A tug on the imagination

Now’s the time to set your coordinates for Haifa and sail to the fascinating new exhibition of model ships at the National Maritime Museum.

July 24, 2010 22:22
4 minute read.
THE MISSISSIPI – a late 19th-early 20th century river boat, by model-maker Yaakov Eshel.

Model Ship 311. (photo credit: courtesy)

It seems that Johnny Depp has a lot to answer for. Well, not just Depp, or even the rest of the gang in the smash-hit Pirates of the Caribbean movie trilogy. According to Avshalom Zemer, at least some of the “blame” for the surge in interest in sea craft of yesteryear can also be laid at the door of some of our Soviet- and Russian-born fellow Israelis.

Zemer is director of the National Maritime Museum in Haifa, where a new exhibition of model ships opened last Saturday, and he is expecting the museum box office to do brisk business. “I think people have been fascinated by model ships for many many years,” says, “but ship-model-building got a serious boost in this country when the Soviet olim started arriving in the mid-’70s, and especially with the mass immigration of the early ’90s.”

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The new show features a wide range of model ships, from miniature 17th-century English and French flagships, to warships, fishing boats and simple tugs. Regardless of scale, Zemer says, most of the display items are state-of-the-art offerings. “Model-shipbuilding is a very serious and very competitive field,” he states. “Some of the Russianborn Israeli model-builders are nautical engineers and studied at Soviet naval academies before they moved here.”

Igor Cherniak, who has a model in the new display, has impressive professional credentials, having studied in a Soviet naval school and subsequently serving as the captain of a submarine. Cherniak’s compatriot, Boris Volkhonsky, who also contributed a model to the exhibition, spent some time at a shipbuilding academy in Leningrad, and Zemer says that another contributor, Ephraim Ronen, spends most of his waking hours building ship models.

“It really is an all-consuming hobby,” he says.

However, not all the items in the exhibition involved dawn to dusk work. “Some are made by professionals and some by very high-standard amateurs, and others by amateurs of a reasonable standard,” Zemer adds. “But I think the public will enjoy each and every one of the models.”

Zemer notes that the pastime and interest in ships, on various levels, has been around for centuries. “The earliest models dated back to the fourth century BCE, and they were often designed for votive purposes.

Seafarers would go to churches to make offerings in order to ensure their safe return from an impending sea voyage.”

Intriguingly, the basic Byzantine church structure was designed to mimic the shape of a ship.

The main body of the church hall was called the naos or nave (from naos, meaning ship in Greek, or navis, the Latin equivalent).

THE NEW exhibition incorporates contributions from 11 local model ship builders, all of whom assembled their miniatures from scratch. “You can, of course, get a kit – but it’s just not the same thing,” says the museum director. “Model builders often use glass for the windows, and the same kind of wood as the original, although today there is an increasing tendency to use balsawood, which is lightweight, and some even use cardboard, which they acrylicize and then paint. It comes out looking just like the original wood.”

Model-ship-building also has a practical side to it, to this day. “Sailors have lots of spare time on board and many of them used and still use some of that time to make models of ships,” Zemer explains. “Because of their intimate knowledge of the craft the models are amazingly accurate replica of the originals.”

Actually, that is not completely true. “The top part of the models, above the waterline, is always accurate down to the finest details,” he continues, “but the lower part is not generally at all accurate. The sailors don’t usually have much knowledge of the lower part of the boat.”

With advanced simulation software readily available, one could be forgiven for assuming that models no longer have a practical role to play in the shipbuilding business. Not so. “If you order any kind of sea craft today, the shipbuilding company will make three accurate models of the boat for various people to get a better idea of what the final product will look like,” notes Zemer. “People still like to look at something tangible rather than just an image on a computer screen.”

For Zemer there is simply no substitute for seeing the genuine artifact for yourself, although he says there is more to it than just getting an eyeful of some esthetically pleasing miniature boat.

“Even in the virtual era of the computer, the impact of seeing the actual models is still unbeatable. It fires the imagination, especially the romance that sails generate. But we also add textual explanations about the boats and the era in which they operated. When kids, and adults, read about the Titanic or The Bounty at the museum, most of them later go home and read up more about them on the Internet.”

Zemer says he is just as fascinated with the museum’s exhibits as members of the public visiting the venue for the first time. “Orit Rotgeizer, who also helped to put on the exhibition, and I lose ourselves in the models. They conjure up all the excitement and color of the adventures and the voyages of those times. I get to work at 5 a.m. and I often find myself with a headache by the evening because I’ve been so engrossed in the display models that I’ve haven’t had a bite to eat all day.”

Visitors to the new exhibition be warned – don’t forget your pittas! For more information: (04) 853-6622 or http://www.nmm.org.il.

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