The Sammy Ofer Wing

Has anyone made it up to the E-library at the Maritime Museum to see the plans for the new Sammy Ofer Wing? They’re requesting feedback, so I dutifully went a few weeks ago. It’s taken me a long time to write about it here because I’ve been trying to work out something really fundamental about the project – its point.

From the exhibition, there is much to be read between the lines. They are clearly on the defensive about the demolition of the old Victorian building that would have to go to make way for the wing. It’s an 1870s school kitchen wing, not the most exciting building in the world, but as far as I can see perfectly serviceable.

They make great noise about the new wing being lower-rise than the old, though frankly, in many respects surely that’s not the point. You can have a one-storey building that looks less ‘in place’ than something four stories high if it feels wrong.

So does this new wing ‘feel’ wrong? Not as architecture, I’d say. It’s ok – a perfectly standard modern design. Nothing exciting, nothing offensive. What feels wrong to me is something completely different.

I’ve been trying to work out what real benefit the museum is going to get from this project. I can’t help feeling that they’ve been given a load of cash, which has to be spent on a ‘prestigious’ project that can be named after the benefactor, when it might well have been spent more wisely in other, probably less glamorous areas.

Being given £20m by a modern day philanthropist can be a curse as well as a blessing. Sammy Ofer’s hardly going to say “Do what you like with this – why don’t you make those dodgy warehouses in the backwoods a little bigger and with better facilities? Or you could put on some excellent temporary exhibitions instead of those cheap ones you’ve had to do recently? Or what about getting a decent screen for the planetarium?” He wants to see something specific – and big – done with his money.

Now, I will admit that there are going to be some new archive facilities in the new wing. But they seem to have been slipped in quietly by people who care, around the circus of visitor ‘facilities’ that the new build is really about.

I’m not going to be at the barricades over the demolition of slightly (romantically) labyrinthine Victorian building. But I do wonder just how much good the Sammy Ofer Gift Shop, the Sammy Ofer Cafe or even the Sammy Ofer Foyer is really going to do for the presentation of Britain’s maritime history. It’s already dumbed-down – do we really need a “treasures room” so that people too lazy to see the rest of the exhibits can spend five minutes looking at the highlights?

If you haven’t made it to the E-Library yet, you can check out the website here – don’t forget to leave your comments.

My own thoughts are that the money is being spent politically rather than practically. That the NMM don’t really want a new wing – they’d far rather pay the staff more, shore-up their real archiving facilities and put on exhibitions that are actually good – but what do you when a billionaire wants to give you huge sums of cash?

But maybe I’m being harsh here. What do you think?

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