Housed in a 19th-century fortress built by convict labor, this museum exhibits artifacts, models, and maps pertaining to Bermuda’s nautical heritage. The fortress’s massive buildings of fitted stone, with their vaulted ceilings of English brick, would be worth visiting even if they weren’t crammed with artifacts and exhibits. So are the 9m (30-ft.) defensive ramparts; the underground tunnels, gun ports, and magazines; and the water gate and pond designed for boats entering from the sea. Exhibits in six large halls illustrate the island’s long, intimate connection with the sea—from Spanish exploration to 20th-century ocean liners, from racing dinghies to practical fishing boats, from shipbuilding and privateering to naval exploits.
The compound’s most impressive component is the Commissioner’s House, dating from around 1834. The world’s first cast-iron building has a grand Victorian design, meant to demonstrate Britain’s architectural might. Left derelict in the 1950’s, the house went through a twenty-year restoration and is now the crown jewel of an already impressive collection of historical buildings and artifacts. Today, glistening with a richly restored sense of Imperial Britain at the height of the Victorian age, it contains exhibits associated with slavery and the slave trade, antique maps, a collection of 19th- and 20th-century maritime paintings, watercolors with maritime themes painted in Bermuda, exhibits linking Bermuda’s trade and emigration patterns to the Azores and the West Indies, and testimonials to the cooperative efforts of the British and U.S. Navies. Its highlight: the Hall of History, an impressive 1,000-square-foot mural painted by Bermudian artist Graham Foster depicting 500 years of Bermuda’s history. The whimsical painting took Foster over three years to complete.
Don’t omit a visit to the half-dozen stone and masonry buildings surrounding the Commissioner’s House, most of which feature exhibits dedicated to Bermuda’s maritime history. The best of the bunch is the Queens Exhibition Hall in the 1850 Ordnance Building that once used 19th century bomb-proof technology to house 4,860 kegs of gunpowder. This vaulted-ceiling magazine is home to Shipwreck Island: Sunken Clues to Bermuda’s Past, which explores the early history of Bermuda through shipwreck artifacts (including Spanish gold, Danish pottery and tools used by early settlers). Nearby is the Boatloft, which houses part of the museum’s boat collections including the champion fitted racing dinghy Victory, which was built in 1886; the St. David’s dinghy Magic, that was used for turtle fishing until the practice was banned in 1973; and the 15-foot sloop Spirit of Bermuda, which was sailed by two Bermudian cousins on an 18-day voyage from Bermuda to New York in 1935.
Around the corner from these buildings you’ll find The Keep, which is home to Dolphin Quest in addition to two adjacent spaces perfect for visitors with small children: The Museum Playground featuring a 70-foot moray eel that kids can crawl through; and The Playhouse, a whimsical children’s museum with interactive exhibits. On your way out snap a photo next to the giant statue of King Neptune, a limestone replica of the one recovered from HMS Irresistible, which sunk in 1891.