A disclaimer: this post has been written and posted rather more rapidly than usual, as it was only yesterday evening (19 September) that I went with the ‘LadyQJ’ of my Twitter feed (aka Wendy) to the launch event for the four new permanent galleries at the National Maritime Museum. So apologies if there are more typos and glitches than usual…
Launch events are tricky things, to which one sometimes goes with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. They tend to be full of people in suits who all know each other, are called names like Tristan or Miranda, and who call each other ‘dahling’. Then there’s the object of the launch. Will it actually be any good, or will one be left stranded in a sea of seemingly approving humanity, the only person in the vast space thinking that this particular emperor has no clothes? Such were my feelings as we rolled up to the National Maritime Museum for the official opening of its new permanent Endeavour galleries, which increase the museum’s exhibition space by 40% (and in the process, make it possible to do what had previously been impossible, namely to get around the entire building without using GPS).Obviously, I was particularly keen to see the new Tudor and Stuart Seafarers gallery, having been part of the focus groups that contributed ideas to it during the planning stage, and also being a contributor to the new book which ties in to the themes presented in the gallery. On the other hand, the NMM has quite a bit of form in getting things spectacularly wrong. Some of us have never forgiven it for infilling the lovely old Neptune Hall and inserting a ghastly mezzanine floor which seems to serve little purpose other than to provide sufficient space for corporate junketing, which was what the launch event ultimately was.
Anyway, we were fortunate enough (or cunning enough) to position ourselves right in front of the stage on said mezzanine, so had a perfect view of the ‘warm-up’ act, an energetic set of Polynesian dancers – there because the galleries were being launched, and indeed are named, to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the beginning of Captain Cook’s first voyage. We then had an equally prime view of the speakers, all of whom were, in their turn, mere warm-up acts for the guest of honour, bona fide national treasure Sir David Attenborough, whose every step to the podium was greeted with ecstatic applause and cheering worthy of any rock star. Inevitably, the great man focused on the new Pacific gallery, on the wonders of Polynesian culture and navigation, and on the current perilous state of the Pacific and all the other oceans. So warm was the reception for this speech that he ended by channelling his late brother Dicky and bowed theatrically to all corners of the room.
With the speeches over, it was time to explore the galleries – or, in our case, one gallery. Reader, if you came here seeking a review of the Pacific gallery, or the polar one, or, umm, ‘Sea Things’, then I suggest you go elsewhere. Time was tight due to the angst-inducing game of chance that’s otherwise called ‘the Thameslink railway timetable’, so although we passed briefly through Polar Worlds on the way out (looks good, stuff about Franklin and Scott of the Antarctic, wedding dress of the first woman to get married in Antarctica, etc), we spent all our time in the Tudor and Stuart seafaring gallery. Inevitably, too, that’s where the few like-minded souls who actually already knew a bit about sixteenth and seventeenth century maritime history gathered, so there was some chinwagging to do.
And the bit you’ve come here for, namely the verdict? Well, the gallery is quite small, but it’s perfectly formed, and certainly has plenty of interest and impact. As you go in (or go out, depending on your route), there’s a large display case with some of the outstanding 17th century ship models from the NMM’s collection. Old friends, these (regardless of Sir David’s damning recollection that when he first visited the museum as a small boy in the 1930s, it was full of nothing but ‘boring’ ship models), as indeed were quite a few of the exhibits – the most controversial probably being the manuscript journal of the Restoration seafarer Edward Barlow, which had made national headlines on the previous day following the discovery of the author’s previously unseen confession to rape. (Kudos to the NMM press department for placing the story in a way guaranteed to drum up extra interest in the new galleries, although presumably they had little to do with the equally serendipitous news story of the week, the likely discovery of the wreck of Cook’s Endeavour off the American coast.) Pepys is there, together with Admiral Michiel de Ruyter, but the principal focus of the gallery is on navigation and exploration, so the Anglo-Dutch wars, and even the Spanish Armada, are arguably secondary. There are some extraordinary Tudor navigational instruments, which makes one wonder how they actually lifted them, let along took bearings with them, and a profusion of wonderful sea charts. Inevitably, too, there’s a ‘pirates’ display, and interactive fun stuff for the younger visitors. The latter will probably also love the little model of a seventeenth century dockyard, complete with tiny moving holograms – a master shipwright, a sawyer, even a dog – and one suspects that their enthusiasm will outweigh the siren voices of those who protest that the ship on the stocks is being built in completely the wrong way. However, perhaps the most evocative items in the entire gallery are the items recovered from the wreck of the London, which blew up in the Thames estuary in 1665 (and which will also be central to a new exhibition at Southend museum, which I hope to get to see soon).
So yes, the Tudor and Stuart gallery is a well conceived, enjoyable, informative, and thoroughly welcome addition to what modern parlance would term the museum’s ‘offer’. Indeed, when taken together with the newly refurbished Queen’s House, the seventeenth century and its naval history are arguably now front and centre of the National Maritime Museum’s permanent displays, and although I might be just a little biased, I can’t but applaud that state of affairs enthusiastically!
Enough words, though. Here are some pictures to give you a flavour of what it’s like…and I certainly intend to get back to Greenwich soon with my tourist hat on, to take a look in the other new galleries!
Next week, this blog returns to one of its core purposes, namely raising awareness about, and providing new information regarding, seventeenth century naval history. Guest blogger Frank Fox, the leading authority on Stuart warships and their deployment, returns with a definitive listing of the British fleet at the Battle of Solebay, 28 May 1672 – a major contribution to the study of the Anglo-Dutch wars. When the post is published, though, I’ll actually be in Trnava, Slovakia, for reasons previously alluded to on this site. Expect to hear more about my trip in the near future!