The National Maritime Museum established in 1937 has been the pride of Greenwich for as long as I remember. To this day they still have the crane game in the Children’s Gallery that I would queue patiently for. Ah imagination, to find such long haul amusement from being a dockworker. Regardless, I have always brought visitors and friends to this place and witnessed its changes over the years.
Recently the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square has announced a £50 annual membership system, much like the Tate had already. While they are playing catch up, it is a clear show of yet another beloved public institution trying to adapt in an age of austerity. The ability of anybody being able to enter the museums and galleries of London is a source of immense pride and pleasure, and I would be rioting on the streets for if threatened. Even the birthplace of socialism still sees a €12 ticket price to enter the Louvre.
The National Maritime Museum is no different and has new ticketed exhibitions to bring in funding, a beautifully thought out gift shop renovation and event hire capabilities. A quick word about the gift shop, which is very well considered. I have yet to meet anybody who doesn’t really find museum and gallery gift shops at least interesting. Perhaps it’s that fine balancing act of being respectful to the original cultural or historical element and being commercially quite tacky. Next to the face masks of Horatio Nelson and his own branded beer, were quite nice pieces of jewellery and maritime equipment (rather here than Nauticalia anyway). Clawing myself away from the pirate costume, child size only, and Nelson’s finest was a mammoth task.
The museum is huge, brilliant and well thought out – I cannot do it justice in writing without boring you to death. However,
here’s just five of my favourite things in the collection:
1 – Miss Britain III
This shiny metal racing boat had always caught my attention, with a glimmering and imperfect metal coat, this ship stood in contrast to the wooden galleons of old. Being the first ship to go over 100mph on salt water in 1933, it is beautifully displayed facing upwards into the ceiling. Its design is reminiscent of a rocket ship, something that is more at home rushing around space than an English river.
Its inventor and builder, Hubert Scott-Paine lived an amazingly interesting life too. It’s an older nod to the sort of British innovation in engineering like the Concord.
2 – Figureheads
These fascinating figureheads display a fantastic insight into the theatre of wood-working in Maritime Britain. Reflecting cultural influences, they range from the Orientalist subjects of the Empire to the pantomime figure of the Harlequin. There is a slight comic fashion to these figureheads, with royal figures and national heroes such as Nelson caricatured in giant wooden form. These were hardly meant to strike fear, but are a colourful and vivid ornamental reflection of the name of the ship.
These eye catching sculptures are accompanied by handy computer screens which can tell you more about any particular figurehead that intrigues you. Mounted all together in a big collection on the museum wall, these figures tower over all who come to meet them, and never fail to delight.
For a bonus figurehead, have a look upstairs for that which belonged to the HMS Seringapatam of the Sultan Tipu.
The supposed tiger of Mysore, he was killed by British forces (which included a young Duke of Wellington) in 1799. The umbrella a suggestion perhaps of a sheltered life, while he rides a mystical beast of strength.
The smiling expression of his face and colourful large umbrella turn this former ferocious enemy of the British into a figure of light relief.
3 – The Negro Woman’s Lamentation
A print dating around 1805, 2 years before the abolition of slavery in Britain. This well worded poem appeals to a British audience, particularly to sentiments of Christian belief. Small and somewhat hidden amongst the more shocking pieces of Britain’s maritime slave trade, it is a small but interesting piece about the development of the anti-slavery movement at that time.
4 – Nelson’s first left handed letter
The recently renovated Nelson exhibition at the National Gallery proudly displays all things Horatio. Growing up with a print of this maritime hero in my house, I never quite knew who this big nosed man was. Nelson’s Navy Nation is filled to the brim, living up to its alliterative name, chronologically taking you through his life and impact on Britain’s maritime history.
Though among the fine art treasures of his legacy is an interesting letter which Nelson wrote soon after losing his arm at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1797.
An interesting read, his scrawled writing offers an insight into Nelson. He describes himself as ‘a burden to my friends and useless to my Country.’
He ends the letter; ‘You will excuse my scrawl considering it is my first attempt.’ I think he did just fine considering.
Honourable mentions go to Nelson’s fork + knife combination.
After losing his arm, this utensil is one that he owned to help him eat. A combination of a fork and a knife, it is testimony to Nelson being ahead of the spork in combined cutlery innovation.
5 – Nelson’s coat at the Battle of Trafalgar
As close to a bit of British Maritime history you can get, this coat remains a favourite of mine in the collection since I was a child. What strikes you is the small stature of the man (like many during his time) and the bullet hole in the right shoulder. The coat is stained with his blood on the inside, and the blood of his crew on his sleeves. The embroidery and badges are detailed and interesting, and it really does take pride and place in the exhibition. If the post apocalyptic Mad Max/zombie future of my classroom daydreams does occur, you can be sure this is the coat I’m stealing.
Honourable mention to Denis Dighton’s painting of Nelson at Trafalgar:
Among all the depictions of Nelson’s death, from heroic deaths to Nelson literally being pulled up to heaven by angels, this painting to me stands out. It shows the collective effort of the crew, and actually resists the temptation to make Nelson the dramatic focus of the painting.
His death is largely unnoticed by the majority of the crew who are all too busy. Nelson in this picture actually looks quite pathetic, down on his stomach and without his hat.
That’s my run through of just five things that I particularly like about the National Maritime Museum. As with the nature of these museums and galleries, the things on display have been chosen from a back room collection of thousands, so every piece has something interesting about it.
If you’ve never been, it’s a better time than ever to go.