Migrating to the Maritime Museum
A daytrip to the Virgin Islands just won’t cut it. It takes more than a quick trip to a packed Cane Garden Bay or a shopping spree at Yacht Haven Grande to shed insight into all that is wonderful and cultural about these magnificent and complex islands. To offer new incentives to those looking to get more than just a hangover and sunburn from their brief stay in the VI, local tour operators have begun to partner with educational facilities, like the Maritime Museum at H. Lavity Stoutt College and the Old Government House Museum in Road Town, to provide tourists with another option for exploring and learning about the past and present of the British Virgin Islands.
Cruise ship daytrippers visit Tortola’s Maritime Museum.
This year, Tortola tour operator Elroy Fahie, who owns Elroy’s Pleasure Tours, began offering an excursion that provides tourists with a detailed description of the island and its culture. He also takes guests to the college, and allows them a guided tour of the Maritime Museum.
“We want them to see the islands for much more than just a place to go sit on a beach,” Fahie said. “We want them to know that we have this college—that we’re not uncivilized—and that we have a culture and identity.”
I caught up with the tour operator during a recent visit to the Maritime Museum, where he was transporting three packed safari busses full of guests to hear a short lecture about the history of boat making in the BVI. Within the bi-level building across from the college, information, artefacts, photographs and model replicas of boats fill the floors. The timeless information pays tribute to an era of boatmakers whose practice is near to extinction. Geoffrey Brooks, who helped launch the museum and who now coordinates tours as one of the facility’s curator, has devoted much of his time to preserving legacy of these cultural craftsmen.
“The BVI is one of the top four boat-building locales in the Caribbean,” he said, also naming Bequia, Anguilla and Curacao as boat-building neighbours. “Those other islands still carry on the tradition, but here this is the best we can do to preserve the craft.”
On a wall of the second floor at the museum, pictures hang to recognize great figures in BVI’s history—those who worked to build the BVI’s early marine industry. “The Wall of Respect,” as it’s called, carries the names of friends and family members both living and passed on.
“It’s great to see a child say, ‘Hey, that’s my grandfather, or great, great grandfather,’”said Brooks, who mentioned that the museum hosts many tours for primary five students. “That connection helps to draw some interest in the project we have here at a young age.”
The recent push to partner with the cruise ship companies and tour operators has brought a new type of visitor to the museum, and has helped to open BVI’s culture to an international market. However, cruise ship visitors currently are limited to a roughly 15-minute tour of the museum, which doesn’t allow for an in-depth exploration of all that is on display, Brooks said.
“It’s great to have them in here and interested about the culture, but more than anything it leaves them with a growing interest about the college, and the education opportunities that we have here,” he said.
During a rainy weekday in February, about 60 cruise ship passengers filled the museum—some listened to a brief lecture by Brooks, others scattered and quickly glossed over the display cases and models lining the facility.
“We’ve only got 15 minutes, so let’s hurry up,” said Jo Lightfoot, a passengers from Toronto who was traveling on a Norwegian ship. She hurried her husband before he headed for the bathroom.
“We were turned on the ‘Best of Tortola’ title in the brochure,” she admited. “Museums are interesting, and I particularly like the idea of organizing these old artefacts and relics, and put them on display for folks like us.”
Cheryl Parkin, who visited the territory from central California, also sided with the tour for the less-traveled appeal that it provides intuitive travelers.
“We want to see the islands for more than just that—we want to know about this college, we can see that they’re not uncivilized,” the cruise ship passenger said. “We ultimately selected this tour because it gives an overview of the island, and we want to learn more about the places we are visiting—not just run around like we own the place, get drunk and leave.”
Asked about her extent of knowledge about the Virgin Islands, she said, “Absolutely nothing. Can you tell? But we’d like to change that, so here we are.”