London: National Maritime Museum

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Charmingly (?) wonky photo of the exterior

If the Fan Museum wasn’t enough to quench your thirst for museums, never fear, for Greenwich is full of other options, like the National Maritime Museum, which is free.  I’d personally advise you to detour back to the market in between museuming for ice cream, either in the form of a chocolate chip cookie sandwich, or a lovely creamy gelato from Black Vanilla (though their one flavour per small cone policy irks me, as the standard is two flavours, and I’m still debating whether the pistachio surcharge is worth it.  It was delicious, but so is the pistachio from Scoop and Gelupo, neither of which charge extra.). With a cone in hand, the National Maritime Museum is a short (and tasty) walk away.

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I went here last year for the Royal River exhibit curated by David Starkey, which I quite enjoyed, despite my distaste for Starkey’s position on the Tudors.  (He’s basically a Tudor apologist, and I’m not going to be won over to the idea that Henry VIII was a good person anytime soon.) However, I didn’t get much a chance to look at the rest of the museum at the time, so this last visit was my first opportunity to check everything out.  I started with the section on explorers, which included the grisly ends of some arctic expeditions.  As I’m sure you all know, I have some interest in polar exploration anyway, (I think my first post on here was about poor Lawrence Oates, of the Scott Expedition) and I liked how this section was situated in a dark tunnel, as it was at least an attempt at creating an authentic atmosphere.

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Progressing out onto the main floor, there was a rather good assortment of ship’s figureheads, as well as Prince Frederick’s fabulous gilded barge, a true exercise in royal restraint and taste.  I do love its gaudiness though.  Rooms in the interior section of the ground floor are devoted to maritime London and arctic convoys, the latter of which was basically just a load of pictures of boats, and thus not of great interest to me.  There was a sign outside one of the rooms advertising an exhibit on cartoons within, but alas, it was closed, which was a shame.

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Don’t miss the chance to view Nelson’s Trafalgar uniform, complete with bullet hole, without the terrible glare behind it!

Other objects of note on the ground floor include a nice collection of dishes and other things from cruise ships, including some menus, various mechanical bits and bobs, and a gallery hidden off to one side through a stairwell that smells of new tyres (does anyone else love that smell, or am I the only weirdo?) on Seafaring Britons, complete with charming portraits of Nelson and his mistress, and a genuine ship’s biscuit (sadly missing a photo of Lord Kitchener (or naval counterpart) in the middle, as seen in a biscuit at the Museum of Reading).

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The middle of the first floor is a large open space with a map of the world drawn on the floor, which children can ride around on various boat toys.  Dodging between them, I quickly passed through a rather lame recycling themed gallery that seemed noticeably out of place in a maritime museum, and headed over to the much more appealing section on the East India Company.  I’m well aware of the troubled history of the East India Company, which was covered in detail throughout the gallery, but there were also many wonderful items from various Asian cultures to look at.

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Equally troubling is the history of Atlantic trade, which was covered in the next gallery. The cruelties of slavery were well illustrated with chains and whips, and objects related to the sugar trade, including a collection of abolitionist tea paraphernalia.  There was also a section on other Atlantic industries, such as whaling, and something to appeal to my macabre side – an old guillotine blade that was actually used for executions on Haiti during the French Revolution.  Again, grim, but fascinating.

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Due to construction work on one of the stairwells, the first floor was a bit labyrinthine, and I ended up having to walk all the way around, and back through the East India gallery to access the stairs up to the second floor.  The only things up there at the moment are a bunch of model ships, and a children’s gallery, which I skipped.  The model ships were wonderfully detailed, (or so I’m told) but they mostly all looked the same to me, since I’m not particularly well-versed on ships, or really anything pertaining to naval history. I think if they’d had tiny people on top, I’d have been intrigued.

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I think the National Maritime Museum is a solid diversion if you’re already in the Greenwich area, and even if you’re not that interested in maritime history (I’m not), many of the galleries still manage to be engaging by discussing the larger consequences of sea-travel.  I think they make an effort to cater to children as well, which might be a concern for some of you.  I’ll award it 3/5.  I should mention, whilst we’re on the subject of Greenwich, that the famous Painted Hall where Nelson lay in state is right across the street from the Maritime Museum (albeit somewhat buried in the maze that is the Old Royal Naval College), and is worth poking your head in on your way back to the station, to complete your tour of things related to Nelson’s death, if nothing else.

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Painted Hall

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4 comments

    1. I still got to eat delicious gelato in the end, so it obviously wasn’t too much of an issue! I guess if I was smart I’d get the gelato and churro at the same time and dip the churro in gelato for added deliciousness.

  1. Loved the article 🙂 – personally, though, I think the 50p for pistachio is worth it. I heard from a friend that used to work at Scoop that it isn’t real pistachio but they fill it with flavourings!) Huge fan of Black Vanilla, I come over from west London on a regular basis for it lol!

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