An unassuming estate of semi-detached houses in Kidbrooke is not the first place you'd think to look for a great horde of maritime treasures. Maybe that's why staff entering the Prince Philip Maritime Collections Centre are sometimes asked by curious locals, "Are you working for MI5 in there?".
But some of the secrets that lie behind the padlocked gates are probably more interesting than those harboured by Her Majesty's Secret Service.
Royal Museums Greenwich (RMG) hold some 2.5 million artefacts across their collections, some defining snapshots of history: Nelsons's blood-stained uniform in the National Maritime Museum; Elizabeth I's Armada portrait in the Queen's House; RMG's biggest single object, the Cutty Sark.
Stashed away in Kidbrooke are some 70,000 of these objects, spinning yarns of great heroism, tragedy... and peculiarity.
'Stashed away' is the wrong term to use. The point of this purpose-built Collections Centre is that it's accessible to Londoners, and everyone else for that matter. Since opening in 2018, it has welcomed in locals, school groups and Caribbean community groups (who insisted the museum reciprocated with a visit to them).
Pick 'n' mix curation
A guided tour is the best introduction, but only expect to scratch the surface. Whisked through bright white corridors and into various temperature-controlled rooms, you get glimpses of a 15th century portolan chart drawn onto vellum; bearded figureheads peering out of the darkness; row upon row of binnacles; celestial globes; Nelson's teacup. Introductions to objects often begin "What you're looking at here is no ordinary..."
The approach to curation is decidedly pick 'n' mix. What gets pulled out of the drawer on any one tour is subject to the guide's whim — that of the guests too. In a vault of paintings which have the combined surface area of six Olympic sized swimming pools, we're told to choose from one of the huge panels bearing maritime paintings. "How do you think we categorise these?" we're asked, as a wall of oil painted ships and sailors is slid out halfway across the room. It's a trick question; there are so many paintings, they fit them where they can.
A salty seadog of oddities
This is a warehouse of the esoteric; a salty seadog of oddities. A fireplace festooned with floral tiles is from one of Queen Victoria's yachts, the HMY Victoria and Albert. The boat's designer, Sir William White, was an incorrigible yes man, and after he acceded to adding a heavy on-deck seat at Victoria's request, the ship tipped over. The mortified White demoted himself.
A bulbous-looking witch's cauldron of a thing, weighing down a top shelf, is apparently a 'hoddy-doddy' (this phrase means something else too). These cavernous cast iron pots were used on whaling boats to boil up the blubber of the poor creature it'd just harpooned, and immediately utilise it as fuel. This hoddy-doddy was found in a field in Faversham, reason unknown.
Crushingly poignant stories
Other objects are crushingly poignant. What looks like a luggage tag, with 'Jacob Birnbaum 148' scrawled in black ink across it, is something rather bleaker. Birnbaum's body was the 148th to be pulled up from the icy seas where Titanic had sunk.
Another Titanic-related object has a happier past. A papier mache pig that plays a tune forms the unlikely centrepiece of a story involving the wealthy buyer Edith Rosenbaum, who entertained kids with the toy on one of the lifeboats, for six hours.
Things aren't just kept at the Collections Centre, they're preserved, restored, loved again. Wander into any given workshop (there are many), and you'll find great seascapes being retouched; frames regilded, 18th century sailors coats relined — all by hand. At times, it's more like an artist's studio than an archive.
When is a museum not a museum? When it's an infinitely interesting — and progressively outlooking — archive, secreted away in Kidbrooke.
Tours of the Prince Philip Maritime Collections Centre run twice every Thursday. £20, book ahead