For centuries, Britain’s status as a relatively advanced island nation enabled it to become a prominent seafaring juggernaut that could rule the waves. Four eclectic new galleries at the National Maritime Museum (NMM) in Greenwich, London, explore a wide range of themes, geographical locations and historical time periods to paint a vivid picture of Britain’s maritime heritage over the past half-millennium.
There can be few places where the remarkable stories of Scott, Franklin, Shackleton, and many others can be found packed into one room. Cleverly divided in two parts – Arctic and Antarctic, with each end starting from the furthest point back in time, until they meet in the middle at the present day – the stories of the poles are revealed through a collection of rich exhibits, outlining why each item is significant to the overall historical narrative of these regions.
From Martin Frobisher’s unfortunate error (transporting home large quantities of useless fool’s gold), to Britain’s post-Napoleon obsession with locating the Northwest Passage, a series of insightful objects and informative panels give a concise summary of why the Arctic became such an important economic and geopolitical space for British explorers. There is also an emphasis on the Arctic being an inhabited place; a reminder about the range of people who live at the top of the world and who were vital for uncovering frozen mysteries such as what happened to the crew of HMS Terror and HMS Erebus on the 1845 Franklin expedition.
The Antarctic has no such local population. Nevertheless, the far greater distance from home did not deter turn-of-the-century explorers who diverted the country’s attention away from failed efforts in the Arctic and instead tried to ‘conquer’ the southern continent. While these expeditions were equally unsuccessful (thanks to treacherous conditions, and the Norwegian, Roald Amundsen) they captured the public’s imagination and created a new generation of heroes aboard such ships as the Terra Nova, HMS Endurance, the Aurora and RRS Discovery, whose fabled stories have stood the test of time. With everything from a pair of sealskin over-shoes supposedly found on Robert Falcon Scott’s body, to the chair on which Ernest Shackleton collapsed after the gruelling trek across South Georgia, the exhibition offers a highly intimate glimpse into the many trips that occurred in this region at this point in history.
Contemporary polar issues are revealed through an impressive interactive display in the centre of the room, where the two halves join. Here we see how these threadbare and extremely dangerous missions have evolved into ones with a scientific focus, unveiling quirky details about the lives of the people based in Antarctica for research purposes (including the dress from the first wedding to be conducted on the continent). Visitors are encouraged to ponder pivotal 21st century questions about these delicate environments, including issues of sovereignty, the impacts of climate change, and whether or not increasing tourism is a positive development.
Close to impossible appears the challenge of briefly summarising the enormous impact of British exploration in the Pacific Ocean (specifically the South Pacific) and the ‘sea of islands’, home to diverse populations of people who have very different memories of the arrival of Europeans than those recorded in journals printed back in London. Principally, this revolves around the three Endeavour journeys of Captain James Cook between 1768 and 1780, a man martyred in Britain after he was killed in Hawai‘i, but remembered as a pirate, thief, and murderer on many of the islands he visited (some of which, the ‘Cook Islands’, continue to bear his name).
This exhibition seeks to reveal not only the artworks recorded during these distant voyages (such as official artist William Hodges’ picturesque paintings of tropical paradises, or George Stubbs’s kangaroo and dingo paintings) but also to highlight the essential role played by Pacific islanders, such as Tupaia, who joined the Endeavour in Tahiti (and was understood by some Māori to be the expedition leader). By including many of these characters as well as contemporary people who are restoring traditional practices suppressed by European Christian missionaries, such as tattooing, there is an opportunity to reflect on the fact that the wounds created by Cook and his companions are still very much in the slow process of healing. The consultation process conducted in advance of the exhibition emphasised the importance of telling stories from the Pacific in the right way, and constantly challenging the narratives baked into history by more powerful voices.
This ongoing conversation between the NMM and the people of the Pacific is a key reason why various special objects take up such a significant place in the gallery. For example, a selection of diverse taonga (treasured possessions) donated to the museum from Mangaia for the purposes of educating visitors about their practical usage and sacred importance, including tapa (bark cloth), kaika’a (clubs) and toki (axes). Most strikingly, a full-size drua – a traditional Fijian open-ocean canoe called Adi Yeta (Lady Yeta), seaworthy despite being created without the use of a single nail – inhabits one end of the gallery. It demands attention for the skilled craftwork involved in its creation, the attractive local shells and delicate weavings used to decorate the exterior, and the story of the Fijian people who are teaching these skills to the next generation. It’s all part of a concerted effort to give agency back to the people of the Pacific by giving them a voice on contemporary issues (such as climate change). This section also included artworks by the artist Ashia Moananui and fabric adornments created by the SaVAge K’lub under the title ‘Captain Cook was a Pirate’.
Tudor and Stuart Seafarers
Britain’s transition into a pioneering maritime nation is explored in the Tudor and Stuart Seafarers gallery. This covers the period from the late 1400s to the early 1700s, starting with Henry VII’s sponsorship of John Cabot to become the first European to set foot on the North American mainland since the Vikings – in 1497. During this period there was an explosion of charts and maps – many of which, such as the famous Geographia, are elaborate in detail – as an essential compliment to the vast expansion in geographical knowledge about the world beyond Europe.
Included among the huge globes and impressive 17th century ship models are reminders as to the darker side of this time, such as the growing global trade in spices, silks, tobacco, and slaves. There is a subtly-hinted at conflict between the grandeur in which lauded Tudor men such as Sir Francis Drake, Thomas Cavendish and Sir John Hawkins are celebrated in portraits, and the accompanying stories of the piracy and enslavement of hundreds of thousands of people that they, and men like them, initiated. There are also contemporary voices from the native Wampanoag people in what is now Massachusetts, who recall the stories passed down through generations of the barbarity they experienced at the hands of European colonisers.
The final gallery reminds us that everyone in Britain is connected to the sea in some way, that this maritime heritage has seeped into normal life in a much deeper way than might initially be understood. Take the assortment of English phrases heavily rooted in life on the open ocean (‘at a rate of knots’, ‘loose cannon’, ‘cut of your gib’). This gallery celebrates the museum’s vast collection, with over 600 objects of maritime paraphernalia, an emporium of ship models, badges, weaponry, Titanic artefacts, and more. The inclusion of model vessels such as a junk (an ancient Chinese sailing ship) to signify Victorian explorer Isabella Bird’s travels through Asia are a welcome accompaniment to the warships and other militaristic items on display.
Part celebration, part sombre consideration, these permanent new galleries highlight the pivotal role that setting sail for open water has had on Britain’s history, as well as acknowledging the often traumatising impact this exploration had on the many regions of the world where the legacy of British arrivals still resonates today.
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