Hats, knives and a very special towel: Navigo museum gets personal with fishermen


For its latest exhibition, the national fisheries museum in Oostduinkerke asked local fishermen to submit objects that best represent their lives and work

Follow the sea

Hats, knives and a towel might seem unlikely exhibits for a museum about sea fishing, yet this is what Flemish fishermen themselves suggested when asked what should represent their lives and their work. The results are presented in Onze Vissers (Our Fishermen), the new exhibition at Navigo, the national fisheries museum in Oostduinkerke, part of Koksijde, on the Flemish coast.

“This year we wanted to go back to our roots and take a close look at fisheries and fishermen,” explains Ineke Steevens, director of the museum and curator of the exhibition. “And because we are a museum that likes our audience to participate, we came up with the idea of asking the fishermen themselves what objects would have to be included in an exhibition about them.”

Having asked the question, she was surprised when so many fishermen presented their pocket knives. Known as a piekenoas, a dialect word for the ace of spades logo of the most popular brand, these knives are used to clean fish on board and for other routine tasks. Yet they also feature in dramatic tales, for example where a fishermen had to cut through trapped overalls in order to avoid drowning.

“Each knife was presented like a little precious diamond: ‘Here you go, will you be careful with it, can I have it back’,” she recalls. “So I knew I had to do something with these knives.”

Each knife is labelled with the name of its owner, and many show signs of hard use. The handles are cracked and worn, and some of the blades have been reshaped so often that their shape has changed completely.

Under the surface

The hats on display, from caps and woolly hats to sou’westers, are also the genuine article, collected from families and paired with pictures that show them in use. Another fisherman presented his entire work outfit, carefully preserved in sheets of paper since his retirement.

The process of collecting these personal items and talking to the fishermen changed Steevens’ view of the community. “Even though I’m the director of a fisheries museum, there’s a certain distance,” she says. “I’m not from a fishing family, and I had a particular idea of what fishermen were like.”

Now I’ve got to know them better, they are not how I imagined them. They are lovely, very sensitive, almost romantic people

- Ineke Steevens of Navigo

She saw them as tough men, covered in tattoos, hardworking on board and never sick. “Now I’ve got to know them better, they are not how I imagined them. They are lovely, very sensitive, almost romantic people.”

The most personal item on display is not quite so romantic: it’s the towel used by a fisherman for purposes of sexual relief during his long weeks at sea. This exhibit (neatly folded under glass, in a tin box) is accompanied by a text in Dutch in which the fisherman explains himself.

No easy day

“He always uses the same towel, because you should be loyal to your towel,” Steevens says, translating. “He has this whole theory about it, and it’s very funny. He’s a really good writer.”

The serious side to this exhibit is that work at sea often involves only the briefest opportunities to rest, and rituals that help you fall asleep are very important. “You work non-stop, so if you’re not a good sleeper you have a problem.”

Other personal items on show include letters, log books and diaries, scarves, wallets and pictures. Particularly touching are the aanmonstering books, a kind of passport fisherman needed to ship out, each with a picture but also details of height, eye colour, complexion, scars and tattoos.

The exhibition also includes items from the museum’s collection and a selection of images from the book Onze Vissers, published last year. “We collected a lot of photographs, some from private collections, that had not yet been exhibited, and I wanted to do something with them as well,” Steevens explains.

Before it’s too late

Some come from fishermen and their families, while others represent discoveries in the archives. François Donny, for example, was an entrepreneur and chemist from Ghent who designed a mobile studio, which he took up and down the coast in the second half of the 19th century. His images of fishing boats on the beach waiting for the tide are eerily atmospheric.

Steevens and her colleagues also unearthed photographs taken around Heist by Frank Lateur, an amateur photographer better known by his pseudonym as a writer: Stijn Streuvels. These discoveries are complemented by the work of more famous photographers, such as Maurice Antony of Ostend and the contemporary Stephan Vanfleteren.

As well as changing Steevens’ ideas about fishermen, the process of curating this exhibition also made her think about the museum’s future. “It’s been said since the 1960s that fisheries are disappearing, but now they really are,” she says. “The fishermen who are left are getting older, so we have to focus on oral history and collect their stories, otherwise it will be too late.”

Until 7 January, Pastoor Schmitzstraat 5, Oostduinkerke