National Maritime Museum

I understand that this august building was once home to a rather dull display of paintings of rear-admirals and dusty models of ships. I don’t remember much about a childhood visit which apparently included such items, but it’s certainly not like that now. Bright and light, it houses well-designed, often interactive displays designed mainly, it would seem, for people with a passing rather than a deep interest in all things marine-related.

Objects range from the profound – sobering articles from Franklin’s ill-fated expedition to Antarctica – to the frivolous – just what is that giant tank of water in the ground-floor gallery for?

I particularly like the no-nonsense polemic stance that the captions by the exhibits take. No wishy-washy sitting on the fence here. As the visitor walks around the museum a picture is gradually built not only of the exhibits, but of those who collated and curated them – for me something almost as fascinating as the place itself. (I used to find a similar frankness in its sister museum, the Royal Observatory, though it has changed somewhat now.)

My favourite permanent exhibit is the Ocean liners display complete with reconstructions of first class and steerage accommodation, posters, menus and films all with a very obvious sponsor. The scatological child in me enjoys looking for the people doing naughty things in the cabins of the scale models of liners at the end (or beginning, depending on which way you come in) and the plastic peeping-toms watching them through miniature portholes…*

I also enjoy the “exploration” section – a darkly sparkling jewel focusing on ancient mariners and treasure seekers, not to mention the odd merchant adventurer and pirate.

Upstairs there are some quite interesting interactive things, mainly for kids (though I quite enjoyed playing on them too)and a rather boring gallery of paintings, ancient and modern, which I always think is shut – but then find it’s not – it just looks like it.

Ultimately I find the museum an excellent one-off. It passes a splendid afternoon for the mildly curious, but, as with so many modern museums, it fails to deliver any real depth. In trying to ensure that it appeals to all, it forgets that some would actually prefer a little more content. So though, as a resident (and friend of the museum) I do visit on a regular basis, it is really to see the generally superb temporary exhibits – Nelson & Napoleon was a particular favourite of mine.

Outside there is a fabulous view – to the front the Old Royal Naval College, to the rear the Royal Park. The cafe serves the usual tea, buns and olde-worlde lemonade at the usual inflated prices, but at least it’s in pleasant surroundings. The gift shop is splendid – very well-stocked with interesting themed goodies as well as all the usual souvenir-shop-suspects.

Try not to be put off by the daft roaring sound just outside the entrance to the museum. It’s supposed to be the sea – if you walk fast enough it will irritate you for at most a few seconds.

*made you look….


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