On Friday I was due to go to the National Maritime Museum for a visit to the Caird Library and Archive (librarianship being my day job) and, having not visited the NMM proper for several years, I decided to take the entire day off and go around the museum before my library visit was due to begin. The museum, the main part of which is free to enter, was established by Act of Parliament in 1934, opening to the public in 1937. The site, encompassing the Naval College and the Royal Observatory, is a World Heritage site, and the buildings started out in 1807 as a school for the children of seafarers, though the most recent addition, the Sammy Ofer Wing, was only completed a few years ago.
The Museum’s collections include many and varied items relating to the history of Britain at sea, including art, maps, manuscripts, ship models and plans, a maritime reference laboratory, and seafaring objects including figureheads.
The central galleries have some fascinating exhibits on display. One of my favourites was Prince Frederick’s barge. This was used on the Thames by the Royal family for many years, often for pleasure cruises.
After wandering about the bright, airy central area of the Museum for a while, I checked out the different galleries. Voyagers: Britons and the Sea had varied artefacts from different time periods relating to how people on this island surrounded by sea saw their relationship to the water. Guiding Lights: 500 years of Trinity House and safety at sea looked at lighthouses and other ways of helping ships avoid the rocks, while Maritime London: 1700 to now is a chronological exploration of how London developed as an important port.
I then moved upstairs to the top of the building, where I looked at the Nelson, Navy, Nation gallery. Probably most notable for displaying the coat Nelson was wearing when he died at Trafalgar, the gallery also looked at the lead-up to the battle and the aftermath. I then popped into Forgotten Fighters: the First World War at Sea, which was a bit dry for my tastes, but an appropriate commemoration of World War I. Back on the first floor, the Great Map caught my eye. Children and families can play games and use tablets to interact with the map, but I contented myself with just looking at it. Next to it was the Environment Gallery, informing us about existing and possible future damage to our seas.
Two particularly detailed galleries, The Atlantic: Slavery, Trade, Empire and Traders: the East India Company and Asia look at the wider context of Britain’s relationship with the sea and the lands that sailors were able to explore and exploit. Finally, I ended my journey around the museum with a look at the restored Baltic Exchange Memorial Glass, damaged in the 1992 bomb that led to the demolition of the Baltic Exchange (the gherkin now occupies that site).
Plenty for all ages to see and do (there are also childrens’ play areas): not bad for a free museum.
Address: Romney Road, Greenwich, SE10 9NF
Opening Hours: 10am-5pm
Prices: Free (except for special exhibitions)