Mea Maxima Culpa

Like most people, I don’t particularly enjoy being proved wrong. But in the particular instance I’m blogging about this week, I’m absolutely delighted to admit that I’ve been well and truly in the wrong – and hope that I’ll be proved even more wrong in the future!

The interior of the Llyn Maritime Museum, Nefyn

The interior of the Llyn Maritime Museum, Nefyn, in the final stages of fitting out before opening

In the conclusion of Britannia’s Dragon, I bemoaned the state of the maritime heritage sector, especially in Wales: Lack of public interest and the difficulty of attracting younger generations of volunteers has closed some Welsh maritime museums and put the survival of others on a knife-edge. I wrote those words barely two years ago, but they’ve already been overtaken by some really encouraging recent developments. I recently spent some time in north Wales, principally to give a talk under the auspices of the Llŷn Maritime Museum in Nefyn. This was reopening a week after my visit, having been closed for several years, and I was lucky enough to be offered a ‘sneak preview’. Housed in a former church, this small but perfectly formed museum tells the story of both the local community and the area’s rich seafaring heritage through a series of impressive display boards and exhibits. There’s an area that can be used for talks and other community events, and the hugely enthusiastic and committed team of volunteers has exciting plans galore for the future. It’s a similar story just across the peninsula at Porthmadog, where, again, the maritime museum has reopened after several years of closure. Stunning Victorian photographs, ship models, and artefacts – notably from the once flourishing local shipbuilding industry – tell the story of what was once a thriving port and maritime community. What’s more, two entirely new maritime museum projects are under way – one at Llandudno, the other at Connah’s Quay. Add into the mix the very fine maritime museum in Holyhead, going strong thanks to its dedicated volunteers, and north Wales is fast developing into a real mecca for maritime history buffs! Moreover, the south already has the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea, and recently acquired an excellent new heritage centre in the former dockyard chapel at Pembroke Dock, which I also visited recently.

A display at Porthmadog maritime museum

A display at Porthmadog maritime museum

This positive story isn’t just confined to Wales. The maritime museum in Ramsgate reopened in 2012, after being closed for several years – a particularly welcome development as far as I’m concerned, as Ramsgate displays a large number of artefacts from the seventeenth century warships wrecked on the Goodwin Sands during the ‘Great Storm’ of 1703. Meanwhile at Deptford, the project to build a replica of the 1677 warship Lenox remains on course, following Boris Johnson’s decision to make it a condition of the planning permission for Convoys Wharf, a.k.a. the site of the historic Deptford royal dockyard. But all of these encouraging developments need to be set in context. Nationally, the state of many parts of the heritage sector remains precarious: for example, Cambridgeshire County Council continues to be determined to offload the Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon, while the Cynon Valley museum looks likely to fall victim to myopic local authority bean counters, as so many other much-loved local museums already have. And to be fair, some museums don’t help themselves. For one thing, can any museum really afford not be on Twitter and/or Facebook in this day and age? Worse still, I know of one example which makes virtually no effort to publicise its location or even its very existence; which has a cliquey ‘friends’ group whose members seem to be more interested in self-congratulation than in doing anything proactive; and which frequently keeps its substantial front door shut ‘so that the staff on the reception desk don’t get cold’, thus leading many potential visitors to believe that the museum is closed. Those responsible for running such museums in these unprofessional and frankly incompetent ways should pay a visit to Porthmadog, Nefyn, Holyhead and the rest to see what a bit of enthusiasm and vision can do.

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