Since arriving in Vancouver to fill the role of Executive Director at the Vancouver Maritime Museum (VMM) in July 2017, Dr. Joost Schokkenbroek has been enamoured with the city, its residents and, of course, its maritime museum. “Everyone I’ve met is so open, so generous with their time and ideas,” he said in an interview with BC Shipping News. “And there’s so much enthusiasm. It’s a wonderful stimulus.” Seeing great potential for the future of the museum, Schokkenbroek has embarked on a strategy that promises to bring a renewed vibrancy, not only to the museum, but to the surrounding area at Vanier Park. And with that renewed vibrancy, he believes we’ll see a revitalized passion for the City’s iconic collection of maritime artifacts.
Prior to taking on his current position, Dr. Joost Schokkenbroek was the Chief Curator for the Dutch National Maritime Museum. He started his museum career at the Kendall Whaling Museum in Sharon, Massachusetts, U.S. After three years, he and his wife moved to Amsterdam in January 1991. In 2008, Schokkenbroek obtained his PhD in maritime history at Leiden University.
In addition to numerous board positions (for example, past Secretary-General and President, Netherlands Association for Maritime History; past President, Netherlands Association for Vexillology; and a Director on the board of the Directie der Oostersche Handel en Reederijen, one of the oldest Dutch maritime funds related to the maritime historical connections between the Netherlands and the Baltic region), Dr. Schokkenbroek was a professor at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam as well as Chair of Maritime History and Maritime Heritage.
And if the above is not enough to impress, he has published numerous works on whaling history, the admiralties in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Dutch East and West India Companies, maritime art and artefacts, and on the maritime history between the Netherlands and the Baltic. Additional works published focus on artefacts, museum collections and material culture in general and their importance as sources for historical research. In due course, Schokkenbroek wants to connect the Vancouver Maritime Museum with universities to set up courses in maritime history, material culture and museum studies. His experience in Amsterdam was that, for academia and museums, the mutual benefits are substantial. Just to mention one of many: students can do their research in museum collections, and museums can benefit from the results of their endeavours in exhibits.
The task at hand
Schokkenbroek’s first priority upon arrival at the VMM was the internal organization of the museum. “After lengthy conversations with staff to get an understanding of their skills,” he said, “I realized there was some significant talent here and they have some very creative ideas for the museum. I want to stimulate that — I tell them to dazzle me with their wildest ideas.”
At the same time, Schokkenbroek began building relationships with government representatives, other local museum and cultural directors and, of course, key players in the local maritime industry. While the results have been very positive — for example, the recent shared “Into the Arctic” exhibit between the museum and the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, as well as the Princess Sophia exhibit from the Maritime Museum of BC that will be on display at the VMM in April — Schokkenbroek is holding off on reaching out further, including to international institutions, until his house is in order.
“We’re making great progress,” he said. “Our education programs are very popular, the number of visitors is increasing (especially since we expanded our hours to seven days a week) and we have exhibits that are refreshed more frequently. So when it comes to some of these basic museum activities like exhibits, education and research, we’re doing quite well.”
So, what’s missing? While Schokkenbroek feels the museum is gaining a higher level of credibility and professionalism, he has turned his attention to the state of the museum’s collections and management of those collections. “Bottom line, we need more storage space and we need more staff to help get the collections in order. Right now, we only have one curator and one librarian and archivist — so two positions for a collection that includes upwards of 40,000 artifacts, 100,000 photos, dozens if not hundreds of archives and about 14,000 books. While these two staff members are very bright and very hardworking, there’s only so much they can do in a day.”
Noting backlogs with registration, digitization and proper storage conditions, Schokkenbroek is holding off on reaching out to his peers around the world until the collection is in order. “That’s very important because we must be able to say to our constituency that we work together worldwide with other museums in providing loans, in putting exhibitions together, and in organizing conferences,” he said, estimating that another two assistants would be a good start.
Schokkenbroek has already developed a business plan for moving forward but much depends on whether additional funding can be found. “For the collections backlog and getting it to a level where we can reach out to other museums would take three or four years. An estimated total of $2 million spread out over four years should suffice to create better storage, have the complete collection digitized, registered and accessible via the museum’s website. If we can find 10 parties willing to spend $50,000 for four years we’re there,” he said. “I’d also like to create more of a link between the museum and Heritage Harbour. There are some wonderful assets here and great opportunities to build on them to provide more awareness for the VMM as well as create new revenue streams.”
But there are limitations, especially with a building that is located on a flood plain. “We have been advised of the likelihood of frequent flooding so we are looking into options for other locations. In reality, I think we’ll be here for a number of years still so we have to balance our needs now with those of the future,” Schokkenbroek said, noting the paradox of the excellent location of the VMM but the limits posed by that location and the building itself.
“To really present the gems we have and the richness of the programs, as well as highlighting our signature piece, the National Heritage Site St. Roch, we need three to four times the space we currently have — at least double the space for St. Roch alone,” he said. “We’re exploring all options at this point.”
In the meantime, Schokkenbroek sees great potential in expanding on the present location as well as sharing exhibits. “There is no coffee shop between the Boathouse complex at Sunset Beach and Granville Island. I would love to explore the opportunity to set up a small coffee shop (of the type you find in Canada, not those in Amsterdam) here that would serve as a gathering place and draw people toward the VMM. And there are more opportunities to share exhibits. In meeting with the Director of Vancouver Civic Theatres, she noted the amount of underutilized space they have so there is a great opportunity to work together.”
Schokkenbroek has also reached out to the executive directors of Vanier Park institutions as well as the Seaforth Highlanders. “I would love for us to create a cultural festival once a year,” he said. “I believe the City needs this — a cultural hub, not just for residents but for the millions of tourists that visit. And I would love to get the area close to Heritage Harbour dredged to be able to create a maritime festival, ideally with larger sailing vessels visiting.”
The importance of partnerships
Schokkenbroek emphasized that many of his plans will require close collaboration with key partners, including greater outreach to current and potential sponsors. “We have received such significant support from industry partners like Teekay, Seaspan and the Port of Vancouver,” he said, adding that he would like to find more opportunities to collaborate with these organizations as well as others in the industry.
To do that, Schokkenbroek believes there are a lot of opportunities to reach out to local residents. The museum should become more community-based. “Many residents have told me that they have visited the museum only two or three times — once, as part of a school field trip when they were young; again when they brought their own child here; and for some, when they have brought their grandchildren. There’s a common sentiment that the museum might be an interesting gem but we need to find ways to spice things up.”
With ideas like creating a patio where there is an opportunity to sit and enjoy a coffee while taking in the surroundings, offering the space for rent for other events, or even holding social events for people to meet and network, Schokkenbroek brings with him a fresh, creative approach that promises to lead to a reinvigoration of the museum and the surrounding area.
But first, the priorities — more staff, more storage and more funding. “I would love to find some good storage space close by. That’s a big priority. Potentially, some readers of BC Shipping News may hold the keys to spaces the museum can use for this important purpose. Our assets are our collections and it’s very important to have them organized. Without a collection, you’re not a museum — and the VMM has the potential to be so much more than just a museum. It should become a meeting place where people living in this great city or visiting it as tourists have a wonderful time experiencing hospitality, quietness, great views over English Bay and — yes, of course — fabulous displays and stories in the museum.