London Museum Challenge #20: National Maritime Museum

September 30, 2013 § 3 Comments

National Maritime Museum

National Maritime Museum

Apart from the Imperial War Museum and the National Army Museum (which didn’t make the list because I simply can’t summon up any interest), the National Maritime Museum is the only national museum in London I hadn’t visited. I’ve always felt a niggling sense of guilt about that – yes, I can make the excuse that it’s in Greenwich and therefore out of the way, but the fact remains that I’ve already visited the Royal Observatory and the Queen’s House (and the Fan Museum!) and have somehow never managed to fit in the NMM. So yesterday I headed off to Greenwich to change that.

National Maritime Museum figureheads

I’ll start with the positive – the National Maritime Museum has some stunning objects in its collection. For sheer impressiveness, you can’t do much better than Prince Frederick’s barge, all elaborate carving and gilding and with about as many oars as the average porcupine has spines, but even better was the display of ships’ figureheads. Detached from their ships and marshalled into a towering stack, they somehow manage to look impressive, awkward and poignant at once.

National Maritime Museum astrolabes

At the smaller end of the scale, some of the early navigational instruments were works of art in their own right. Take these astrolabes – the skill of the metalworker is breathtaking.

Now for the negative – apart from these lovely and fascinating objects, I found the museum considerably less than the sum of its parts. Part of that might be down to the layout of the galleries – they are separated from each other by such distances that the displays struggle to cohere. The whole thing feels very bitty. It doesn’t feel so much as if you’re getting the full story of Britain’s relationship with the sea, more that you’re getting bits and pieces that never really add up. (To be fair, two of the permanent collection galleries were closed for refurbishment when I went, so that may have been a contributing factor.)

Some of the displays seemed less than well thought out. The museum is currently conducting a well-publicised campaign to save two paintings by George Stubbs of Australian fauna – a kangaroo and a dingo – from export. After seeing all the banners on the way from the DLR station to the museum, I was curious to see the paintings themselves. I followed the signs and discovered that they’re displayed in a case in… the shop. Perhaps I’m being nitpicky, but I think that sends a curious message, to say the least.

The next exhibition at the National Maritime Museum is on Turner and the sea, so I’ll be going back for that. And the permanent displays? Unless they undergo a major overhaul… I’m sorry, NMM, but I think that’s unlikely.

Tally: 20 down, 3 to go

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