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Renewed focus on maritime heritage

By Jess Carrascalao Heard

The City of Melbourne has called on the community to have its say over possible refurbishment of the Mission to Seafarers building at North Wharf.

The community has until mid-March to share ideas for the heritage-listed building, with their feedback forming a “key component” of a maritime heritage feasibility study.

Melbourne Maritime Heritage Network (MMHN) chair Dr Jackie Watts said the feasibility study was a “marvellous step forward”.

“It’s an opportunity to re-focus on Melbourne’s rich maritime heritage … Melbourne is a maritime city, and always has been,” she said.

The Mission to Seafarers building was built more than a century ago as a hub to provide services to seafarers.

Its features include the consecrated St Peter the Mariner Chapel, and the Norla Dome, originally designed as a gymnasium to help seafarers keep fit while on shore.

The building is still the home of Mission to Seafarers Victoria (MtSV), which continues to provide services to those on the sea, including counselling, pastoral care and medical assistance.

MtSV CEO Sue Dight said that though some refurbishments to the first floor of the building were already in advanced planning, there were some upgrades to the building she would like to see.

“When funding is available for an upgrade to the rest of the building, new bathroom facilities would be nice and some exterior lighting to help keep the graffiti to a minimum,” she said.

According to the Participate Melbourne website, any new use of the building would be additional to existing seafaring services.

Suggestions on the website’s survey include a maritime heritage space or museum, a visitor centre, a community space and service, an art and cultural space, and even a start-up space.

On Dr Watts’s wish list for the building is a mini-iMax-style experience in the Norla Dome with seafaring image projections, but insists that the services and chaplaincy must continue.

General Manager of the historic tallship Enterprize Michael Womack thinks a museum would help enhance Melbourne’s maritime heritage and its history as Australia’s major container port.

He believes Australia has lost a lot of its seafaring traditions, making the preservation of maritime heritage even more important.

“We are a maritime nation. We are surrounded by sea. We can’t cross a land border to anywhere,” he said.

The council’s focus on maritime heritage comes as a part of last September’s COVID-19 Reactivation and Recovery Plan.

As a part of an effort to reboot the city’s economy post-lockdown, the council has begun looking for new ways to attract people, and cash, back into the city.

Included in the plan is a “strategic feasibility study of a maritime heritage museum experience” as a part of its list of priority infrastructure projects.

The plan states that these projects would require “immediate stimulus funding from the Victorian and Australian Governments” to address the impact the virus has had on the city’s economy.

Dr Watts said the City of Melbourne should be congratulated for collaborating on the feasibility study.

“It’s actually a unique opportunity where existing heritage coalesces with a modern view to ensure our heritage is given due recognition,” she said.

As well as seeking community input on the Mission to Seafarers building, the Participate Melbourne website states that the council is “exploring the development of a maritime heritage area in and around Docklands”.

The Mission to Seafarers building is described on the website as a “key asset” to the area.

Ms Dight said, “The Mission building is just one piece of a much larger Maritime Heritage Precinct that is being explored.”

She said a Melbourne maritime heritage precinct currently exists, but as a “set of loosely interlinked heritage collections”.

Examples of maritime history in the area include heritage infrastructure at Victoria Dock and Central Pier, tall ships, including the Enterprize, as well as elements of the $500 million Riverlee Seafarers development project.

The development includes plans for a renewal of Seafarers Rest Park in conjunction with the City of Melbourne, the restoration of a heritage-listed crane, and a development design that is sympathetic to Shed 5 at North Wharf.

Ms Dight said the city’s maritime heritage needed to be recognised and celebrated in a variety of ways, both educational and via tourism.

Mr Womack said now was the right time for the focus to be on maritime heritage in Melbourne.

“Another 20 years and some of that history will go, or the buildings that are part of that history will be gone,” he said.

Members of the community can share their ideas and provide feedback on Melbourne’s heritage at the Participate Melbourne website.

Community engagement is open until 15 March •

For more information: participate.melbourne.vic.gov.au

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