How did I choose these tours? You can say, they were chosen. But after a while I begin to see a story forming about Nova Scotia. With this museum being the third one, I have now formulated an educated opinion about Halifax: Lots of people died here!
This Maritime Museum tour was my preferred, because it speaks to Halifax’s long Maritime history. I could already see that this museum had more than meets the eye. I inquired at the ticket counter where I should start, and the woman gave me a black and white photocopy five by five map of the facility. There is a movie starting in 10 minutes, she told me, perhaps you can start there. But, this is a self directed tour. The movie was called The Halifax Explosion. I was one of the first person to sit in the theatre, but by the time it was about to start, all chairs were filled. I can’t recall how the movie started, but I will never forget the big explosion at the end. The bodies. All 2000 of them perished, without so much as a warning.
December 6, 1917 approximately 9 ‘0 clock in the morning, there was a miscommunication between two vessels in the harbour, or what the Nova Scotians call, the Narrows. By just looking at the year this event took place, you may have already observed that World War I was going on. Halifax, being on the coast, and selected to protect Britain, was deeply involved. “Serving as the assembly and departure point for transatlantic convoys carrying supplies and soldiers to the war effort overseas, the small city was quickly evolving into a world class port and major base of naval operations. (1)”
One ship, the Norwegian vessel was leaving the Halifax harbour, while another ship, the French Cargo ship, loaded with high explosives, was coming into the the harbour. The two collided in the Narrows, the strait that connects the upper Halifax Harbour to Bedford Basin. The fire broke out on the French vessel, which confused onlookers. They stared out in the Harbour hoping to get an answer as to what was going on. The answer never came. Within twenty minutes the fire grew out of proportion and exploded. Approximately 2,000 people died, and 9,000 were injured. To make matters worse, the worse snow storm hit Halifax and covered the bodies for the winter. The Halifax Wreck exhibit also illustrated what I saw in the movie, except that I could now walk through the ruble myself, even if it was just an exhibit.
“The blast was the largest man made explosion before the development of nuclear weapons (2).”
The Titanic connection exhibit was also another extraordinary experience. Unlike the Halifax explosion, most of us have watched the movie. We know what happened. Yet, it felt like I was there as I walked through this exhibit. I saw real artifacts from that time, and place. What does Halifax have to do with the Titanic? The White Starline’s headquarter, the maker of a fleet of vessels, including the Titanic, was located in Halifax. That might have been the reason why approximately 306 dead bodies were brought to Halifax, to be buried. In fact, there are three Titanic cemeteries located here in Halifax: Fairview Lawn, Mount Olivet, and Baron de Hirsch.
In order to ensure that the bodies were identified, and the families aware of their loved ones, the cable ship crew developed a unique system to identify the bodies. They would have kept pieces of the Titanic wreckage in their families, which has now become the essence of this exhibit: Titanic Connection.
A Selection of Titanic Artifacts
The “Unknown” Child’s Shoes
One of the most poignant objects that evoke the solemn and the personal devastation of the sinking are the shoes of Titanic‘s Unknown Child and a mortuary bag which was used to identify and safeguard the personal effects of Titanic victims (3).
My opinion? This is where I realized that Halifax had seen hundreds of brushes with terribly accidental tragedies, that tends to happen out on the sea. There were other exhibits at the Museum too, thereby providing the concept of the lives of those who chose to become sailors; as. a livelihood and maybe even as a calling.
The exhibits explained that not only were boats built in Halifax, including the Titanic, but that they were maintained as well. Stores like the Robertson store which was opened from 1841-1976 served to supply sailors with their shipping needs. It had closed after Mr. Robertson retired, around the time the Museum was looking for a home by the Harbour. You could call it providence, Julie my private tour guide told me later. In that the museum is made of two warehouses, along with this store we are standing in. The store has never been altered. I looked around, totally impressed that I was standing in a place that existed centuries ago. This was the feeling I got throughout this experience, and I bet that was the intension of the designers. To put you in a place were history occurred. This is why it’s my preferred museum.