Tales from the Collection: The PAMIR Key

Not all objects found in a museum are used for the same purpose throughout their lifetime. Below is a picture showing a key from our collection. It is a bronze cabin key from the four-masted barque PAMIR (pictured below). The ship was built by a German shipping company in 1905 and, in 1949, was the last commercial sailing ship to round Cape Horn. 

At first glance, this looks like a regular key, but if we look at the backside, there is a pin attachment.

Now, don’t go thinking that this was a measure to prevent losing your key on PAMIR, and everyone onboard walked around with keys pinned to their jackets. 

As with many objects in a museum’s collection, this key has a unique story that explains why it looks this way today.

Let’s go back 68 years to 1946... A young girl, perhaps 19 years old, stands in line at the port of Vancouver. She is eagerly awaiting her chance to go aboard PAMIR, one of the oldest sailing ships still in commercial use. She is about to be taken on a tour of the ship and has so many questions to ask the guide.

As the tour begins, the guide notes that the ship would be scuttled when it returned to its home port. Since the ship would soon be scuttled, the young girl asks if perhaps she might take something from the ship as a souvenir. Her guide politely informs her that this is not possible. The girl, noticing that the guide has a friendly disposition, presses a couple more times throughout the tour; she is only interested in little trinkets, but her host remains adamant that nothing may be taken.

The tour ends and, despite not being able to obtain a keepsake, the girl has thoroughly enjoyed her visit aboard the ship. She goes up to her guide to thank him for his gracious kindness and expert knowledge, saying that it had made the tour very special and meaningful.

The guide then holds out his hand to shake hers in farewell, and as the girl grasps his hand, she feels him slip something into her palm. Without looking the girl quickly puts her hand in her pocket and goes home. She is thrilled to discover that the guide had given her a key just like the ones that opened the cabins on PAMIR. 

This story is a close adaptation of a personal account from the donor of the key. After receiving the key she took it to a jeweler to have it made into a pin which she wore proudly for many years, and 59 years later she donated the key to the Maritime Museum in 2005.

As it turned out, PAMIR would not meet its demise for another decade after the girl's visit in 1946. When sailing from Buenos Aires in 1957 she was caught in Hurricane Carrie and sank near the Azores. If it had not been for a young girl’s enthusiasm for preserving a piece of maritime history, this beautifully crafted key may have been lost forever at the bottom of the ocean.

CVA 586-4486 - British sailing ship "Pamir" [at dock]