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Come sail away

January 21st, 2019

Children in front of a replica ship model
Image by the AGO

As you enter the AGO, instead of going left, right or up, head down (below deck) to our Lower Level (Concourse). There, you’ll find a unique part of the AGO Collection: the Thomson Collection of Ship Models.

Considered to be one of the finest collections of its kind, it holds over 130 historical ship models spanning 350 years of maritime history. Combining incredible, painstaking craftsmanship with nautical technology and history, the collection includes ships from 17th and 18thh century British dockyard models to steamers from the 19th and 20th centuries.

Many of these detailed 3-D ship models were made for use in the British Navy in the 18th and 19th centuries to help in discussions about life-sized ships, while others were commissioned for wealthy patrons. Made primarily from wood and bone (yes, bones!) they also use silk and sometimes human hair to recreate the intricate details.

A new ship recently added to the Collection is The Wanderer by British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare. The Wanderer was one of the last vessels used to bring enslaved peoples from Angola and the Congo to the United States in the late 1850s, a practice that had become illegal at the time. The quarter-scale replica uses African batik fabric (also known as Dutch wax-print cotton) for its sails. This cotton was imported by the Dutch to Africa where it eventually became a symbol of African identity and independence.

several model ships on display in a curved glass cabinet.
Image courtesy of the AGO

Many of the ships at the AGO are housed in cases specially designed by architect Frank Gehry; they curve like the crest of a wave through the room, while others are hung expertly from the ceiling. The lighting is intentionally subdued to help conserve and protect the more delicate elements of the ship models.

The moody ambiance in the Ship Model gallery lends itself to a special spooky Family Flashlight Tour, taking place the first Sunday of every month. Kids of all ages can investigate ships of all sizes from every angle (thanks to those large airy cases). This space is a favourite among visitors both big and small – including rock legend Mick Jagger.

The Thomson Collection of Ship Models is included in General Admission.

Family Flashlight Tours take place the first Sunday of every month, 11 am–noon or 12 pm–1 pm and are $5 for AGO Members and $25 for the public, which includes General Admission.

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