Over breakfast in my hotel, there was barely audible and intermittent talk to the effect that something vaguely political seemed to have happened overnight. Obviously, I paid no heed to this, as whatever it was, it was clearly completely insignificant compared with the important business of the day, i.e. checking out Chatham Historic Dockyard’s temporary exhibition on the Battle of the Medway on its first day of opening.
The exhibition in question is housed in No.1 Smithery, and brings together some excellent materials about the events of 1667. Unfortunately, I can’t show you any pictures of them, as photography is banned. But you can see, inter alia, this picture, and this one…and this ship model, despite the fact that this and the other big one on display have been the subject of some controversy… One of the links from the notorious Medway chain is on display, as are a number of pictures I’d never seen before, including one of Sheerness fort in flames. But as is so often the way these days, I went away from the exhibition with a nagging sense of slight disappointment. Part of this can be attributed to some utterly bizarre decisions over arranging the display – why highlight Marvell’s Last Instructions to a Painter as a really important source for the effects of the battle, reproduce the complete text on a wall, and then cover much of that text with pictures? Some of it was undoubtedly due to several slipshod and completely unnecessary factual mistakes in some of the interpretive text panels; OK, I’m probably one of very few visitors who’ll get exercised by the fact that Pepys is said to have become secretary of the Admiralty in 1672 when it was really 1673, but an exhibition of this sort really should get such basics right.
The most important cause of my mild irritation, though, was one that I’ve alluded to before in this blog – the current orthodoxy among exhibition curators which seems to insist upon exhibiting as little as feasibly possible. Thus the fairly substantial amount of floor space was effectively occupied by just three ship models and the link from the chain, and although one could undoubtedly argue that leaving lots of space around them makes these exhibits stand out and provides plenty of room in which to admire them properly, one can’t help but feel that it would have been easily possible to fit in just a little bit more. No doubt outraged museum curators will denounce me as an out-and-out reactionary whose idea of a perfect museum is the Pitt Rivers in Oxford (OK, it’s a fair cop, guv), but the cynic in me hopes that the minimalism of modern museums and exhibitions is driven solely by a genuine, if misguided, philosophy of the use of space, and not to ensure as much standing room as possible for the prawn sandwich brigade at the corporate junkets often held in said museums and exhibitions.
Having said all that, please don’t get me wrong: I think you should definitely go and see this exhibition, which is well worth going to for the ship models alone. It’s also great to see seventeenth century naval warfare getting such high-profile exposure, so I’m very happy to live with any slight quibbles about the amount on display. And it’s included in the price of the general ticket to the historic dockyard, which is astonishingly good value, especially as it permits unlimited return trips during the course of a year. Chatham’s new Command of the Ocean galleries are tremendous, and include the ‘ship under the floor’, the substantial remains of the eighteenth century warship Namur, which were, quite literally, found under a floor! Plus the dockyard has a working ropery, a WW2 destroyer, a Cold War submarine, a Victorian gunboat, and much more besides… Indeed, there’s a pretty high chance that I’ll be making my first all-inclusive repeat visit before the end of the weekend!