Come Aboard! Pirates or Privateers?

Come Aboard! Pirates or Privateers? An exhibition-experience at Pointe-à-Callière

People have long been fascinated by the adventure-filled, treasure-seeking lives of pirates and privateers. Even today, movies, games, costumes, and books bear witness to this allure. How would you like a chance to learn about the real lives of pirates and privateers on an 18th-century pirate ship? Come aboard at Pointe-à-Callière, Montréal Archaeology and History Complex!

The multimedia-experience Come Abord! Pirates or Privateers? inaugurated in October 2020. It immerses 5–12-year-olds in the golden age of piracy, a time when the waters of the St. Lawrence, the Atlantic, and the Caribbean teemed with pirates and privateers. Greeted at the inn by Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville—along with pirate and privateer “colleagues” such as Blackbeard and the famous woman pirate Mary Reed—young visitors climb aboard a highly interactive pirate ship and embark on an engaging 40-minute tour. The tour follows a logical sequence of events in the life of a pirate or privateer: enlistment at the inn, life aboard ship, returning to land, meeting royalty, and sharing in the booty. This exceptional experience provides an innovative educational resource on the 17th and 18th centuries, and it gives Montrealers a chance to discover a little-known aspect of the history of commerce both in New France and under the English Regime.


A new standard of museum education that combines technology and sensory-based learning

Because this immersive-experience is aimed specifically at a young audience, whose expectations have become more demanding over the years, Pointe-à-Callière pulled out all the stops to create an environment that literally transports visitors into the world of piracy. As part of an experiential approach in which learning occurs through play and experimentation, the visual and sound environment reconstruct a day at sea aboard a pirate ship—11 immersive 3D projections synchronized over 12 minutes present either a sunny or stormy sky from sunrise to sunset, with the land disappearing into a sea that is in constant motion and filled with fish, marine animals, and imaginary creatures from pirate lore. In this engaging atmosphere, young visitors climb aboard the ship, where they encounter numerous aspects of the perilous lives of pirates and privateers and interact with various devices arranged around the exhibition.


Learning everywhere, all the time. Maximizing the effectiveness of learning models

The experience is enclosed in a space of 400 square metres, with every effort made to maximize the use of space, offer varied experiences, and optimize learning. From the inn, where six pirates and privateers come to life and relate their great successes, the visitors are immediately invited to test their balance skills and learn about the pirate code. Coco, a mischievous parrot, offers an occasional morsel of humour throughout this colourful adventure.

Should our young visitors dare join the crew, they must choose among the following jobs: captain, sailor, gunner, cook, and carpenter. When the recruits come aboard, they encounter 20 interactive exhibits designed to teach them about historical aspects of daily life aboard the ship—food, sailing and navigational skills, navigation instruments, knots, the major flags, punishments they are subject to, a visit to the captain’s cabin (where Iberville awaits), and even the various smells aboard the ship. Upon disembarking, they learn about the payment awarded for their service. They even learn about “surgery” at sea.

The exhibition continues by showcasing the basics of maritime trade and the infamous alliances between monarchs and privateers. Both privateers and pirates dreamed of earning riches, strove to command the high seas, and sometimes even fought battles to the bitter end. This exhibition-experience sets sail on a quest for riches and treasure.


An approach that encourages diverse viewpoints and teamwork

Taking a thoroughly forward-looking approach and building on the strengths of the initial exhibition, the museum formed a multidisciplinary team and engaged in a cross-sectional process. In this way, we encouraged discussions among experts and elicited diverse points of view and assessments in renewing an existing permanent exhibition that has been popular with young people since 2012, developing a product that meets the expectations of families and elementary schools. The process involved historians and researchers, educators, a writer, a lighting designer, programmers, a designer, illustrators, an art director, and a film crew and actors, who came together to create an experience that engages all the senses. The resulting story is based on the expertise and knowledge of numerous contributors and told in a highly innovative fashion.


An inclusive approach to learning about history through experimentation

Pirates and privateers, those rebellious and fearless adventurers of the high seas, have given rise to a world where the border between the real and the imaginary can be insubstantial. The symbols associated with piracy—treasure maps, gemstones and gold coins, swords, hooks and wooden legs—might seem silly and fanciful, yet they truly did exist. But among everything we have seen, read, and heard about pirates, where does the truth lie? What does actual history tell us about them?

For example, one of the interactive games has two video stations placed back to back and uses modern technology to imitate the famous game Battleship, which the museum adapted to use pirate-era ships. Young visitors have various options. They might decide to play and learn the terminology related to historical sailing ships, but they can also read more technical information and learn to identify the ships.

Come Aboard! dusts off the distorted images we have formed of pirates and privateers from reading fanciful novels and watching Hollywood movies. As visitors explore and encounter the exploits of people who actually existed, the exhibition sheds light on the daily lives of real, larger-than-life characters, from their enlistment, to the discovery of a treasure trove, through the ups and downs of life at sea. In this way, it confronts myths and legends with reality.


Visitor experience, knowledge transfer, and new technology—an innovative trio

The museum rose to the significant challenges and achieved the objectives inherent in creating a captivating educational experience that meets the high expectations of a 21st-century youth audience. In addition to employing a broad range of experts with diverse backgrounds, meeting the museum’s objectives of inclusion, updating the exhibition’s historical content, and developing original methods of conveying that content, we made a thoroughly innovative use of technology.

The museum strove to build a variety of worlds—some of them immersive, encompassing the entire space and its visitors, others more intimate, where individual learning can take place. Advances in recent years have given us access to cutting-edge technology that was inconceivable just a few years ago, opening up countless creative possibilities to those who know how to use them. We identified three main focus points in developing the technology for this renewed exhibition: to combine cultural mediation through school groups with autonomous technological systems; to implement stable, durable, and easy-to-maintain technology; and to heighten children’s emotional connection with the historical content they encounter during their visit.

The décor recreates a pirate ship, including rigging, provisions, and accessible cordage; a 5- minute synchronized set combining 3D atmospheric projections covers the walls and ground of the 400-square-metre exhibition space; and ambient sounds transport visitors back to the age of pirates and privateers of the 17th and 18th centuries. Technology allows us to create an ever-changing scenography, so visitors can journey through a world that transforms as they move through it. A sunny day changes into a terrible ocean storm, day turns into night, and the daily tasks of a pirate sailor on the dock transform into a lively encounter between pirate and privateer ships.

As visitors make their way through the exhibition, they also encounter some 50 historical reconstructions of weapons, navigational instruments, costumes, dishware, furniture, swords, model ships, audio-visual presentations, and more traditional mechanical interactive elements integrated into the décor. These vital learning elements complement the museum’s decidedly technological approach that also provides a tangible, physical environment to heighten visitors’ contact with history and give them a better sense of the ways and customs of piracy.

Pointe-à-Callière was committed to exploring innovative and diverse approaches to both the exhibition content and the scenography, decors, interactivity, and technology employed. Young visitors must have fun interacting with their environment in order to learn a subject. So, given the target audience, we had every reason to reflect on the nature and scope of the processes to be used.

A few examples of the interactive multimedia productions:

  • In the introduction: a portrait gallery comes to life when visitors enter. It features six pirates, portrayed by professional actors dressed in period costume, who have a loud argument about their prowess and shortcomings. This triggers delight, humanizes the subject matter, and creates a personal connection with visitors. This approach stimulates curiosity and provides a striking introduction to the topic, which focuses on human stories.
  • Projections of atmospheric and water effects, and marine and imaginary creatures to create an engaging mood.
  • Projections of battles to create surprise effects and action.
  • Interactive elements designed to elicit participation and create a sense of belonging: a machine that distributes jobs aboard the ship before visitors go on board, an interactive rudder that chases enemy ships in search of treasure, making a meal, choosing a flag, a morphing device that allows visitors to put their face on their favourite pirate and share it with family and friends via social networks, challenges such as a balancing game, navigation, a pirate Battleship game, ration planning, and loading a cannon.
  • A total of 11 video projectors, 6 computers, 17 screens, 20 loudspeakers, and 100 million pixels recreate the fantastical world of pirates for young visitors and enrich their knowledge of history.