This museum blogging is getting tougher and tougher, particularly when I have to somehow fit four amazing new galleries at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich into one blog.
Following a major £12.6 million redevelopment, including £4.6 million of Heritage Lottery Fund money from National Lottery Players, the museum has opened four new permanent galleries. For the first time the East Wing of the museum has been opened up revealing the beautiful rotunda designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. The project sees a 40% increase in display space with over 1,000 objects coming out of the stores and going on display.
The traditional grand feeling of the rotunda is juxtaposed with the new modern galleries; Polar Worlds, Pacific Encounters, Tudor and Stuart Seafarers, and Sea Things which each have a distinct feel and design. My two and half hour visit barely scratched the surface of all you can see, read, touch and interact with.
It is incredibly difficult to pick a favourite gallery but if I had to, ‘Polar Worlds’ edges it for me. I am completely sold on stories of arctic adventures after a trip to the Polar Museum in Cambridge and the exceptional Sir John Franklin exhibition the Maritime museum hosted last year. This gallery has such a depth of amazing poignant objects that tell the very human story of determination and perseverance in the face of huge challenges. The gallery seeks to bring the colour, light, seasonality and darkness of the Polar regions alive. They aim to place people central to the story whether they be historic tales of explorers or contemporary accounts of living in the beautiful but harsh environment.
Increased gallery space means remarkable large-scale objects can be seen for the first time including a massive five metre ice saw from the British Arctic Exploration (1875-76) that stretches about the display cases and the huge crows nest from HMS Discovery. Seeing it in a well lit, temperature controlled gallery makes it harder to imagine the reality of being a look out planning a route through the ice packs.
You can move from the large and impressive, to the smaller personal objects that are full of poignancy in this space, including Captain Scott’s overshoes removed from his body when he died in 1912.
There is a perfect mix of technology and interactives alongside the artefacts. I particularly like the way the technology really opens up the paper archives to bring the reality of Polar exploration to life.
Dirt and Hygiene – “Yesterday the last remaining fodder [toilet paper] was served out, twenty nine sheets per man” Charles S. Wight 1911.
Extreme Cold – “Such things as jam… are really too cold to eat. It is really absurd to see the jam, it is like one large mass of sticky ice paste.” Charles Royds 1902.
You are given the choice to lead your own investigation into these men, perhaps not all heroic. You don’t just have to follow a well trod narrative of officers and heroes but cooks, carpenters and crew members.
The innovative design balancing stunning objects and thoughtful technical interactives is followed through in the ‘Tudor and Stuart Seafarers’ gallery. Here the focus is between 1500-1700 as England and later Britain emerges as a maritime nation. The gallery has quite a distinctive feel and I love a chance to explore the maps held in the collections. My favourite quickly becomes ‘Warning of monsters in the northern seas’ ‘Map of Iceland’, 1595. including a sea-horse that ‘doth the fishermen great hurt and skare’.
The gallery created a real wow moment for me as I played with an interactive ship’s desk that played out Vasco de Gama’s voyage to reach India by sea, including a pop-up book and an incredibly realistic storm!
Wow moments also come in the ‘Pacific Encounters’ gallery where you came face to face with a life-size ‘dura’ a Fijian open ocean canoe which will be familiar to fans of Disney’s Moana. ‘Pacific Encounters’ has the difficult task of unpicking not only exploration in the 17th century but also the legacy of exploitation that sees Captain Cook as both hero and villain.
The interpretation created in consultation with contemporary islanders tries to understand objects, not simply as booty and curios, but their relevance to native cultures as tools, religious artefacts and items of great craftsmanship.
The final gallery I visit on my tour is ‘Sea Things’ a thematic gallery that sees over 600 objects out on display, many for the first time. This space is designed as a fun, interactive area that allows all generations to get hands on with collections.
The curators have worked hard with conservators to select and present objects to be touched. Objects that may not be hugely important in and of themselves but objects that allow us to make our own connections to the sea. A kind of digital shoreline sees objects washed up on the beach, we can select objects and narratives as one would pick up stones on the beach.
This gallery has been co-curated with six community groups, their voices come through loud and clear, particularly in the end section of busts. Here artist Eve Shepherd seeks to redress the balance and status quo with incredible art works that are inspired by her work with different groups including the Girl Guides, Action for Refugees in Lewisham and Mermaids, a group for gender diverse and transgender children.
This is the heart of what pulls all the galleries together for me. Serious, authentic commitment to co-curation, consultation and collaboration.
In ‘Polar Worlds’ I am charmed by reflections from Linton Mead Primary School who responded to items in the gallery including a ships biscuit. There is beautiful poetry produced in collaboration with the Young Poets Network that makes us think about our destructive impact on the natural environment.
I can see inspiration and skill in Nathalie Murcott’s fantastic tailored garment inspired by polar clothing, a collaboration with Newham College. I fall in love with ‘Traces in the Landscape’ an art work by school children from Linton Mead Primary and artist Hannah Cushion that really does represent the transience of explorers and the small traces they leave behind.
Because what is the point of museums, what is the point of keeping objects if we don’t have an opportunity to investigate, interrogate and be inspired by them? We can all walk through a gallery and glance at objects but what brings them alive, keeps them relevant and important is how they make us feel in the here and now. and how we respond to them. This is what the Maritime Museum and the Royal Museums Greenwich has captured.
The absolute highlight of the the press morning was meeting Robbie Teremoana Atatoa who has given his time, energy, passion and knowledge to help identify, interpret and present Mangaian (Cook Island) objects including a beautifully made toki, a ceremonial adze or type of axe. We chatted about how it was made, the lengthy process of drying out the coconut fibre and the meaning of the different methods of binding.
What comes across clear as a bell is that his work, this co-curation, Robbie’s involvement is no easy thing. There are difficult questions you can’t shy away from including Robbie’s ideal wish for the objects to be returned to his home country whilst admitting and being thankful to Royal Museums Greenwich for looking after them and having the resources to do that. I am grateful that they are here, that I can enjoy them and I am even more grateful for Robbie’s work in highlighting their importance.
This is the result of years of work, this is not co-curation as an add on and a supplement, it is absolutely central to the galleries. I am seriously impressed by this commitment, it feels deep and meaningful. It strengthens, magnifies and highlights stunning objects, fascinating stories and beautiful story telling.
What I love more than anything is that this is a conversation that is not over even though the galleries have opened. It is a conversation that continues, as the museums works with Robbie and collaborators like him to decide how best to care and present these objects in the future. Also Robbie tells me he has returned home to research further and practice his own carving, he hopes this work will help in efforts to keep his traditions and language alive. Right here this is what museums are for.
The new galleries at the National Maritime Museum make the museum a real big player for me for the first time. They sit with the British Museum, Natural History Museum and V&A. We are an island nation, our very existence and aspirations bound to our coastline. Never has it been more crucial to contemplate and debate who we are. These galleries shine a light on that drive to discover, learn and understand, but also rooted in the galleries are the lessons we need to learn of the past. Practices may have been of their time but we always need to question why we have these objects, why the world is at our fingertips and what that means for us and the communities where the objects came from.
The new galleries are a beacon of best practice in how museums should work with communities and tell stories. I congratulate Royal Museums Greenwich on the huge amount of work that has gone on behind the scenes and I praise the dedication and commitment of community groups who have turned this museum into something really rather special.
The four new galleries open to the public from 20th September 2018. They are free to visit. For more details on opening times please see their website – https://www.rmg.co.uk/
With thanks to Robbie for the chat, any inaccuracies are purely my own.