Altres museus

We Have to Change to Stay the Same: The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic (Nova Scotia, Canada)

Kim Reinhardt

General Manager of the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax Nova Scotia, Canada. The Maritime Museum is a part of the Nova Scotia Museum.


In many ways, it seems that 2022 is a year for renewal. A re-start from a period of closures and other impacts of a devastating pandemic, and from a period of heightened global awareness on social injustice and inequality, racism, increasing threats of war, climate change, species at risk, and ocean conservation. The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic (MMA) hosted the 50th Anniversary International Congress of Maritime Museums (ICMM) in this renewal year offering a robust programme that was heavily influenced by these shared concerns. The combination of embarking on a new half-century, and an unprecedented awareness of significant global issues, provided the obvious opportunity to explore and re-imagine our roles as meaning-making institutions, as impactful maritime museums. Many museums, the MMA included, had already been taking an inward look, trying to understand the impacts of decades of institutional bias and the reality of being part of the climate crisis. So much had changed during the past few years. It had been a long time since we could gather in-person and experience the kind of powerful networking that can only happen face-to-face. I think we had a tremendous appetite to share and discuss our recent experiences and ambitions. The moment was right for a Congress focused on new beginnings and growth. As the saying goes, “Calm seas do not make a good captain,” and we had all been through some pretty rough seas.

This paper provides a glimpse into the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, on Canada’s East Coast: our challenges, the influence of global issues and crisis, and our ambitions for the future. I will share some insights on how we operate as a Provincial museum, and how we view the need to change (especially in support of our equity, diversity, and inclusion goals), as a necessity for our ongoing success as a relevant and valued heritage institution. We have to change to stay the same.


It has been a turbulent few years; we all have our stories of weathering the impacts of COVID-19. The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic’s story began before the pandemic was even declared. The museum’s team had long had ambitions to host the prestigious International Congress of Maritime Museums (ICMM). The bid itself was an arduous process, and it took two attempts for this museum director to succeed in securing the award to host the Congress. During the 2019 ICMM, at the Åland Maritime Museum, it was announced that the next biannual event would be held, for the first time ever in Canada, hosted by the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was both an exhilarating and terrifying moment for me. I stared out at my colleagues and fellow delegates from around the globe and tried to imagine how our relatively modest Maritime Museum, and our seemingly quaint Canadian maritime experiences would be received in two years’ time. Afterall, we had just spent an incredible week together in Sweden and Åland – with centuries upon centuries of seafaring and maritime heritage to draw upon. Not to mention, we were flash-mobbed by a delightful period-costumed choir during a cocktail reception with the dramatically lit 17thcentury warship Vasa as our backdrop! It was a phenomenal Congress, and we were next. Thus began the inevitable self-examination and contemplation that occurs when one realizes: we have company coming!

Long story short: the 2021 ICMM was deferred to 2022. While some may have thought that the circumstances of the pandemic bought us an additional year to plan and organize, the reality was that we found ourselves struggling to understand what an international congress, in an almost post-pandemic world, would look like. Planning for it was even more difficult. I am proud to say that the overall Canadian Congress experience (that happened the week before a major hurricane hit the region!) was very well received. It was a pleasure to welcome 130 delegates and their partners from 30 different countries to the 50th Anniversary ICMM in Halifax, and to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic (MMA).

Sometimes it takes a major circumstance or event, such as hosting the ICMM, to truly sharpen our sense of self-awareness and to help further steer us toward a path of best practices. Not that we weren’t thinking about this before – we certainly were. For me, the commitment to welcome the world of maritime museums to Canada and to our museum specifically, added a timer, a count-down, to get things done (or to at least move some of our big ideas forward).

Figure 1. Group Shot of 2022 ICMM Delegates at Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia

Credit: MMA - Kelly Clark Fotography

The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic is Canada’s oldest and largest maritime museum. Still, despite being from a maritime nation with extensive coastlines on three of the world’s oceans, the MMA is only a mid-sized maritime museum (relative to others around the globe). It is one of 28 museums located across the province of Nova Scotia which, combined, form the Nova Scotia Museum. This is the most decentralized provincial museum in Canada. The structure has some advantages, such as an increased capacity to connect with communities across the province and to celebrate distinct regional heritage and stories. Challenges exist, too, including the logistics, costs and overall management of museum infrastructure and collections spread far and wide around Nova Scotia.

The Maritime Museum is one of the largest Nova Scotia Museums and has the highest visitor attendance (typically over 200,000 visitors per year). It benefits from strong cruise-ship visitation as well as from its central location on the busy Halifax waterfront (a major tourist destination). Visitors from outside of the province account for approximately 87% of total annual visitation. It may be because of this high out-of-region visitation that the MMA has been able to maintain a solid level of visitation, and visitor satisfaction, even though most of the galleries continue to present (more or less) the same stories offered when the museum first opened in its current location, in 1981. While it is fortunate to have a built-in stream of vacationing, one-time visitors, it is easy to fall into the delusion that we can fulfill our mandate without substantially changing anything in our galleries.

We are not first and foremost a tourist attraction – though supporting tourism is a vital and important part of our role as a Nova Scotia Museum. Our main purpose is to collect, preserve and present the diverse maritime heritage and heritage stories of all Nova Scotians, and to contribute to the development of more healthy and engaging communities. This requires a willingness to change, and a commitment to advancing our goals of equity, diversity, and inclusion. When we do this well, we continue to be a great maritime museum, for local, repeat visitors, and for our out-of-region travellers, too. To maintain our reputation as one of Nova Scotia’s excellent provincial museums, we must change. We have to change to stay the same.

Figure 2. MMA, including its museum ship, CSS Acadia

Credit: Discover Halifax – Chris Geworsky

Change and museums are not customarily associated. Admittedly, the action of attempting to change anything at a museum, especially at a museum that has not been prone to change, often garners more public engagement and debate than the exhibitions themselves. While it is endearing to know that some of our public love us just the way we are – we must move to push those boundaries; be brave enough to step outside of our comfort zones and our traditional heritage stories. It is challenging. The Maritime Museum is in the early stages a formal process of self-examination which will lead to a strategy for a more inclusive, accessible, and relevant approach to our museum work, including programs, exhibitions, education, collections, and research, but also behind-the-scenes work such as human resources and governance. Our changes will be gradual out of necessity but embedded in all aspects of our work.


Among the Maritime Museum’s mostly permanent galleries are two stories which may warrant their long-term status: the Titanic-Halifax connection, and the lesser known, but even more devastating story of the Halifax Harbour Explosion. Still, core stories can be presented in new ways to address institutional bias, with the application of a lens of equity, diversity and inclusion.

Figure 3. MMA

Credit: Communications Nova Scotia

The iconic Titanic story continues to fascinate a global audience, and as I said, tourism will always be an important aspect of our mandate. Those most familiar with the history are aware that cable ships from Halifax were among the first vessels to arrive on the scene. Crews collected floating wooden objects and of course the bodies of victims – many of whom would be laid to rest at one of three local cemeteries: Fairview Lawn, Mount Olivet, and Baron de Hirsch. The Maritime Museum has the world’s largest collection of wooden objects from the Titanic – a direct consequence of the role of the cable ships in the monumental recovery effort on the North Atlantic.

The strength and innovation required to deal with the scope of the Titanic tragedy arguably helped to prepare the people of Nova Scotia for its greatest catastrophe: the 1917 Halifax Harbour Explosion. On December 6th, 1917 SS Mont-Blanc, a French cargo ship loaded with high explosives, collided with the Norwegian vessel SS Imo in the Harbour Narrows. A fire broke out on board the Mont-Blanc, prompting unsuspecting fire-tugs and crews to approach with assistance. They did not understand that the fire would soon lead to a massive explosion, devastating the North End of Halifax. More than 1600 people were killed by the blast. An estimated 9,000 others were injured. It was the largest human-made explosion at the time, releasing the equivalent of approximately 2.9 kilotons of TNT. The devastation was extensive. Nearly all structures within an 800-metre radius were obliterated. A huge tsunami followed the blast, washing away landmarks, property, and victims. Large fragments of the ship Mont-Blanc were blown for kilometers in all directions.

Figure 4. Titanic Exhibition, MMA

Credit: Tourism, NS – Acorn Art & Photography

In 2017 – one hundred years after the devastating explosion, the museum decided to take a new approach to presenting the history. Our goal was to commemorate the anniversary including a refresh of our permanent gallery dedicated to this story. This time, we wanted to tell the story with the application of a lens of diversity and inclusion.

At the time of the explosion, Halifax was a bustling seaport – the gateway to Canada, and from Canada to the world. As it is today, the harbour was a working harbour. There were vessels of all kinds and sizes. The waterfront was the location of shipyards, warehouses, and factories. Languages, and cultures from all over the world could be seen and heard at the wharves.

The waterfront was also where the Indigenous Mi’kmaq community of Turtle Grove in Tufts Cove was located. The tsunami created by the blast wiped out the community, killing many of its members. The waterfront was also where one of the oldest African Nova Scotian communities developed – It was called Africville. Africville, and members of African Nova Scotia communities sustained severe losses, too. And yet – the original exhibition at the Maritime Museum dedicated to the story of the Halifax Harbour Explosion, made no mention of the Mi’kmaq community which lost almost all its members. Likewise, there was no mention of the impacts on the lives of African Nova Scotians, and no recognition for the contributions of African Nova Scotians to the monumental relief effort that followed.

Figure 5. SS Imo driven ashore after the Halifax Harbour Explosion

Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax, Nova Scotia, a part of the Nova Scotia Museum, MP207.1.184.270.

Our exhibition team knew we had to do better than the original interpretation, but it wasn’t easy. Our status quo was exclusionary. As museum professionals and enthusiasts, we recognise that museums play a crucial role in shaping our understanding of the world. While working to renew this exhibition, we found ourselves contemplating how the stories we’ve told and how we have shared these stories has been heavily influenced by what we have done in the past. And, of course, what we have done in the past, is linked with what we have previously researched, collected and preserved. If you will, our work has been largely driven by our status quo.

On this 100th anniversary, we could see the shortcomings of our exhibition, and so could our community partners. We understood that any attempt to refresh this defining exhibit of the museum would only be appropriate if a lens of inclusion were applied. We felt increasingly more self-aware of the explicit and implicit practices of our museum, which have commonly been rooted in white male privilege, and in systems of power and oppression.

We quickly felt the impact of decades of institutional bias, decades of oppression and systems of power which had resulted in the creation of our original single-story exhibition. Despite engaging community members in a more inclusive approach – the reality was, that it was, in many ways, too little, too late. There were scarcely any artifacts or oral histories, and inaccurate, if any records related African Nova Scotians or Mi’kmaq people. Without the cultural assets, the heritage which museums are mandated to preserve and to make accessible – we felt a certain shame. We realized that our work as curators, our role as an institution that creates meaning, had played a substantial role in exclusionary practices. I think it is fair to say that we felt we had let our community down. This experience, now more than five years ago, has resulted in actions to examine and transform our museum practices to be more inclusive and collaborative.


Any meaningful steps toward addressing exclusionary institutional practices will inevitably include elements of shame. It is a healthy response rooted in the realization and acknowledgement of our involvement in discrimination, systemic racism, and colonial practices. Thankfully, equity, diversity and inclusion are now frequent conversations at museum conferences and in almost all sectors which engage with community - why? Because it is relevant to the communities they serve.

At the time of the 2016 Canadian Census Report, more than 1 in 5 Canadians were foreign-born. It was projected that by 2036, nearly 30% of Canada’s population will be foreign-born. Africa ranked second, ahead of Europe, as a source continent of recent immigrants to Canada. Asia (including the Middle East) remained the top source continent of recent immigrants. And the 2016 Census reported that nearly 5% of Canada’s total population was Indigenous.1 The research demonstrates that our demographics have and continue to diversify quite rapidly – our museums need to change, too.

Figure 6. Halifax Harbour Explosion Exhibition, MMA

Credit: Discover Halifax – Chris Geworsky

We have become increasingly mindful that being relevant to our community, means getting to know our community. Inviting them in, not to just see what we have, but to encourage and invite them to become part of the process of making meaning. We need to continue to look inward. We need to become more aware of our biases and strive to understand how our practices have impacted who our museum is for, and how our biases have contributed to our failing in reflecting the diversity of our population and audiences.

Currently, we are researching what others have done, consulting with diverse stakeholders, and doing our best to increase our knowledge on topics related to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI). We are developing a formal plan, with guiding principles, goals, and objectives to help inform all areas of our work. Creating an EDI Statement for the museum, was an important step. This is what we developed:

The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic values equity, diversity, and inclusion. We see these as drivers for necessary institutional change. We acknowledge that we must address our history of exclusionary practices; we are part of a shared heritage and must be part of the shared work for change.

We aim to contribute to the creation of more welcoming and inclusive communities by engaging the region’s maritime experience in all its breadth and diversity, including our enduring and complex relationships with water and the sea.

One recent success for the MMA has been the launch of a new exhibition entitled Ta'n me'j Tel-keknuo'ltiek: How Unique We Still Are, co-curated with guest Indigenous curator Salina Kemp. It reflects how Mi’kmaw people remain connected to the lands and waters of Mi’kma’ki and offers a platform for Mi’kmaw people to express their continued experiences with an understanding of the lands and the waters of Mi’kma’ki. Mi’kmaw single-word concepts are represented through personal testimony and histories of individual Mi’kmaw people, featured objects, artifacts, images, and symbolic artwork. It supports Canadian Truth and Reconciliation goals by providing opportunities for fundamental treaty education, and to learn about the truths that must precede reconciliation.


Changing our exhibitions to support our EDI goals (as well as other global issues, such as climate change and ocean conservation) will not happen quickly. We are challenged by the reality of having a small team and a modest annual budget. We were able to apply some COVID-Recovery investment funds towards a study which has recommended some logistical approaches to re-organizing our galleries to allow us to increase the change-over in our exhibitions. We will move from the model of maintaining approximately 90% of our museum as “permanent” exhibitions, to a combination of 40-60% space for changing exhibitions and approximately 40% as “semi-permanent” exhibitions. This will not only allow for more diversity in the stories we share but will also help us build a foundation for improved partnership outreach, stakeholder engagement and for developing an audience of repeat visitors.

Like many museums, we’ve been placing a greater emphasis on experiential learning – which has dramatically advanced our inclusion efforts. We’ve engaged directly with communities and with community partners to co-develop programs and activities. Our focus has been on youth, particularly youth at risk or from marginalized communities. One program which has garnered a lot of attention is called Building Boats, Changing Lives. As the name suggests, the activity is boat building, and the intended outcome is to have a transformative impact on the lives of those who participate. I can tell you; it has also been transformative for our museum. It has enabled us to connect with diverse communities, even when our exhibitions are not yet as inclusive as they should be.

Figure 7. Ta’n me’j Tel-keknuo’ltiek: How Unique We Still Are (Special exhibition at the MMA) and Guest Curator, Salina Kemp

Credit: Communications NS - Len Wagg

The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic is celebrating its 40th anniversary on the Halifax Waterfront. It is another reason to feel like 2022 is a time for renewal. We are motivated by our new EDI goals, by our increasing awareness of global issues, particularly related to the health of our planet and our oceans. (Though not the focus of this paper, it is important to relate that in addition to EDI initiatives, concerted efforts are being made at the MMA to advance our understanding of climate change and ocean health, and our role as a museum. We have also undertaken a significant climate change adaptation study for our waterfront museum). We are inspired by the incredible conversations and collaborations which are emerging around EDI and the well being of our planet and oceans, not only in our local communities, but with colleagues and institutions around the world. We may continue to be important, relevant, meaning-making institutions, but we must be prepared to change.

Figure 8. Building Boats, Changing Lives program

Credit: MMA – Derek Harrison