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Understanding Museums - Australian Museums and Museology: Edited by Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien

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Kevin Jones is Director of the South Australian Maritime Museum. More on Kevin Jones

Redeveloping ports, rejuvenating heritage: Australian maritime museums
by Kevin Jones


Many proposals were put to the Australian government’s Committee of Inquiry into Museums and National Collections in 1975 (the Pigott Report). The Committee, however, decided that only three themes deserved special attention. They recommended that ‘priority be given to a national maritime museum in Sydney, and to a national aviation museum at a growth centre such as Albury-Wodonga, and that later consideration be given to locating a Gallery or Museum of Australian Biography, within the Parliamentary Triangle in Canberra’. [1]

In the event the Australian National Maritime Museum opened in 1991, years before a generalist national museum or a national portrait gallery, and an aviation museum has had scant mention since.

The priority given to the Australian National Maritime Museum may be an acknowledgement the central of role of maritime history in the European exploration and settlement of Australia. It was built as a project marking the Bicentenary of the First Fleet arriving in Sydney Harbour. It was also built as an Australian government contribution to the rejuvenation of Sydney’s disused shipping terminal, Darling Harbour.

Today, more than 30 years after the Australian government’s Inquiry, Sydney Heritage Fleet’s website holds a list of maritime museums and collections in Australia. It names 71 specifically designated maritime museums including 20 in New South Wales and 15 each in Victoria and Queensland, plus another 106 museums with substantial maritime collections. It also lists 232 sites and associations dedicated to preserving maritime heritage, be it a lighthouse, an archive or sailing a class of timber boats. The numbers are compelling.

From the Queensland Maritime Museum to the Maritime Museum of Tasmania and the Australian National Maritime Museum, there is almost universal agreement on what such organisations should be called. Beyond their titles, however, the museums have different organisational histories, different resources, priorities and different audiences. Some were established by enthusiasts wanting to save historic vessels; others to save shipwrecks or archaeological collections; and still others to bring audiences to disused ports to promote tourism, sustain a community or find a use for a historic precinct.

Biting off more than you can chew and chewing like hell

Most maritime museums, such as the Sydney Maritime Museum, the Melbourne Maritime Museum (Polly Woodside) and the Queensland Maritime Museum, were begun by dedicated volunteers whose efforts were crystallised in the goal of saving a single important vessel.

Sydney Heritage Fleet records its origins in its journal, Australian Sea Heritage, in an article entitled ‘Biting off more than you can chew and chewing like hell’. It is proud of its audacity in taking on enormous projects and succeeding against the odds. It can certainly cite a proud list of acquired vessels, including the Edwardian steam launch Lady Hopetoun, the steam tug Waratah and the coastal steamer John Oxley, all restored in the late 1960s.

The major turning point in the museum’s growth came in 1971 when it decided to retrieve the hull of the sailing ship James Craig. The James Craig, built in 1874, traded to Europe, Australia and America. It had rounded Cape Horn many times, climbing to the highest peak of nautical mythology.

There was a great deal of debate within the organisation about the project; about the realities of resources and the values of conservation and restoration. Some believed their resources were already stretched and such a large project could break them. They also argued that there was so little remaining of the original vessel that the project would end up building a replica on an original keel. Others believed the restoration of a large sailing ship would balance the Fleet’s strength in steam.

Sydney Maritime Museum began retrieving the James Craig in 1972. It became a 30-year project that took the ship to Sydney in 1981 and finally to its recommissioning in 2005. There were technical challenges to be overcome in reviving extinct trades such as hot-riveting, but the biggest challenge was undoubtedly resources. The museum raised over three million dollars by raffling Porsches and received a bicentennial grant of $1.5 million from the NSW government, but it lost badly on predictions that visitors to the newly developed Darling Harbour would pay to see the James Craig being restored. However, the vessel also won the support of the Albert family, who provided the funding needed for the project to go ahead. It was a 20-year project but, once the funding was assured, 80 per cent of the work was completed in two years.

The Queensland Maritime Museum was formed as a branch of the World Ship Society in 1969. Two years later it acquired its first vessel, purchasing the steam tug Forceful for one dollar from the Queensland Tug Company. The state government provided the disused South Brisbane Dock and the Brisbane City Council offered support. Radio promotions attracted 50 members and the museum continued to grow from the dreams of enthusiasts. One of its largest achievements was acquiring the Second World War frigate HMAS Diamantina to fill its dock in 1981.

For Melbourne Maritime Museum the founding inspiration was the Polly Woodside, a three-masted barque built in Belfast in 1885. It had rounded Cape Horn 16 times and by 1968 was the last square-rigged ocean-going ship in Australasia. The National Trust of Victoria bought the Polly Woodside from Howard Smith for one cent. It restored it from 1962 to 1968, planning to keep the vessel afloat in a dry dock and open it to visitors. The Victorian government provided the use of a historic dock. In 1988 the project was awarded the World Ship Trust Medal for supreme achievement in conservation. In 2006 Polly Woodside was added to the State Heritage Register and the Victorian government provided a grant of $100,000 for a condition survey.

Both the Queensland Maritime Museum and the Melbourne Maritime Museum have exploited opportunities presented by the redevelopment of disused waterfronts. Queensland Maritime Museum won funding from Brisbane City Council as part of a plan to lift tourism to South Bank. In 2000 Melbourne Maritime Museum began a redevelopment program to broaden its collections and focus on the Port of Melbourne. A new exhibition building was provided as part of the billion-dollar construction of an exhibition and convention centre and opened in December 2010.

Maritime archaeology and the Western Australian Maritime Museum

There are clear parallels between those museums that were inspired by the urgency of preserving historic vessels and the origins of the Western Australian Maritime Museum. Myra Stanbury, curator, observed that ‘The Western Australian Maritime Museum is essentially the product of maritime archaeology. At the root of its conception, initiation, development and culmination is a wealth of archaeological material recovered from historical shipwrecks.’ [2]

The process began in 1963 when two extraordinarily significant shipwrecks were discovered. They were both Dutch East Indiamen, the Batavia, built in 1629, and the Vergulde Draeck, built in 1653. The wrecks extended the European history of Australia centuries beyond the popular understanding that it began with James Cook charting the east coast in 1770. The wrecks also captured the public imagination with tales of sunken bullion and stories of murder and mutiny. [3]

In 1965 Fremantle City Council, with support from the Western Australian Museum, developed a proposal to convert Fremantle’s convict-built asylum into a maritime museum and sought state government funding for the project. The museum opened in 1970 and maritime archaeological material formed the basis of the first displays. Myra Stanbury recalled that the development of the new museum:

provided display staff with a stepping stone into a new era of design concepts and interpretive philosophy. The displays represented a radical move away from cabinets of inanimate stuffed birds and animals to more contextual displays related to the discovery of the Great Southland; early Dutch voyages; the trading activities of the Dutch East India Company; and social and cultural life in the Netherlands. [4]

The exhibitions also portrayed the role, methods and recovery techniques of the new field of maritime archaeology. While today that may involve opening the process to question, in 1970 it was simply intended to ‘give a balanced view of the objectives of maritime archaeology’. [ 5]

The exhibitions were part of a broader museum program. Lobbying from divers persuaded the Western Australian Museum to employ a maritime archaeologist in 1971 and the work was supported by the voluntary labour of amateur divers. Together they raised an enormous amount of significant material, including 27 tonnes of sandstone building blocks, and timber from the stern section of the Batavia.

The material was too large to be included in existing museums and demanded an imaginative solution to bring it to life. In 1977 the historic Commissariat Store in Fremantle became available and funding was provided to transform it into a museum. The Western Australian Maritime Museum opened to the public in September 1979 in time to celebrate the state’s 150th anniversary. Today, the display of a large section of the Batavia and the stone arch carried by the same ship is one of the richest, most evocative exhibitions in Australia.

The maritime archaeology program developed by the museum became known worldwide for its achievements, and the team of archaeologists worked with several countries on underwater sites in the Indian Ocean.

While the histories of other maritime museums are accounts of enthusiasts establishing museums as incorporated associations, in the case of maritime archaeology in Western Australia enthusiasts lobbied the Western Australian Museum and the state and Australian governments to take responsibility. Along with the development of the Western Australian Maritime Museum, laws were passed by the Western Australian government in 1973 (the Maritime Archaeology Act) and the Australian government in 1976 (the Historic Shipwrecks Act) to protect wrecks by preventing divers from retrieving objects from the sites.

From the periphery to the mainstream

Professor Frank Broeze was rare among historians in describing himself as a maritime historian. Most of his contemporaries who wrote about maritime history saw themselves as generalists who simply happened to be working on maritime history at the time. In 1989, two years before the Australian National Maritime Museum opened, Frank Broeze wrote an article, ‘From the Periphery to the Mainstream’, in which he argued that maritime history needed to claim its place in the mainstream historiography of Australia. He pointed to examples where maritime affairs were clearly part of the main history.

He observed that many maritime historians and archaeologists focused on the technical detail because of their passionate fascination with the vessels and the artefacts, rather than on the people who used them. Professor Broeze’s arguments were very much in line with those arguing for social history in museums. Such ideas were expressed in the South Australian Maritime Museum that opened in 1986, the Australian National Maritime Museum that opened in 1991, and the Western Australian Maritime Museum’s new exhibition galleries that opened in 2002.

All three museums were led by urban renewal projects and were intended to help revive disused ports. The stimulus for those museums came from the aim of building an audience, be they tourists or local communities. It did not come from the collections. Indeed, in the case of the Australian National Maritime Museum, to begin with there was no collection at all.

South Australian Maritime Museum

Port Adelaide’s Inner Harbor had been the focus of trade since the colony was proclaimed in 1836. However, in trends that have been seen in ports around the world, technology changed. Accelerating in the decades after the Second World War, shipping was rebuilt and new bulk handling and container terminals were established. These new facilities were built downstream rather than on existing sites. This meant that there was a disused port left intact that became South Australia’s first historic precinct.

A maritime museum was seen as part of the answer to revive the community and lead the redevelopment of the port. It would attract tourists, build on the ambience of the historic port and demonstrate commitment to reinforcing community values.

Like Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool and South Street Seaport Museum in New York, the South Australian Maritime Museum aimed to colour its precinct. It was spread over several sites that included a wharf shed, a lighthouse, a stone-built bond store and a timber sailmaker’s loft. The museum built a collection of vessels that included an 1883 coastal trader (Nelcebee), a 1949 steam tug (Yelta) and a 40-foot naval launch (Archie Badenoch).

The museum presented a series of innovative thematic exhibitions with the aim of taking maritime heritage to a broad audience. Exhibitions explored the experiences of immigrants and related them to the local community through a database that enabled South Australians to find the ships that brought their immigrant ancestors to the state. They emphasised the experiences of those who crewed the ships, and expanded maritime history to include areas that might seem trivial to a specialist but might more easily relate to visitors who rarely go to sea. Much was made of nostalgia for the gulf trips that gave South Australians cheap cruise holidays in their local waters and of recreational fishing, surfing, swimming and seaside entertainment.

At the same time, the museum was not a total break from the past. It presented displays that appealed to specialists and enthusiasts. Its largest floor space was a cargo shed that provided berths for its vessels and a hall to exhibit a collection of large objects that included a teak cabin from a coastal steamer, the hull of an 1870s trading ketch, wharf cranes and sail craft.

The museum also presented the oldest nautical collection in Australia, that of the former Port Adelaide Nautical Institute. Part of the nineteenth-century movement for self improvement, the Institute began in 1851 as a subscription library and began a museum collection with an honorary curator in 1872. When it became part of the new maritime museum in 1986, it was presented as a museum within a museum, exhibiting the charm and the mystery of a collection of the past. Designer Quentin Mitchell said the aim was to present the Nautical Collection as if it had been picked up by an egg slide and placed in the new building.

Australian National Maritime Museum

Amongst those who lobbied so effectively for the establishment of a national maritime museum were the nautical enthusiasts of the Sydney Maritime Museum.

One of the foundation documents for the National Maritime Museum was based on an alliance between academic history and amateur nautical history. A draft collections and exhibitions policy was produced in October 1985 by Peter Spearritt and Vaughan Evans. Professor Spearritt was head of the School of Social and Political Enquiry at Monash University and had published in Australian history. Vaughan Evans was a founder of the Australian Association for Maritime History and a long-time editor of its newsletter. In that role he bridged the gap by founding an organisation with a majority of amateur historians but producing a journal edited and refereed by academics.

It was a partnership that crossed the constituents of maritime museums. Within the report they deftly summed up the ideal relationship between amateurs and professional historians:

Unlike many thematic museums the National Maritime Museum starts with the enormous advantage of having a ready-made body of enthusiasts and experts to draw on, from the Royal Australian Navy, the Australian Association for Maritime History and the Sydney Maritime Museum … The National Maritime Museum must capitalise on the knowledge and goodwill of the enthusiasts and experts, but it must not become captive to them. The great majority of visitors to the Museum will know little of our maritime heritage and even less about maritime technology or what working on a ship was really like, for officers or crew. [6]

They sketched out themes around which the collection should be based: ‘Given the fact that the NMM does not yet have a major collection of maritime items and that it has to open in 1988 we recommend that collecting, in the first instance, should be based around particular themes’. [7]

The concept of arranging collections as well as exhibitions around themes was seen as a contemporary approach. Some saw it as a sound rejection of traditional practice that focused on object types and technology rather than ideas. Others saw it as a temporary expedient that was necessary to produce the opening exhibitions. They believed that, once the museum opened, curatorial work should be arranged around the objective of developing the collection, and that should be done by giving curators responsibility for categories of objects such as paintings or models or boats, rather than themes such as navy or sport.

The museum’s opening exhibitions were originally founded around the five themes of naval history, commercial history, sport and leisure, exploration, and immigration. A sixth theme, of Australian and American maritime relations, was added as the result of a gift of $7 million from the United States Government to mark Australia’s Bicentenary.

Immigration perhaps held together most clearly as a theme. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century immigration presented accounts of convicts and free settlers. In a few short years a credible collection was assembled that included shipboard newspapers, logs, the bower anchor from the Sirius, the flagship of the First Fleet, and a rare painting of the Borrowdale, a store ship from the same fleet. Exhibitions on twentieth-century immigration were based on material donated or lent by postwar migrants, displaced persons, refugees and ‘ten pound Poms’. It also included accounts from the Hong Hai, a ship on which Vietnamese refugees fled their war-torn homeland in the 1970s.

Exhibitions on Australia’s commercial maritime history included the history of whaling with a focus on Western Australia, accounts of fishing for tuna in South Australia and rock lobsters in Tasmania, and presented a history of the Adelaide Steamship Company as representative of coastal shipping. There was also an exhibition on trade unions, which forged a continuing association between the museum and maritime unions.

The exhibition, Discovery: Finding Australia, focused on European exploration and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activities. It was the first core exhibition to be changed after opening. The name was clearly erroneous and the concept of a single theme encompassing Indigenous and European history was questioned. The area was reconfigured to present two discrete, if related, exhibitions. The European section was named Navigators.

The Indigenous exhibition was named Merana Eora Nora – First Australians. It presented contemporary stories from the Torres Strait, the Kimberley Coast and the Northern Territory, and emphasised living cultures and continuing connections with heritage and place.

A second gallery included two themes, leisure and naval history. Leisure was seen to be especially Australian, stretching definitions of maritime heritage to include surf lifesaving and beach culture. Alongside a flotilla of suspended yachts and a naval helicopter were displayed the biggest and the brightest and the fastest boat in the world – Spirit of Australia and the 1983 America’s Cup-winning yacht, Australia II. The exhibition was rich in personal stories, from Enid Nunn who almost won a water speed record on Kogarah Bay in the 1950s to the rough and ready crew of Wee Georgie Robinson’s 18-foot skiff.

The Navy exhibition drew on the repositories of the Royal Australian Navy, including material from naval brigades that steamed off to the 1900 Boxer Rebellion in China, through both World Wars and the war in Vietnam. The destroyer Vampire, the patrol boat Advance, the espionage boat Krait and the launch Epic Lass were all berthed at the museum’s wharves and a submarine was later added to the fleet. The dominance of the Navy in the collection could be weighed in shiploads.

The Australian National Maritime Museum’s exhibitions were developed by staff who broadly shared the goals of social history that were articulated by Professor Broeze. Many of the exhibits sought to focus on the people – ordinary seafarers, wharfies and surf bathers – as well as the artefacts and the vessels.

That had been one of the goals of Vaughan Evans and Peter Spearritt in developing the original themes. The exhibitions on exploration and immigration, in particular, were able to build on large bodies of research. Curators also looked to the work of amateur historians, particularly in areas such as sailing and surfing, which had not been addressed by mainstream history.

History in a tourism development

I have discussed how maritime museums interpreted history by looking through the observations of historians and curators and the vision of enthusiasts who saved heritage that was under threat. There were other dimensions to the position of maritime museums in Australia. They were based on government expectations of what a cultural attraction such as the Australian National Maritime Museum should be doing in the new tourism development of Darling Harbour. In an issue of the maritime history journal, The Great Circle, marking the opening of the Australian National Maritime Museum, its Director Kevin Fewster wrote:

While not denying the wider trend in museums towards social history, I would contend that the pursuit of this approach at ANMM and Port Adelaide is, at least in part, a result of the museums being developed within major urban renewal programs. The pressures and opportunities associated with being located within a tourist precinct have required the museums to maintain a strong focus on their visitor appeal. While not ignoring traditional curatorial responsibilities, these maritime museums readily accept as part of their mission the need to attract a broadly based audience. [8]

He went on to say that the government has stated that the Maritime Museum would be different to other collecting institutions. It would be an ‘exhibitions oriented institution’. The term was widely debated in the early development of the museum.

There were genuine debates within the museum profession about the need to focus on audiences and public programs. However, the term came from a report produced by the Department of Finance titled What Price Heritage and was essentially a cost-saving measure. Its intention was to limit the growth of the museum’s collection to save the costs of collecting and preserving and to limit the number of staff.

Within the museum the concept of an exhibitions-oriented institution was widely debated. It was a debate about whether the museum had a broader research role or whether research should be confined to exhibition production. It was also a debate about the size of the museum’s collection: to meet government expectations, the museum’s objective was articulated as developing a ‘small core collection’ rather than aiming to collect representative examples of all object types.

Emphasis was placed on an active and popular exhibitions program and on presenting education programs and public events. International blockbuster exhibitions became a staple of its programming: the American exhibition Whales: Giants of the Deep and the British show Mary Rose – Life on a Tudor Warship were instrumental in raising the museum’s visitor numbers after opening. That emphasis was broadly consistent with the public programs of both the Powerhouse Museum and the Australian Museum.

It was only in 2007 that the Australian National Maritime Museum launched a major research project that was not related to exhibitions. That project was the launch of a national register of historic vessels that has all the credentials to build a comprehensive catalogue on the provenance and significance of vessels, as well as recording their technology.

Redeveloping ports, rejuvenating heritage

The principal engine in providing the funding for the development of maritime museums has been the redevelopment of disused ports. The energy and the ideas have come from nautical enthusiasts and amateur historians who have rescued, researched and restored historic vessels. They have come from social historians who were part of those generations who aimed to find broader views of history and broader audiences for maritime history. They have also come from maritime archaeologists who extended the reach of European history. And some of the best projects presenting aspects of Australia’s maritime history and heritage have built alliances across these interests.


1 PH Pigott et al, Museums in Australia 1975 – Report of the Committee of Inquiry on Museums and National Collections, AGPS, Canberra, 1975, p. 4.

2 Myra Stanbury, ‘Maritime Archaeological Material: a catalyst in the development of the Western Australian Maritime Museum’, in LM Akveld (ed.), VIth International Congress of Maritime Museums Proceedings, Amsterdam 1987, p. 104.

3 Stanbury, ‘Maritime Archaeological Material’, p. 105

4 Stanbury, ‘Maritime Archaeological Material’, p. 107.

5 Stanbury, ‘Maritime Archaeological Material’, p. 107.

6 Vaughan Evans and Peter Spearritt, ‘A Draft Collections Policy for the National Maritime Museum’, October 1985, unpublished, Vaughan Evans Library, Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney, pp. 1–2.

7 Evans and Spearritt, ‘Draft Collections Policy for the National Maritime Museum’, p. 8.

8 Kevin Fewster, ‘Down to the Sea in Monorails: Urban Renewal and Recent Maritime Museum Developments’, The Great Circle, Vol. 13, No. 2, 1991, pp. 76–7.


Frank Broeze, ‘Periphery to the Mainstream: The Challenge of Australia’s Maritime History’, in The Great Circle, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1989.

Vaughan Evans and Peter Spearritt, ‘A Draft Collections Policy for the National Maritime Museum’, October 1985, unpublished, Vaughan Evans Library, Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney.

Kevin Fewster, ‘Down to the Sea in Monorails: Urban Renewal and Recent Maritime Museum Developments’, in The Great Circle, Vol. 13, No. 2, 1991.

Harlan Hall, ‘The Sydney Maritime Museum: A Working, People’s Museum Interprets One of the World’s Most Beautiful Harbours’, in LM Akveld (ed.), VIth International Congress of Maritime Museums Proceedings, Amsterdam, 1987.

Graeme Henderson, ‘Our Seafaring History on Display’, in Australian Sea Heritage, Autumn 1985.

PH Pigott et al, Museums in Australia 1975: Report of the Committee of Inquiry on Museums and National Collections, AGPS, Canberra, 1975.

Myra Stanbury, ‘Maritime Archaeological Material: A Catalyst in the Development of the Western Australian Maritime Museum’, in LM Akveld (ed.), VIth International Congress of Maritime Museums Proceedings, Amsterdam, 1987.

Warwick Turner, ‘Bite Off More Than We Can Chew and Chew Like Hell’, in Australian Sea Heritage, Winter 1985.

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Cite as: Kevin Jones, 2011, 'Redeveloping ports, rejuvenating heritage: Australian maritime museums', in Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology, Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien (eds), National Museum of Australia, published online at ISBN 978-1-876944-92-6