Imagine a bigger, better waterfront maritime museum in Newcastle Harbour

Welcome to seafarers: The impressive ‘Destiny’ sculpture on the tip of Dyke Point.
Welcome to seafarers: The impressive ‘Destiny’ sculpture on the tip of Dyke Point.

IT just seems simply incredible.

Incredible a major port city the size of Newcastle now doesn’t have its own maritime museum, that is.

Newcastle is still a busy working harbour (unlike some others) and is proudly touted as being the world’s biggest coal export port. It also has a long, rich nautical past going back to penal settlement days.

And yet, it no longer has a permanent home down by the waterfront at Honeysuckle after maritime museum society members voted back in May to voluntarily wind up operations.

The Newcastle Maritime Museum had been located in a prime position on the waterfront in a heritage-listed building for the last 10 years. But prohibitive museum running costs, coupled with reliance on donations and volunteers, the need for more space, plus the expiry of its site lease and having to charge admission were all blamed for its demise.

The museum, once only a dream of dedicated group of ship lovers 40 years ago, had, sadly, always struggled to survive. People like the former Newcastle harbourmaster Ken Hopper, a driving force behind the original concept, must now be turning in his grave at the tragic turn of events.

From humble beginnings in a building at Lambton, to then being housed at Fort Scratchley until finally moving down to Honeysuckle, the maritime museum always needed a major benefactor. 

Newcastle City Council, which had provided some past financial support, said it had taken steps to prevent the sale of items from the former maritime centre to cover debts and was looking for a solution.

Newcastle Museum can accommodate a few orphan shipping items, but it lacks permanent room to mount any significant display of maritime museum artifacts.

Convenient site: The former Newcastle State Dockyard workshop on Dyke Point.

Convenient site: The former Newcastle State Dockyard workshop on Dyke Point.

The future

So, perhaps it’s time for someone else, a third party, to step up to the plate to rescue this vital repository of Newcastle’s seafaring past before it vanishes into obscurity.

Maybe it could be in the shape of a generous State Government (who are spending $650million to revitalise Newcastle anyway), or the coal industry, through a small levy on every tonne of coal exported from the port?

And while on the subject, let’s think a little laterally. What is clearly needed (besides money) is a bigger, new Newcastle home to help reflect our importance as an island nation.

Perhaps look no further than across the water from the former maritime centre to Dyke Point. Here lies a giant shed of the State Government’s former State Dockyard which, despite proposals, seems to have been largely vacant since the yard closed in March 1987.

Perhaps look no further than across the water from the former maritime centre to Dyke Point.

Besides the cavern-like space, with room to rotate future exhibits, the site itself is an historic relic. Opened in 1942, much of the remaining aircraft-hanger type structure, built with heavy British steel beams similar to those on Sydney’s harbour bridge, were recycled from the earlier, also historic, Walsh (Point) Island Dockyard. Opened in 1914, the dockyard finally closed in 1933 and was later dismantled and shipped downriver to Dyke Point and re-erected.

Some 7300 workers were reported employed at Walsh Island in 1919 because of World War I. Located almost opposite the then BHP Steelworks, this old (now Kooragang) plant was Newcastle’s second largest employer in the 1920s.

Later, the Dyke Point works, with slipways and a floating dock, repaired 600 ships in World War II, before diversifying from large-scale shipbuilding in the 1970s.

A newer structure on Dyke Point usually catches the eye of tourists today - the nine-metre high bronze statue of a woman sanding on a globe gazing eastwards.

Called ‘Destiny’, it’s the work of Newcastle artist Julie Squires. A landmark since 1999, it was commissioned to commemorate 200 years of commercial shipping operations in the port of Newcastle.

Spot lit at night, the welcoming woman leans forward as if to embrace seafarers. The flowing strands of her hair are symbolic, representing the world’s seven seas.

Artist Squires said her sculpture was inspired by the figureheads once gracing the bows of sailing ships visiting Newcastle.

And while on this ex-State Dockyard site, let’s stand back from ‘Destiny’ and gaze north, upriver, to realise why this area’s been so important to Newcastle’s growth.

Visible within a few kilometres is almost 140 years of coal loading history. Just offshore from the statue is a strange circular brick block. These are the forgotten foundations for a nine-ton hydraulic coal crane (circa 1880).

Maybe it’s all a pipe dream. Everything costs money. But most things we take for granted, from public baths, to public buses, trains, art galleries and museums are subsidised.

A relocated museum at the old State Dockyard site would have the added attraction of being almost next door to Carrington’s new cruise terminal bringing thousands of new visitors into port each year.

Top attraction: Fremantle’s popular ‘Shipwreck Galleries'.

Top attraction: Fremantle’s popular ‘Shipwreck Galleries'.

Fine example

Western Australia’s port city of Fremantle, outside of Perth, has not one, but two maritime museum to entice visitors. Freo’s latest (since 2002) maritime museum is magnificent; three-storeys with an eye-catching curved roof and a 90-metre submarine outside. Inside is housed Australia II, our America’s Cup winning yacht in 1983.

An older, low-key museum, known as The Shipwreck Galleries, is nearby. Housed in one of Fremantle’s oldest public buildings, it opened in 1979 and is famous for its 17th century Dutch shipwreck relics, including the stunning Batavia Gallery, named after the shipwreck of a Dutch fleet flagship in 1629.