Ocean liners float his boat

The single largest lender to the Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed, and Style exhibition traces his fascination with all things ships to his early childhood growing up in Michigan, a state, he points out, “not very close to the ocean.” Every summer, John “Crash” Miottel said his family would board an excursion boat and travel down the Detroit River to Bob-Lo Island Amusement Park in Ontario, Canada. “For a kid, it was quite the thrill,” he said.

WJM & Roscoe with collection

John “Crash” Miottel. Photo courtesy of the Miottel Museum.

Miottel cites another experience on the water, though far more harrowing, as a way to further explain his affection for big ships. In the 1950s, he served as a Naval Aviator. He was among the first to fly the supersonic F8-U Crusader jets at speeds more than 1,000 miles an hour and then negotiate their dangerous landings aboard aircraft carriers.

Then in 1972, Miottel, his wife and three children made a transatlantic crossing aboard the last of the true ocean liners, SS France. “It was a fabulous trip for everyone,” he said. “My kids still talk about it.” He brought home a few souvenir menus and ashtrays, impressed by both their quality and design. Being a “collector” of collections, he decided right then to start an ocean liner one.

Today Miottel’s ocean liner collection totals some 30,000 works, and includes everything from postage stamps and a grand piano from the Normandie to a solid gold pocket watch carried by John Jacob Astor IV, one of the some 1,500 casualties of the Titanic.


Photo credit Ken Sawyer.

The collection is housed in the Miottel Museum, dedicated gallery space within his Art Deco style home in Berkeley, Calif., which fittingly evokes the mood reminiscent of the great ocean liners of the 1930s. The museum is open by appointment-only to scholars and serious collectors. Most of Miottel’s efforts have focused on SS Normandie, the French ship described by many as the world’s most beautiful ocean liner. John Maxtone-Graham, the late esteemed maritime historian, called the Miottel Museum collection an “absolutely irreplaceable resource.”

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SS Normandie tableware for Ocean Liners. Photo by Ed Rodley, @erodly on Instagram.

In the Ocean Liners exhibition, guests will discover why. The Normandie works on loan to PEM include an elaborate tableware setting of multiple utensils, glasses and dishes, a set of Goyard French luggage that belonged to the Duke and Dutchess of Windsor, and a stunning glass panel gilded with gold, silver and palladium leaf from The Rape of Europa mural that graced Normandie‘s Grand Salon.


Detail of Jean Dupas and Jacques-Charles Champigneulle, panel from The Rape of Europa mural in the first-class grand salon on Normandie, France, 1934. Glass, paint, gold, silver and palladium leaf. Miottel Museum, Berkley, California. © 2016 Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Luke Abiol.

There is also a Normandie deck chair, a side table, a serving trolley, a chair from the children’s room and promotional ocean liner posters, including the iconic poster for L’Atlantique. There’s even a dog menu – Pour Votre Fidele Compagnon.


Photo credit Ken Sawyer.

The great age of ocean liner travel has long since passed, but Miottel suspects the stories about these magnificent ships and their passengers will always capture people’s imaginations. ”The miracle of building 80,000-100,000-ton ships capable of traveling at over 30 knots is part of the appeal,”‘ said Miottel.

“But it’s the chemistry of all of it – the beauty of the ships, the interior designs, the engineering and the glamour and celebrity of the passengers – that continues to fascinate so many people.”

Meanwhile, the hunt goes on. Miottel’s Normandie menu collection now numbers around 500…  and counting. “I’m trying to get one from  every day that the Normandie sailed. After 80 years have passed, that’s not easy to do.”


Photo credit Ken Sawyer.

Explore the allure and distinct personalities behind these man-made islands at sea. Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed, and Style is on view from May 20-October 9, 2017.

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