Sunday, 9 March 2014

Navigating Aberdeen Maritime Museum

Do you like to be told what a museum's all about, or would you rather make your own links between exhibits and draw your own conclusions?  Do you like to make your own way round a museum, or would you rather be directed on a set course?  And how closely involved should museums be with private companies, and their inevitable PR agendas?  These questions have been on my mind this week, after a visit to the Aberdeen Maritime Museum.

I am a keen sailor and have long been interested in maritime history, so when I visited Aberdeen this week (to examine a manuscript in the sparkling new Sir Duncan Rice Library), the Maritime Museum was #1 on my list of attractions.  Fortunately I had a couple of hours spare before my train home, so I checked it out.

Two-thirds of the Museum: the church and Link Building
The Museum (re-)opened - after a massive expansion - in 1997, and occupies three connected buildings: Provost Ross' House, built in 1593; the 19th-century Trinity Congregational Church; and a purpose-built steel and glass "Link Building" between the two.  It spreads over 4 floors.  There are two entrances (on the ground floor at the front of the building, and on the first floor at the back) and the building has two separate sets of stairs.  So visitors can take hugely varying routes around the museum.

Faced with the impossibility of imposing a single linear visit on museum-goers, the designers clearly decided to make flexibility a feature of the museum.  They couldn't impose a route on visitors, so they didn't.  Neither did they impose any chronology, or any overarching interpretation.  The museum is structured thematically, with different sections on the maritime industries in which Aberdeen has been involved: shipbuilding; trade; fishing; oil.  Although individual objects have descriptive labels, there are none of the boards that one often finds in each room, giving an overall explanation or introduction to the room.

"Introductory display", First Level
The result of all this was that (ironically for a maritime museum) it was very difficult to navigate.  The First Level galleries, which on the Museum map promised "an introduction to Aberdeen's maritime heritage", provided no such thing.  The "Introductory Display" contained a selection of maritime objects, each adequately described by its own label, but with nothing linking them together.  (It didn't help that there was a good deal of reflection on the curved glass of the display, making the labels hard to read.)

What was I looking for?  Well, two things really: clearer chronology, and a stronger narrative.  Of course chronology is coming strongly back into fashion, not only in history teaching (I've blogged about that before), but also in museum design - most famously at Tate Britain, which has rehung all its paintings in strict chronological order, receiving mixed reviews.  So I'm wary of being a fashion victim... but I really think a clearer, chronologically straightforward narrative of Aberdeen's changing relationship with the sea would have improved the museum.  For example, the exhibit of the early history of the port (from pre-history up to its expansion in the 19th century) was hidden away right in the back corner of the top floor, and it took up comparatively little space.

Murchison oil platform model
By contrast, filling the museum were the exhibits dedicated to the oil industry.  These were certainly very striking, particularly the 8-metre model of the Murchison oil platform, but they did make the overall visit experience rather unbalanced.

The museum was quite open about its partnership with oil companies, but I was a little uneasy about this.  One exhibit that certainly didn't lack a clear narrative was the 3D movie about life on an oil platform: it can only be described as a propaganda video.  It was 100% financed by the TAQA Bratani oil company; needless to say, it emphasised the safety and environmental responsibility of the industry, as well as its care for the wellbeing of its workers.  Yet on the floor above was a smaller exhibit dedicated to the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster, in which 167 people (including 165 out of 226 people stationed on that oil platform) died.  Reading about that wholly preventable disaster, and the criticisms made of the platform operator Occidental Petroleum, provided a timely reminder that the assurances of large companies should perhaps not be accepted uncritically.

Of course, there were several parts of the museum I did enjoy.  Perhaps the best parts, in my view, were those about the fishing industry, and how it's changed over the centuries.  It's probably not coincidental that these were the exhibits that provided the clearest narrative.  Should I have grown out of this need to have my hand held?  Maybe, but I guess I just like a good story.



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