I mentioned a few posts back that I still had a few places to write about from my Belgium trip, and this is one of them: The National Fisheries Museum. In addition to keeping with my recent seaside theme, this is the second fishing heritage centre I’ve visited in the past month. We arrived in Oostdunkerke in the late afternoon on the day of the annual Shrimp Festival, having spent the rest of the afternoon at the Dr. Guislain Museum, and missing the parade as a result (which is kind of a shame, as I was looking forward to seeing the Shrimp Queen receive her crown). Fortunately, the National Fisheries Museum (Nationaal Visserijmuseum) was open until 6, and the giant shrimp statue and fisherman shrubbery in the centre of town weren’t going anywhere either.
As far as I can make out, the National Fisheries Museum is based in Oostdunkerke due to their traditional method of shrimp-fishing on horseback, which was once commonly used all over the Belgian coast (and in England as well), but is now only in Oostdunkerke. I was a bit confused as to how this actually worked, since we arrived too late in the day for the demonstrations, but I did find this video (for anyone else who is curious). It appears they drag a net behind the horse, and go much further into the sea than I would have thought, aided by the massive draft horses they use (at least, I think they’re called draft horses. I’m no Almanzo Wilder!). At any rate, the Oostdunkerkians are clearly proud of their tradition, which is reflected inside the museum.
Since it was such a small town, I was slightly worried that the museum wouldn’t have English translations, but as usual, my fears were unwarranted. Paying the 5 euro admission fee gained us access to one of those ubiquitous Belgian museum turnstiles, which in turn opened up to a courtyard with a traditional fisherman’s hut plunked down in the middle, complete with a waxwork family and low door frames.
Exiting through the hobbit-sized door at the rear of the hut took us into the museum proper. There was a specific trail you were meant to follow through the museum, but being me, I ended up going backwards through some of the galleries (which was fine, it just meant the signage didn’t flow chronologically). The galleries were all quite atmospheric, with the first one decked (ha!) out to resemble the seaside, complete with sand, and maritime paintings hung on the walls.
The upstairs told the story of Belgian fisherman who fished in Icelandic waters, which was obviously chock-full of harrowing experiences, but I probably enjoyed the small display on superstitions the most (for reference, see the sea monster above), as well as the replica helm.
Progressing through the museum, we entered a sort of harbour/ship-building area that had authentic dim lighting, but was sadly sans authentic smells. Ah well, not everyone places as high of a priority on smelling foul odours as I do.
The last room on the main floor was dominated by a ship called the Martha (an unsatisfying name if you ask me; if I had a boat it would be called something along the lines of the Salty Seaman), which was evidently caught in the middle of a storm (cue neat thunder and lightning effects every few minutes). There was a computer set up in one corner where you could tap out a message in Morse code, and email it to your friends (obviously, being incredibly immature, I sent a message including the words “fart” and “poo”). The Morse code thing was in addition to the number of interactive screens throughout the museum, including ones where you could try identifying different types of fish, and another that even offered seafood recipes (stewed dogfish, anyone?).
In addition, there was an impressive display of fisherman’s clogs and other fishing related paraphernalia. Above this gallery was one devoted to the actual eating of fish, with a mock fishmonger’s stall, and some vintage posters used to advertise fish. It’s nice that they included it, because it’s quite easy to get swept away with the dramatic seafaring tales, and forget that the whole point of the fishing industry is catching, you know, food. (Ironically, I don’t even like fish, and I have an actual phobia of crabs and lobsters and things, so I wouldn’t be caught dead at a seafood restaurant anyway, but that’s another story).
The final section of the museum was downstairs, and had several large aquariums set up in the middle. This area was clearly aimed at children, but there were only a couple gross crabs to avoid looking at, so I could enjoy it too, for the most part. The shrimp stained glass window was pretty cool, and I even thought the little stingray and crab mascots were cute, at least until I realised that the one was indeed a stingray, and not a kite. (He does look very much like a kite though, doesn’t he?)
Despite the focus on crustaceans, and the lack of authentic smells, I think I liked the National Fisheries Museum better than the Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth. The information was well-presented, the museum was devoted to recreating the feeling of being at sea, rather than in a odoriferous processing plant (which undeniably made it a more pleasant environment), it had a better overall flow, and the aquariums were a nice touch. Also, I had a very delicious waffle down by the seaside, which certainly didn’t hurt matters, so 4/5. However, I am irked that I didn’t get to see “Zeerotica,” which I’ve only just discovered via their website, especially after reading the description: “It is an invitation to an intimate journey through nature, culture and the daily life of coastal residents, all dipped in a spicy erotic sauce.” We visited the week after this exhibition started, but no one mentioned it to us, unless it was the special exhibition with no English captions that one of the ladies at the desk briefly mentioned. Had she told us the subject matter, there is no way I would have missed it, whether it was in English or not. 😦