"There's a lot of stuff!" commented one visitor to the National Maritime Museum's immense new galleries. "I'm not sure where to begin."
It's true. Four new galleries, including 1,100 objects, are opening at the Greenwich museum following a £12.6 million revamp. You could spend an entire day in this rejuvenated wing, which represents a 40% increase in permanent exhibition space. Any review must, then, be cursory. Here's what you'll see:
Might be glibly summarised as 'What Captain Cook and his mates got up to on the other side of the world', but this would tell only half the story. This spellbinding and sometimes poignant gallery goes out of its way to share the memories of Pacific islanders, whose culture was overturned by the arrival of Europeans.
A punning name for a gallery packed with 600 nautical things to see. Objects range from the remarkable, such as a cannonball retrieved from Nelson's HMS Victory and a Roman anchor, to rarely-displayed but important bits of ships. This is a space for looking, touching and playing rather than slavishly reading labels (there aren't many). Of all the historic artefacts in this gallery, the most mesmerising are a trio of newly commissioned busts (one shown above), whose craftsmanship and power completely put to shame the more traditional marble sculptures of admirals. Artist Eve Shepherd has created something truly magnificent here.
Tudor and Stuart Seafarers
A dry title for such a wet subject matter, this is perhaps the most traditional of the four galleries. It charts the rise of England as a maritime power, from the great warships of Henry VIII to the early voyages of discovery. The gallery offers a well-balanced mix of artefacts and digital displays. If you're the kind of person who usually walks past the latter, do not do so here. The projection mapping tables are superbly done, and bring voyages of plunder and discovery to life in ways that static objects and images cannot.
The temperature appears to drop as you enter into this gallery of frigid exploration. Further excellent hands-on displays compete for space with objects from the Poles, including a stuffed penguin and items from the voyages of Scott and Shackleton. The space not only looks at the history of polar exploration, but also the possible future of these regions in light of global warming and competition for mineral resources.
There's actually a fifth gallery here, too, that's not included in the publicity. A small room devoted to the history of Greenwich is sandwiched between the Polar and Tudor/Stuart galleries. It's nothing special, but does offer an intriguing series of maps showing the changing face of the area.
From a first impression, this new wing is an impressive addition that we're already itching to explore further. It'll appeal most to older teens and adults, less so to small children (they've got superb galleries elsewhere in the museum).
The National Maritime Museum's reputation as a mighty treasure galleon is reaffirmed.
The new galleries open on 20 September 2018. Entrance is free. More information can be found on the new galleries site of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Look out for a busy events programme on the opening weekend. Images by the author.