the horizon.
Our "raison d'être"
You might think that a maritime museum isn't first and foremost a museum for technology. But have a look at our history and it is very obvious. Prince Hendrik was one of our founding fathers back in 1874, the time of the first oceangoing iron vessels. He joined forces with a committee of 19th century shipbuilders, entrepreneurs that wanted to show their latest achievements, tell about innovations and simply share the splendour of technology that helps to conquer the sea with all. After 145 years, our museum's mission isn't really that different.
At the Maritime Museum we tell stories of the maritime world, both inside our building and outside in our harbour with our historic vessels and cranes. We are located in the heart of Rotterdam, in the actual birthplace of the Port of Rotterdam. Our collection is one of the top 3 maritime collections in the world and consists of more than 1,060,000 objects. Paintings, charts, ship models, but also everyday objects such as the cutlery from luxury cruise ships. Our oldest ship model dates back to the 15th century and is the oldest ship model in the western world.
The museum receives 218,000 visitors each year. 70% of them live within 40 km of our museum, 42% are under the age of 24. We welcome families, business groups, tourists and history lovers and are regarded as a ";day out for the entire family". The vast majority of our visitors do not generally have a maritime background. Our director at the time - Frits Loomeijer - realised that in order to connect with visitors, we needed to focus on the present and the future instead of only looking back at history. But he also realised that the choice which stories to tell might be different than expected.
Looking beyond the horizon
We arranged a dinner with 20 key figures in the maritime industry in 2011 and asked them which stories we should tell. To our surprise we discovered that no other maritime museum in the world was telling the story of offshore. But neither were we. We can't live without energy and a big part of our resources comes from the sea. This sector is highly innovative, has a major effect on our global economy and supplies jobs for many in the maritime sector. Why had we missed this as a museum? We started a new project with major consequences. It changed the way we work.
The offshore project had four goals:
1. the assembly of a national offshore collection.
2. research into the history of offshore at PhD level
3. create a state-of-the-art ls"Offshore Experiencers"
4. develop programs for schools with a focus on technology
The Maritime Museum joined forces with 56 partners. In 2012 we made a proposal based on first ideas about the project. We talked to CEOs who knew everything about shipping and technology, but had never been to our museum. It sometimes felt like a crusade for culture, but turned out to be a new way of looking at cultural entrepreneurship. The industry became our source of knowledge, provided us with state of the art ship models to add to our collection. They became our true ambassadors and made the project financially possible. This close cooperation was a first in our profession and therefore feared by many. At every meeting at that time with other museums we were questioned thoroughly on ethics.
In December 2016 we opened an 800 m2 exhibition with a reception attended by 450 CEOs from the Maritime sector, politics and the cultural world. During the first weeks, we had to think about crowd control. You see 45 min waits at blockbuster art exhibitions, but hardly ever in a maritime museum. Our number of visitors rose by 19%. A lot of people working in the industry state they had never visited our museum before the Offshore Experience. The museum has become a popular location to hold business events.
Research shows the Maritime Museum inspires children to consider the maritime sector as a future employer. This project is an example of how a museum can change views but also lives. We are proud of the 15,000 students that visit us annually. In the past we offered them a historical program. Now schools come to us because of our technology programs. The Offshore Project was the start of a new focus for our educational department. The Verolme Trust provided us with a four year grant to execute a program for secondary education. Schools come to the museum for a tour of the exhibition and have a workshop in our ship "Geertruida". The most impressive part of the program is when small groups of students experience the real world when visiting real companies.
The Offshore Experience was awarded with the Offshore Energy Public Outreach Award in 2016. Never before has a cultural institution won this maritime industry award. We won the Silver SponsorRing and because of the marvellous design of Kossmann and de Jong designers, we won the Bronze European Design Award. There were several other nominations but becoming "Museum of the Year" proves that this newly laid out course is successful. It took a long term effort, much persuasion and flexibility. But the high amount of votes we got for the Bankgiro Loterij Museumprijs is the best proof of success.
The €100,000 that comes with this title has been allocated to the development of a new pavilion. In this "Leuvepaviljoen", opening fall 2020, the Port of Rotterdam is going to build a hub for tourists visiting Rotterdam. We are building publicly accessible workspaces on the quay side entrance. Here we combine the "real work" needed to maintain our historical fleet with telling maritime stories to a broad audience. You can see the real blacksmiths and carpenters at work, but also learn about new techniques used in shipbuilding. You can even get started with maritime techniques yourself. For elementary and vocational education we will develop new programs with a focus on technology.
With the Offshore Project we set sail for an adventure beyond the horizon. We are glad we made this journey despite all the challenges on the way. The effect was huge, the hunger to proceed even bigger…
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