The Macao Maritime Museum celebrates the city’s intimate relationship over five centuries with the sea – from which its people earned their living and which brought the Portuguese from the other side of the world.
When it opened in 1990, it was the first custom-built modern museum in the city. It occupies a historic site – next to the A-Ma temple, the first structure in Macao built in 1368, and the spot in the Inner Harbour where the Portuguese explorers landed in 1553.
It is a three-storey white building in the shape of a boat with full sails. Its big glass windows are like the observation tower of a boat. From a distance, the museum building appears to be a majestic boat anchoring at a tranquil port.
“Our mission is to tell people of the history and culture of Macao,” said Director Jessica Chan. “This is an immigrant city, with around half of the population born elsewhere. I hope all residents will come to our museum. It is important to explain the relations between the past story of the collection and their present lives and deepen their sense of belonging, wherever they were born. Museums should have a function to help to guide the local communities towards sustainable development. ”
In the past 10 years, the museum has attracted an average of 88,000 visitors a year, half from Macao and half from outside, mainly Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland.
“We want to expand the site at the back in what used to be a government dockyard. We would like to have space for special exhibitions, a larger collection storage area and an educational site for children,” she said.
History of nearly 100 years
The history of the museum dates back to 1919, where the Marine Department had a room of exhibits in what is now its headquarters, in the Moorish Barracks.
In 1934, they were moved to a hangar in the Naval Aviation Centre. Believing that the city, neutral in the war, was planning to sell aviation fuel to Japan, the U.S. Navy sent airplanes to bomb the centre on January 16, 1945; they destroyed the hangar and all the exhibits inside it. In 1950, the U.S. paid 20.3 million USD in compensation to the Portuguese government for the air raid and two others in Macao, in February and June 1945.
In 1986, Commander António Martins Soares, the Macao harbour master, proposed the idea of a museum. It opened in a two-storey colonial house in the Largo do Pagode de Barra in 1987. Because the space was too small, the government decided that they needed a larger area and commissioned the new building.
It opened on 24th June 1990, in the presence of the Governor Carlos Montez Melancia. It occupies an area of 1,000 square metres and has a large esplanade. The former museum became the administrative offices where Chan and her colleagues work.
“We received items from many quarters,” said Chan, who has worked in the museum for 24 years. “Departments of the government gave them to us, as did shipping companies which gave us models of their vessels and fishermen who donated items they had used, and so on.
“All the items are precious, but, if I had to select one, or let’s say the most difficult to have, I would say the three wooden items, they are the single block, deadeyes and carriage wheel, which were uncovered in 1993 during the land reclamation work for the construction of the Macao International Airport on Taipa Island. They are part of an important archaeological discovery.
After radio-carbon dating and in view of the size and shape of the items, it is believed that they came from a large 17th century European ship that sank off Macao.”
Developing the museum
Chan said that the museum had a budget for purchasing new items. “Since this is public money, we should and must follow a strict procedure in applying to use it. We must study as to why we need to buy a piece and whether it is worthwhile. We must respect the government budget.”
She said that museums must fit the time and place where they are based. “It is a place for education, research and publicity. A museum can do many things, but it must serve society and not be profit-making. Macao is an immigrant city, at the same time, it is also a tourism city. I hope our museum can also attract more tourists to come to discover our culture, which is good for the image of Macao that it is not only limited to gambling.”
Of the average 88,000 visitors a year, half are local people and half from outside. “I have made some observations and analyses of visitors’ behaviour,” she said. “The average length of stay in the museum is 45-60 minutes, with concentration most intense during the first 30 minutes. After that, they spend less and less time on each item. There is no exam, we cannot suppose the visitors get all information we want them to know. The most important thing is that we should try our best to inspire their interests and let them continue to explore the subjects even after they step out of the museum.”
Many local visitors are students; space for museum education is important. The museum is handicapped by the lack of space. “This means that, after 20 years, Macao people lack a feeling of freshness and we cannot always organise new exhibitions, including special exhibition and permanent exhibitions,” she said, “As you know, our museum is the first building constructed with the function of a museum in Macao. At that time, a museum was a new thing in Macao. Due to some limitations of land resource and technical conditions, compared to the current requirement of a museum, there are some deficiencies; for example, we do not have space for special exhibitions and the space for collection storage is very small,” she said.
She added: “regarding our permanent exhibition, there is a close relation between each exhibit. If we change our permanent exhibition on a large scale, we need a large collection to support that. Of course, during these years, we did some changes, but these changes are not obvious enough to attract the public to notice and to come again to our museum. Attracting people to come again is very important to any museum.”
She is optimistic about their plan to expand the museum, with additional space for such a facility as well as rooms specially for children. The adjacent site was originally a government dockyard established in 1909. In 2003, the yard was relocated to the Rua da Doca Seca to meet the needs of development of the government. The site is now vacant.
Admiral Zheng He and Vasco da Gama
The museum explores major themes in the history of the maritime industry in Macao, China and Portugal, with five sections.
The first floor displays the traditions and techniques of fishermen in Macao, including costumes, models of boats and fishing techniques. There are models of fishing vessels, demons-trations of different fishing techniques, fishing implements and information on the customs and religion of the fishermen. Videos show the techniques of fishermen at work and the story of the goddess A-ma (Mazu).
It reminds visitors that the sea provided the main livelihood for Macao people for most of its history, as fishermen and shipbuilders.
The second floor shows the history of Portuguese exploration and geographical discovery during the 15th-17th centuries. There is a model of the ‘Nau do Trato’, a merchant frigate that was use for the lucrative but dangerous trade voyages between Macao and Japan. Macao and its harbour during the 17th century are depicted by a three-dimensional model. It shows the harbour, walls and fortifications.
There is a model of the St Gabriel, the ship on which Vasco da Gama discovered the route between Europe and India; it was the start of the maritime empire of Portugal that lasted for four centuries.
There is a Namban screen painted by Japanese. This was a form of art that developed after the first Portuguese ships in Kyushu in 1543 and depicted these strange-looking people from unknown countries in the west.
Portuguese ships plied the route between Goa in India, Malacca, Macao and Japan; it was extremely lucrative, the golden age of Portuguese commerce in Asia.
There is also a model of the Creoula, a Portuguese fishing vessel used between 1937 and 1973; it made 37 voyages from Lisbon to Newfoundland in Canada, staying for a period of six months. It brought home 800 tonnes of fish and 60 tonnes of cod liver oil. In addition, a model of the Sagres, a vessel built in a German yard in 1937-38. The Portuguese navy bought it in 1962 and used it as a training boat; it came to Macao three times, in 1979, 1983 and 1993.
There are replicas too of well-known Chinese vessels – a five-storey junk used in the Sui dynasty (581-614 AD); it was the most powerful naval vessel of its time.
The most famous Chinese mariner was Admiral Zheng He who made seven voyages to the Arabian peninsula and East Africa between 1405 and 1433. His fleet comprised more than 200 vessels of different sizes with combined crews of 27,000, the largest in the world. His flagship, the Treasure Ship, was 125 metres long and 50 metres wide, with a carrying capacity of over 8,000 tonnes.
He died during his seventh and final voyage in 1433, due to old age. His patron was Emperor Yong Le (personal name Zhu Di), who supported and financed him; he died in 1424. But the new emperor decided such ocean voyages were a waste of time and money. He ordered the destruction of all official records and document about Zheng He’s voyages and a ban on such voyages in future.
If he had decided otherwise and to make use of China’s military and technological prowess at the time, it could have colonised Africa; and its people today would be speaking Mandarin and not Portuguese, French and English.
The top floor shows marine technology and transport, dredging and navigation. The exhibits include Guia Lighthouse, the first lighthouse in China, various kinds of ropes, a three-dimensional model of Macao, as well as a variety of boat models. There is an exhibition of nautical instruments used from the 18th to 20th centuries, including octants, telescopes, straight edges, mariner’s compasses and sextants.
The Aquarium Gallery in the museum has four tanks. Each is devoted to a different theme of the sub-water world. The first presents a fresh water riverbed, the second a harbour and the third a coral reef. The last tank features the scenes of a sunken boat in the deep sea and deep-water fish.
From the square outside, the visitor can appreciate the scenery on the river bank and the busy harbour. The museum has a library with about 2,500 books, including those on maritime technology, marine customs and the history of Portuguese and Chinese maritime history.
Text Mark O’Neill
Photo Cheong Kam Ka