Museum celebrates 40 years of honouring WA’s maritime heritage

d495349g WA Museum chief executive Alec Coles inside the WA Shipwrecks Museum. Picture: Andrew Ritchie
d495349g WA Museum chief executive Alec Coles inside the WA Shipwrecks Museum. Picture: Andrew Ritchie

ALTHOUGH the WA Shipwrecks Museum has gone under a number of names, there is no doubt it has provided the community with 40 years of wonder.

It was opened as the WA Maritime Museum in 1979 on Cliff Street and held that name until the new museum was opened in 2002.

The museum is located in the historic Commissariat building, which was used for supplies and provisions.


Relics from the historic wreck of the Dutch ship Batavia, which crashed into the Abrolhos Islands in 1629, are located at the museum.

WA Museums’ Alec Coles said it was their most loved museum based on visitor surveys.

“I think that’s partly because it’s such a wonderful building, this historic Commissariat building, it’s one of the gems of Fremantle,” he said.

“That shipwreck story is so powerful and unique to WA, we are about to mark the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s voyage to Australia but actually it was happening here 150-160 years before him, the Dutch were coming here.

“We’ve got such a rich heritage up and down the coast.”

Alec Coles. Picture: Andrew Ritchie

The 40th anniversary of the museum will be marked with a range of free activities on Friday September 6 including candlelit tours, musicians and giveaways.

There will be free tours each Friday from 2.30pm from the same date, with no bookings required.

Mr Coles said he believed one of the reasons the museum resonated with people is because of school excursions.

“It’s important to visit young and hopefully it builds a tradition of visiting,” he said.

“The great thing about this museum is because of the historic nature and the beauty of the building, it’s never going to change that radically.

“The displays will change but the ambience won’t.”

495407a A view of The Commissariat and South Bay from the Roundhouse in 1871. Picture: Fremantle Ports

Timeline of the building

1851: Commencement of the construction of ‘Part A’ of the Commissariat building

1860: Commencement of the construction of the second wing of the original commissariat, ‘Part B’, completed in 1862

1868: Convict Establishment’s use of Commissariat building ends

1878: Imperial Government hands over Commissariat buildings to the Colonial Government

1879: Commissariat building converted to a Customs House and Bonded Warehouse under the control of the Customs Department

1879 – 1890: Front offices of the Commissariat were used as the Post and Telegraph Office

1890: New sections built onto the Commissariat (by then generally known as the Government Stores)

1895-96: Construction of the ‘Drum’ or ‘Spirit’ Store (now the Batavia Gallery)

1898: New wing adjacent to Croke Lane built

1904: Customs moves out

1925: Cotton Gin installed

1930 onwards: State Shipping Service and other government departments used various parts of the building

1977: Government Stores Department vacate the Commissariat and conversion of the building for the new Maritime Museum commences.

1979: Western Australian Maritime Museum opened by then Premier Charles Court

2016: WA Museum – Shipwreck Galleries became WA Shipwrecks Museum.

495407b The Cliff Street offices of the Customs Department in the 1890s. Picture: Nixon and Merrilees, courtesy of WA Museum.