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Nelson. Navy, Nation; A review of the new National Maritime Museum exhibition

November 18, 2013


Nelson, Navy, Nation: the story of the Royal Navy and the British people, is the new permanent gallery about the Navy during the long eighteenth century, culminating in the Battle of Trafalgar.  The gallery is almost hidden away in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.  It is sandwiched between older galleries on the second floor of the museum.  The discrete location contrasts with the grand atrium that greets visitors when they enter the building, Greenwich’s answer to the British Museum’s Great Court.

The gallery progresses chronologically, although it is heavily themed around topics, such as Joining up, Rank & Responsibility and Below Decks.  The traditional oblong gallery space is broken up with displays, graphics and cases, providing a change of pace for the visitor.  The interpretation is restrained and the museum has refrained from providing copious amounts of text on walls.  The gallery walls are used to display blown up prints of period illustrations, while objects pepper the gallery.  A maritime display normally requires the “worthy but dull ship models”, but in Nelson, Navy, Nation they are used to complement the story without boring the casual visitor.

Although warfare and weapons are covered it is not all ships and battles, rare eighteenth century illustrations of Jack Tar, the ordinary seaman, are displayed, with glimpses into everyday lives onboard and on leave, with accompanying audios of sea shanties to get you in the mood.  Life may have been dangerous, but apparently Royal Navy sailors were better fed than the average worker at the time.  My favourite object must be the ship’s biscuit, looking surprisingly like an over sized digestive and none too bad for being 200 years old!

Naval officers, who only made up 1% of the crew of a Ship of the Line are as you would expect well covered in the gallery with their high status objects including furniture and paintings illustrating their homes and cabins.  Large oil paintings of notables like Captain Bentinck can be found located in side alcoves off the main gallery.  These explore the lives of Officers, enabling smaller objects to be intimately displayed but providing enough space to take in the 6 foot sized painting, giving you a feel for some of the officers who served and profited the nation.

The mix of collections varies from display cabinets with a group of small objects covering a single theme such as Joining Up, including letters, prints and medals to large paintings of maritime scenes.  I liked the way Pocock’s painting of Plymouth Dockyard was accompanied by a smaller topographical illustration indicating where the dry dock, ropery and saw pits were located, not necessarily obvious to the uninitiated.

The museum has attempted to keep the visitor’s interest by varying the light and space, with enclosed darker areas emulating below decks of the Captain’s cabin, and airy spaces with lit canvas like ceilings mimicking the deck of a RN ship, wood flooring adding to the effect.  New technology has been used although it rarely amounts to true interactivity, images projected onto walls and mini film provide useful context about the Navy’s interaction with the Georgian nation, touching upon some of the darker aspects of the Navy, such as discipline and punishment.  Traditional labels are clear and not too texty, and apart from a few fairly legible, even in the low light areas

The long timeline display in the middle of the exhibition, takes us from the Battle of Barfleur in 1688 depicting English and Dutch ships fighting the French, all the way through to 1805 with the Battle of Trafalgar, where again British warships are fighting. the French.  The timeline uses a variety of objects including large paintings from the era and even a carronade encased in a plastic case mimicking a gun carriage.

Further along is a small seated area allowing visitors to watch a short animated film exploring the symbiotic link between nation and navy.  The wealth of eighteenth century Britain depended on a growing overseas trade which paid the navy.  Without the revenue from a growing empire, the navy could not be paid for, and without the navy, British trade could not be protected from piracy and rival powers.

The tone of the exhibition changes as we approach the age of Nelson, the displays focus on the dominant personality of the era, and the gallery changes from a social history of the navy populated with little known commanders becoming a celebrity show.   The great man looms out, with star billing lavished with prominent show cases, containing his love letters, a lock of the admiral’s hair, macabre blood soaked breeches & stockings and the jacket Nelson wore when he was fatally wounded on board The Victory.  The final displays look at the nation mourning their hero, with a large case of Nelson memorabilia that rivals anything that Princess Diana’s death could inspire.

In the heart of the exhibition we find a large touch screen monitor that allows the visitor to explore some of Nelson’s key conflicts.  The space that this monitor takes is a little wasted as you are limited only to view the battles, albeit allowing the user to zoom in and out, but unable to explore Nelson’s tactical genius.  What made him such a successful naval leader?  How did he defeat opponents in such a crushing way that none of his predecessors were able to achieve?  The gallery does not really provide a clear explanation but to be fair the whole exhibition concentrates on the social history of the navy rather than a military history of naval conflicts.

Although the exhibition does not attempt to use radical display techniques it does allow the objects to come to life with restrained displays that provide a variety of interpretation techniques that help the visitor understand such a massive subject.  Personally I would have preferred to see the space dedicated to the large audio visual displays to encourage more interactivity.  The gallery succeeds in telling the story of the navy at large as well as the personal stories of the officers and men, providing pride of place to the star of the show, Nelson.

From → galleries, Review

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