Monday, January 27, 2014

Boat Preservation: Mallorca's maritime museum

At Alcúdia's spring boat fair five years ago I got into conversation with a bunch of people who were exhibiting traditional fishermen's boats and promoting the craft that still goes into their making and also into their restoration. It was an exhibition and workshop by the Mestres d'Aixa, master shipwrights. Part of the stand was devoted to information about and photos of a boat called "La Balear". Built in 1924 at the Ballester yard in Palma, it was the oldest fishing boat to have undergone restoration and conservation work. It took four years; a labour of love, devotion and artisan skill to get right the first and most important restoration the Mestres had undertaken. Four years will sound like an awfully long time to work on a wooden boat that is not exactly large, but it wasn't necessarily that long a time. Another purpose of the Alcúdia exhibition was to highlight the decline and possible disappearance of the traditional shipwright in the Balearics and so also, therefore, the traditional craft. At the time of the exhibition, though there were still 1200 wooden fishing boats, there were at most only seven qualified shipwrights.

In that same year, 2009, at the Pollensa Fair some months later was a display of farm carriages. They were the work of a master wheelwright, a craft skill that has all but died out in Mallorca as it has everywhere else. I happen to know one of the very few wheelwrights in England. He teaches the craft and attempts to keep it alive, and there is, perhaps ironically, good money to be made. This friend of mine makes props for television period drama productions - coaches and what have you. And the money is good.

In order to keep these traditions going, be it in England or in Mallorca, requires a  fight against the demands of modernity, technology and indifference. Demand for shipwrights in Mallorca to make or restore traditional fishing boats is bound to only be limited, so modernity and technology will have its say; there's no escaping this. But indifference is another matter, one that conflicts with an oft-stated but rarely actioned official desire to maintain traditions and culture, including those of artisan craftspeople, be they shipwrights, wheelwrights or whatever. As is mostly always the case, politicians and others will speak romantically about preservation of skills and traditions but will end up doing precious little or anything about it.

When the restoration of "La Balear" was completed in 2004, the hope was that there would be an official maritime museum at which it, along with other old fishing boats, might be displayed. The Amics del Museu Marítim (friends of the museum) had a yard and a shed that could have become a museum. They had boats that had been collected from the 1940s and 1950s. Rather than these boats being placed in a museum, they were stored elsewhere. Neither the regional government nor the Council of Mallorca would make funding available, but the Council was able to give some storage - an old pig farm.

The vice-president of the friends of the museum was not optimistic that the museum would become a reality. That was ten years ago. Five years later, in 2009, a motion was presented to the Balearics Parliament which proposed the creation of a foundation for the maritime museum, one which would have been under the auspices of the regional government's environment ministry. The motion was rejected and so hopes that the museum might be created were once more dashed. It was observed at the time that discussions and broken promises regarding the museum had by then been ongoing for thirty years. It was also observed that plans for the museum had received some official recognition in 1997 when the prize for research, among the other prizes awarded annually by the city of Palma, went to Bernat Oliver, the chief technical expert associated with the museum.

Parliament's rejection of the motion led to the question being asked that had been asked many times before. Would a maritime museum ever be established? The question is of course still being asked and it was asked in rather unusual fashion in Manacor during the recent Sant Antoni fiestas. A bonfire with a traditional Mallorca "lläut" was set light to in order to highlight the failure by the "competent authorities" to facilitate the establishment of the museum. The Amics del Museu Marítim were joined by other organisations, such as the association for yacht clubs, in denouncing the inaction and the potential loss of the fishing-boat tradition once and for all. There is, though, some hope that the museum might at last come into being. The Balearics Ports Authority has offered its old headquarters. But will the offer be backed by official support and, more importantly, by official money?

* Photo is of the stand at the 2009 Alcúdia boat fair.

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