Ahoy There, Kids!

Toy Boats, National Maritime Museum, to 31st October 2010

In general, I wouldn’t really recommend a visit to the National Maritime Museum just now. A good half of it (including my favourite Ocean Liners exhibit) is closed while they build the new wing, which basically leaves a gift shop, corporate events space, classroom and two cafes with a few objects dotted in between them, the one bright spot in my humble opinion being the excellent London room, even if Lord Nelson’s been shoehorned in there too.

I am hoping that when the new wing opens they will remember that a museum is meant to display things, rather than large amounts of empty space, but I’m not holding my breath.

HOWEVER, there IS a reason to make at least a small detour martimewards just now. I confess that when I saw the posters for Toy Boats, I wasn’t immediately enthused - model boats are sort of cute but I don’t really think about them from day to day. But this is a charming, absorbing little exhibition that is worth making the effort to see.

A couple of words to the wise. Firstly, it was only after I’d visited that I realised (I am kinda thick sometimes) that there is a definite route around the exhibition and, seeing it back to front gives you a very odd first impression (more about that later) so, in order to avoid doing what I did, enter through the door furthest away from the main museum entrance. It will all make much more sense.

Secondly, unless you have children, don’t bother with the Exhibition Guide and Activity Trail. It’s much more of the latter than the former, with general information you can read on the labels and no specifics. But then it is only 50p and if you just want some very basic info, including how to fold your own origami boat from a sheet of paper, it’s fine.

So – if you start the proper end, you’ll see the beginning of a child’s (and many adults’) experience with toy boats – the old adverts that used to entice small boys, (mainly) to part with their pocket money or press their noses against the glass of toy shop windows across the land,  hoping that Santa might just bring them a boat-shaped stocking on Christmas morning.

The exhibition is sharply designed, with many of the cases made to look like shop windows, some with stained glass at the top reflecting the fact that many of the boats are from Paris and Germany. In the middle there’s a little film show, and you walk around to the jolly, and somehow very appropriate strains of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S Pinafore. 

There are good, honest yachts,

representations of famous vessels,

and some really quirky things – anyone for an Unda-Wunda?

I was particularly taken by a special sinkable ship made during the First World War in the US, where, presumably, one kid got given the hinged-in-the-middle battleship, the other an elastic band-driven torpedo which, when it hit the boat, exploded and everything sank.  A once-only toy, perhaps, though I do know a guy who sails radio-controlled submarines who uses a home-made contraption fashioned from a cork and a boiled sweet to locate AWOL vessels.

There does seem to be a fine line between model and toy boats – some of these craft look far too delicate to ever be sailed; others are clearly never intended for the water, like this Noah’s Ark, which I’m really hoping isn’t to scale, given the relative sizes of the horses and the locusts…

What amazes me, though, is that a lot of these stunningly beautiful, meticulously fashioned, frighteningly frail toys did actually get sailed – and not always with happy endings. The last boat in the exhibition (or the first if you’re a stupid Phantom) is incredibly moving. A fabulous, probably German-made battleship fished out from Kensington Gardens’ boating pond, which, when the sludge was cleaned from it a couple of decades ago, fetched up 150 separate incidents of tears before bedtime…

Don’t you think it looks like some kind of bug-eyed alien?


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5 Comments to “Ahoy There, Kids!”

  1. Alipom says:

    Don’t worry, Phantom, I went to the press view of this exhibition and was ushered in by the same door you used! The show still seemed to make sense and I would recommend it – a lot of effort has been put in to the display and the film is charming.

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  3. Steve says:

    I think saying “a good half of it” is closed is a bit of an exaggeration. You’re doing them a dis-service. There are still loads of galleries open on the first and second floor. Still well worth a visit even without the toy boats.

    Talking of which, you DID enter by the correct door. In fact, if you come through the other way you’ll be going in via a door that says “no entry”. I thinks it’s meant to be vaguely chronological isn’t it?

    I don’t know if you noticed but in the gift shop there are some model boats for sale in a display case headed “Toy Boats”, with a smaller sign saying that these are NOT toy boats and (get this) mustn’t be sold to people under the age of…

  4. Josiah Rener says:

    Many thanks for this awesome article. I’ve read id only a few months now plus they are always very informative. Thanks!

  5. gas scooter says:

    What a good resource!…