The last thing you expect to find in a fishery museum is real live fish. Yet here they are – bass, turbot, sole and plaice – circling around two massive aquaria in a room beneath the restored trawler that is the pride and joy of Navigo, the National Fisheries Museum in Oostduinkerke.
It’s actually a bit disconcerting standing there under the trawler’s hull, the fish staring back at you, when you’ve spent the past few hours considering all the ingenious ways devised for getting them out of their element and onto our plates.
Including the fish is typical of the museum’s comprehensive approach to its subject. It comes at the local fishing industry from every angle, so why not from below? The result is a wide-ranging experience that should have something to please everyone, even if the scale sometimes means that fascinating aspects of the story have little space to develop.
The iconic image of fishing on this part of the Flemish coast is men on horseback dragging nets through the water at low tide to catch shrimp. This began as a sideline for farmers, who would take their plough horses through the dunes and down to the beach when agricultural work was slack. Later on, fishing with horses or mules became a mainstay for fishermen (along with a less romantic variant that involved their wives and daughters pushing nets through the icy water on foot).
This is the starting point for the museum’s permanent exhibition. First there is a restored fisherman’s cottage outside on the grounds, where grandparents watch over the hearth and the young children. Then inside the museum is a large diorama showing both methods of shrimping. Up close, the dummies are not entirely convincing, but with added ambient sound effects and first-person narratives on the audio guide (available in English and other languages), a vivid picture of this way of life emerges.
It’s a trick that the museum pulls off throughout its seven large rooms: Initially unpromising dioramas are brought to life by a detail or a well-placed sound. For example, close to the shrimp fishers is a display recreating a broken boat among the dunes. This is optimistically decorated with gulls on wires and a scattering of stuffed rabbits, yet the dune soundscape gradually transports you out of the room. Then being told that beachcombers used to pick up starfish and take them home to fertilise their gardens takes you to another time and place entirely.
After this exploration of shore fishing as practised in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the museum devotes a room to the longer historical view of fishing on the Flemish coast.
For many centuries, fishermen used flat-bottomed boats, which they could moor simply by running them up on to the beach. Initially they lived close at hand, among the dunes, but between the 12th and 16th centuries, most moved to land behind the dunes to avoid catastrophic storms that troubled the coast.
Each community had its own tight-knit group of fishermen who worked with traditional methods and often distinctive designs of boats. These are explored further in a later room, with enough models to keep the armchair sailor busy for hours.
It was only after 1800 that fishermen started to congregate around harbours such as Ostend, Blankenberge, Nieuwpoort and latterly Zeebrugge. Partly this was down to changing fishing methods, partly because coastal development for tourism was forcing them out of their traditional homes.
As well as working the waters of the Channel and the North Sea, fisherman also made the arduous voyage to the waters around Iceland. This began as early as the 17th century but gained momentum in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as economic forces made fishing locally even harder. The museum has a separate section devoted to the Iceland run, full of hair-raising detail about the conditions endured by fishermen.
These historical sections are rather heavy on text, although the museum succeeds in bringing out the human angle in panels following events in the Legein family from 1701 to 1981.
Part of the challenge that Navigo faces is that many of the artefacts left behind in the history of fishing are small and simple, such as the tools used to mend nets or the votive offerings placed in chapels by superstitious fishermen. These demand more attention from the visitor than exhibits in museums devoted to more extravagant subjects.
Yet items such as the pins, hooks and fragments of pottery found at the lost fishing village of Nieuwe Yde speak volumes just because they are so slight, a reminder that these were modest lives. The papers left behind are also modest, from fishing permits and muster rolls to the obituaries and memorial postcards for men lost at sea.
Things become grander in the final room dealing with fishing boats and industrial fishing of the 20th century. As well as the Martha, a restored wooden trawler dating from 1942, there are control panels and radio equipment from industrial fishing boats and more contemporary clothes and equipment. And from time to time, the lights dim and a simulated storm crackles overhead.
From here you can go up a floor to think about smoking, canning and other ways of preserving the catch. Or you can go down to the basement to commune with cod.
After last year’s eye-catching temporary exhibition on the erotic aspects of the sea, the museum’s latest offering is a bit of a disappointment. It is billed as Zeeschatten, or sunken treasure, and a lot of effort has gone into making pirates a principal theme. But for all the panels about the Jolly Roger, Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny, there is very little in the display cases to back up these stories.
Many of the artefacts on show come from the Rooswijk, a merchant vessel sunk in a storm in the English Channel in 1740. Shiny relics such as coins and wine flasks appear in a section devoted to treasure from shipwrecks, alongside ceramics and, bizarrely, tea from more distant wrecks.
Meanwhile, more martial debris from the Rooswijk, including cannonballs and fragments of sword and musket, are pressed into service in the pirate displays. With a little imagination, you can make it work, but by the time you get to the case featuring a Lego version of the ship from The Pirates of the Caribbean, it feels pretty desperate.
A more coherent display on the Rooswijk would have been preferable, exploring the cargo it was carrying, the route it sailed and how the wreck was rediscovered in 2004. That’s no less romantic just because pirates weren’t involved, and at least it has a vaguely local connection. The same goes for the woolly mammoth remains tucked away in one cabinet. Apparently, they are abundant in the North Sea, but that’s all we get of this potentially tantalising story.
Information panels for Zeeschatten are in Dutch with partial translations
in French and German
Pastoor Schmitzstraat 5, Oostduinkerke