I love technical museums, especially maritime museums so, with some free time to spend exploring Rotterdam before the Travel Bloggers Unite Europe conference started (today), it was no surprise where I ended up yesterday!
The Rotterdam Maritime Museum is not huge, but it does have some amazing stuff in there. For a start there’s a section on cartography, highlighting among other precious exhibits, the work of a local boy who ‘done well’(sic), Gerardus Mercator. In 1569 he worked out how to display a map of the 3-dimensional world on 2-dimensional paper so that sailors could use it to plot a true course.
The museum actually owns one of the original three world maps he made.
There’s also a chronological display of maps from Claudius Ptolemaeus’ world map in 1486, demonstrating the growth of knowledge as explorers discovered new lands and cartographers refined existing data.
It’s amazing to look at the detailed 16th & 17th charts and coastal drawings in this section and realise their significance. These were top secret documents of national and global importance. The Dutch became a huge maritime trading nation through the expansion of the Dutch East India Company and other Flemish traders, based on these maps and pilot books.
In another part of the museum dedicated to marine art, you can see the kind of colossal commercial enterprise these pioneering explorers and cartographers initiated. In 1612 The Northern Company was set up to harvest even arctic waters! In 1670 Abraham Storck painted the Dutch whaling fleet at work off Spitzbergen, plundering whales, seals, polar bears… pretty much anything they could lay their clubs on! Their most productive season was in 1697 when 129 ships caught 1,255 whales.
By the way, if you have ever wondered “how did artists paint maritime scenes that were always in motion?” a clue comes in the museum’s model ship section where there is a model of a Scheveningen fishing boat…. used by the painter Hendrik Willem Mesdag (1831-1915) in his studio as a reference.
The museum has a small selection of models on display but most visitors walk straight past the most significant one. The ‘Mataró model’ from the 15th century is the oldest known model ship in Western Europe.
As a centre of maritime commerce, it’s not surprising that Rotterdam’s Maritime Museum should currently have an exhibition on piracy. It neatly balances the popular myth of pirates with the modern day reality (I quite like the way they use Lego pirate characters in and around the displays to lighten the approach). Visitors make their way through the exhibition through ‘yes’ and ‘no’ doors answering questions like: “Were pirates always keen to fight?”. Behind the ‘no’ door you learn that Dutch pirate, Claus Compaen’s strategy was to lure the captain & officers of ships onto his ship for a slap-up dinner… and then explain the cost of their liberty would be their ship!
The photos and video footage of modern day pirate activities highlight the disruption it can bring to shipping routes and the importance of maritime trade to every nation including the Dutch. Rotterdam’s role in that is demonstrated on the mezzanine floor in the museum where the walls are decorated with examples of the goods that pass through MainPort – from grain to metre-long aluminium ingots – and a dynamic representation of MainPort’s shipping activities in real time with a ‘live’ video link to the Port Authority Control room.
Nobody these days is exempt from European austerity. Sadly, as the museum’s Shaula Nuuts explained, one of their primary exhibits has had to be closed due to budget cuts.
The Buffel, built in Glasgow for the Royal Netherlands Navy in 1868, was, can you believe it, an ironclad ram ship! I thought ramming went out with the Greeks & Romans!
Anyway, until recently, museum visitors were able to go onboard and explore the officers’ quarters, the galley, engine room, and ship’s prison. That pleasure is denied visitors for the time being, but the museum is well worth a visit nevertheless.