Maritime history is the study of how humans interact and use the sea, from piracy to exploration, from naval battles to trade. It also tells the story of human history, how people moved across the world, how new foods and produce were introduced to different countries and how countries were able to grow their economies.
You can find all sorts of maritime museums across the world. Some of these museums explore maritime history on a global scale whilst others focus on a local connection to the sea or have been built around a specific ship or unique collection.
Here are some of the best maritime museums from around the world that help to bring to life the history of the sea.
The National Museums of Liverpool are a group of institutions dedicated to preserving and sharing the history of Liverpool’s impact on Britain and the world. The museums include the Museum of Liverpool, the International Slavery Museum and the Maritime Museum.
The International Slavery Museum seeks to increase our understanding of the transatlantic slave trade as well as other forms of forced migration and enslavement. The Maritime Museum, meanwhile, is housed in the historic Royal Albert Dock and covers Merseyside’s rich seafaring heritage.
2. Maritime Museum, San Diego
Located on the San Diego Bay, the Maritime Museum of San Diego houses the largest collection of historic and replica ships in the USA. Ships from the museum’s collection include the Star of India, the world’s oldest active sailing ship from 1863, the steam ferry Berkeley from 1898 and, for fans of the film Master and Commander, HMS Surprise, a replica of the 18th-century frigate Rose.
The Maritime Museum of San Diego is a must-see for all maritime history and shipping enthusiasts.
3. Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney
Built in the historic Darling Harbour, the Australian National Maritime Museum was opened in 1991. The museum explores Australia’s historic and cultural connection to the sea. Permanent displays include ‘Navigators’, an exhibit that charts Europeans’ discovery and mapping of Australia, and ‘Passengers’, which explores the impact of migration to Australia. There’s also an exhibition narrating the history of the Royal Australian Navy.
The Australian National Maritime Museum is also home to an impressive collection of museum ships that are open to the public, including an HM Bark Endeavour replica, HMAS Vampire and HMAS Onslow.
Portugal has a rich maritime history. In the 15th century, Portugal launched the period known as the Age of Discovery with Portuguese explorers and sailors making significant maritime discoveries. Though other European nations would challenge their nautical power, Portugal would remain a significant player in the maritime world.
The maritime museum at Lisbon explores the history of the Age of Discovery as well as Portugal’s Navy.
5. National Maritime Museum, Cornwall
Officially opened in 2003, the National Maritime Museum Cornwall is situated in the Discovery Quay in Falmouth. The museum was built on land that once housed boat-building sheds, and these sheds inspired the building’s design.
The museum explores the influence of the sea on human history on a local, national and international scale. Spread out over 15 galleries on 5 floors, the museum’s exhibits paint a vivid picture of humanity’s shifting relationship with the sea.
6. Reykjavik Maritime Museum, Reykjavik
Located in the capital of Iceland, Reykjavik Maritime Museum is dedicated to sharing the country’s maritime history. The museum’s exhibition ‘Fish & Folk’ covers the history of the fishing industry in Iceland, one of country’s most important streams of income.
Visitors to the Reykjavik Maritime Museum can also explore the historic coast guard vessel Óðinn. Onboard, they’ll learn about the vessel’s history and its involvement in the Cod Wars (1958-1976), which was fought between the UK and Iceland over fishing rights.
In the 16th century, under the reign of Gustav II Adolf, Sweden grew as a European power and Gustav wanted a navy to reflect this. The Swedish navy was primarily comprised of small ships with a single gun deck whilst other European nations were building magnificent warships. Gustav ordered that bigger ships be built with the ability to house multiple gundecks. Vasa was the first of these ships. On 10 August 1682, Vasa embarked on her maiden voyage. The harbour at Stockholm was full of people celebrating this historic launch.
Within minutes, disaster struck and the ship began to sink. The wind pushed the ship so far over that water started to fill the gunports. Only 30 members of the crew survived, including the captain. Gustav was angry and an inquiry was held. No one was found guilty, but it is thought that the design of the ship, lacking the ballast in the hull to support the gun decks, was to blame.
The archaeological excavation and raising of Vasa means that it the best-preserved 17th century warship. The museum also displays artefacts from the wreck.
8. Maritime Museum, Rotterdam
The Maritime Museum Rotterdam was founded by Prince Henry of the Netherlands in 1874. It brings to life the history of the important port of Rotterdam, Holland, as well as the country’s wider seafaring heritage.
The Maritime Museum Rotterdam aims to curate engaging and informative exhibitions on the history of the port as well as contemporary issues and global maritime trends. It is home to more than 850,000 artefacts, as well as centuries-old vessels and family-friendly interactive exhibits.
Royal Museums Greenwich, part of the Greenwich UNESCO World Heritage site, is dedicated to telling the story of Britain’s maritime history. It is comprised of the National Maritime Museum, Cutty Sark, the Royal Observatory and Queen’s House.
Permanent displays in the Maritime Museum feature some of the museum’s 2.5 million objects in its collection, which cover Nelson’s Navy, the transatlantic slave trade and exploration. There are also regular temporary exhibitions exploring a plethora of maritime-related subjects.
The Vancouver Maritime Museum is dedicated to the seafaring history of Vancouver and Canada, and as such, arctic exploration features heavily in the museum’s exhibitions and displays.
The permanent exhibition ‘Across the Top of the World’ explores the quest for the Northwest Passage and covers the story of Captain Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition of 1845-1846.