Houston Maritime Museum

Newly Reopened Houston Maritime Museum Takes Visitors on Voyage through Maritime History

The Houston Maritime Museum is docking at a new berth at 2311 Canal Street while leaders chart the course to a permanent home in the East End neighborhood of Houston. A charming nautical mural across its entrance makes it a beacon for visitors, and the urge to snap a selfie is irresistible. The building began life as an elementary school. Over time, it was converted into offices and finally a yoga studio before becoming the temporary home to the Houston Maritime Museum.

The move to Canal Street in January marks a season of many changes for the museum. It is the beginning of an ambitious program to raise funds and build a permanent building. The decision to move the museum from its former home on Dorrington Street was not an easy one. At first glance, it might have seemed easier and more cost effective to pour all their energies into the necessary fund raising from the original location. However, the ravages to the building from storms like Hurricane Ike and the infamous Harvey made that impossible.

“It just made sense for us to move, even though moving a museum for us was not ideal because of the artifacts and the models,” said museum director, Leslie Bowlin. “It was a huge endeavor. It was not optimal, but we didn’t have any choice.”

It also represents a new concept in the museum’s maritime history model. Using an integrated approach that will eventually showcase multiple stories on a historical maritime timeline, the museum plans to show how Houston connects with the world. For instance, visitors examining the maritime endeavors of the Phoenicians in ancient times will one day be able to compare what was happening in Houston at the same time – possibly seeing a depiction of the early Karankawas or Akokisa native Americans at work along Cypress Creek.

Rolling along, students of all ages will be able to observe how maritime enterprises influenced society and vice versa. It holds the potential for diverse learning moments. Seeing influential events dovetailing on a timeline helps students grasp the significance of developments such as longitude making long-distance sea travel safer and understanding that the advancement was directly connected to clock-making on the shore side. Sharing in the story of John Harrison’s relentless pursuit of an accurate marine chronometer makes it relatable and memorable.

“Everyone has a maritime story, they may just not know it,” pointed out Bowlin. “If you drive a Volkswagon, you have a maritime story, because your car got here that way [through a sea voyage].”

Whether visitors are intrigued by exploration, technology, warfare, art, or even fashion – it was the sailor suit that helped make Coco Chanel famous – the museum will connect it to a story while also pointing to Houston. While Houston’s maritime activities may have been a little quiet during John Harrison’s era, it’s only few decades down the timeline until the Texas Navy helps win independence for Texas. Right now, a small theatre room introduces the Texas Navy to visitors at the museum.

The timeline and its interconnected stories will move visitors through the decades up to the modern era of energy and the shale oil boom. It should prove a fascinating method for people to connect the dots on the importance of maritime and Houston’s role in the global community.

While this intriguing vision will need time and money to fully come to life, the Houston Maritime Museum has forged ahead, incorporating it into precisely-placed displays at the new Canal Street location. In its freshly painted, carefully tended quarters, the first timeline is already guiding visitors from antiquity right up to modern offshore drill platforms in its Energy Hall. An aptly named Kid’s Cove room provides hands-on activities for children, from nautical dress-up to taking the helm at the big ship wheel.

It’s in the Energy Hall where the tie to Houston becomes increasingly significant. It is a large space where sturdily encased models of offshore rigs, many of them donated by local companies, can be rolled away to transform the room into an event hall for lectures or other activities. The museum presents lectures each month on local, regional, national, and international subjects of the maritime world. Lectures are divided into two subject themes, either historical in focus or specific to an industrial topic. They generously keep a YouTube site so that past lectures are easily available to the public.

Family Days are new learning experiences the museum kicked-off in January 2019. Conducted on select Saturdays, families can join the staff in crafting, board games, and activities designed to put learners in the role of maritime history’s most famous figures. On Family Day, admission and events are free.

Introducing young students to the maritime world is another high priority for the Houston Maritime Museum. Docents frequently lead groups from public, private, charter, and home educating school groups. A full time education and outreach coordinator for the museum, manages the effort. They offer a variety of school programs, including a traveling trunk they take into classrooms.

The museum is also focused on introducing maritime careers to students in grades K-8. “We want to reach them early, so that by the time they get to the 8th grade and their counselor mentions a maritime career, they’ll say ‘that sounds interesting,’” Bowlin said.

Overall, the plans for the Houston Maritime Museum show a far-reaching, but clear vision, and it’s off to a good start. From intricate ship models to its “friendly or enemy” vessel recognition station to its collection of coffee cups that came through the Panama Canal, each placement is cultivated with an eye toward fulfilling their goals. “This is just a capsule of what we will be doing in the future,” said Bowlin.

Take some time to book your own passage to enjoy this fascinating voyage through maritime history. The Houston Maritime Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, and admission is $5 for children and seniors; $8 for adults. Admission is always free for active duty military personnel and veterans. To plan your trip, or for more information about membership, events, sponsorship, and the future home of the museum, visit www.houstonmaritime.org.

Photos by Alexander Bowlin.

  • Date March 19, 2019
  • Tags 2019 February