Many’s the time I’ve spoken of my fascination with Captain Cook and his voyages, so I’m sure you can all guess that I was pretty excited to learn that Cook would be the subject of the BL’s latest exhibition. It’s the rare sort of exhibition I would have rushed out to see, but I was back in the States when it opened at the end of April, so I went to check it out on my first day off work after I got back (I don’t know why I always fly back the day before I need to go back to work; well, actually I do, because obviously I’m trying to maximise my time back home, but my first week back in London is always a big pile of jet lag, ennui, and homesickness).
Judging by the inexplicable popularity of that rather awful Titanic movie, people like an ocean liner. And whilst I’m clearly no Titanic fan, and avoid cruises like the plague, I understand the appeal of an ocean liner back in the golden age of travel, if you could afford to travel in style. I definitely like the idea of cruising around on a big old ship with gorgeous art deco interiors, servants to attend to your every whim, a massive stateroom, and of course a beautiful array of clothing to parade down the grand staircase in every evening, at least in theory…though when I think about it, I’d find the grand staircase stressful – I tripped walking up the steps to the stage at my high school graduation, the vice principal laughed in my face (he was a jerk), and I still cringe at the memory – and I could probably do without the servants too, because the idea of having people hanging around you that you just ignore when you’re not making demands makes me really uncomfortable, but presumably if I’d been born into a life of opulence, I’d be fine with being the centre of attention and treating servants like garbage. Nonetheless, I was still pretty excited about the V&A’s new exhibition “Ocean Liners: Speed and Style,” so much so that I went out to see it during its first week open (it runs until June).
Stockholm is spread out over something like 17 islands, each with their own distinct character, so, as I hinted at in my last post, I started giving them names to reflect that (different than the Swedish names they already have, because apparently I’m like some kind of jerk Victorian explorer or something). The island that ABBA the Museum shares with Skansen, the Nordic Museum, the Biological Museum, et al, naturally became “Museum Island” (though there are other islands with museums on them, it’s not the same concentration as here). Sadly, because “Museum Island” contains so many popular tourist attractions, it is extremely busy, meaning that our experience at what is arguably Stockholm’s most famous museum was never going to be an entirely pleasant one.
The Vasa Museum is built around a ship, the Vasa, which sunk in 1628 only 1300 metres off the coast of Stockholm on what was meant to be its maiden voyage (probably due to being top-heavy). After laying underwater for over three centuries, it was finally raised from the sea in 1961, preserved, which took decades, and eventually became the centrepiece of this museum, which opened in 1990. If you read my post on the Mary Rose a few years ago, this is probably all sounding awfully familiar, and indeed the museums are very similar, which is why I can’t help but compare them throughout.
There were long queues just to buy a ticket at the Vasa Museum, but by using the ticket machines, we were able to bypass them. Admission is 130 SEK, or about 12 pounds, which is cheaper than the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth where the Mary Rose is kept, but you get to see other ships and museums at the Historic Dockyard too (including Nelson’s Victory), so you probably get more for your money there. Anyway, the Vasa Museum is basically just one huge room with the Vasa itself as the centrepiece, with various levels where you can get a view of the ship from different angles and heights and look at some exhibits.
The Vasa is in a much better state of preservation than the Mary Rose (the Vasa is about 100 years younger), though this has the unfortunate side effect of meaning you can’t really see inside the ship, other than what you can spy through the gun ports on the lower levels. It’s so fabulous on the outside that I wish I could have seen the inside too, and although they have re-created the officers’ quarters and one of the gun decks upstairs, it’s not as good as getting to see the whole of the interior.
As far as the exhibits themselves went, I think they would have been decent enough (but not great) had the museum been less crowded. The main floor contained a splendid collection of figureheads that I think were meant to be replicas of ones on the ship, though I couldn’t actually get close enough through the hordes to see for sure (everything was in Swedish and English, so that wasn’t an issue).
There was also a small set of tableaux off to one side re-creating scenes in the history of the ship, which were exactly the kind of thing I love, or would have loved, if again, there weren’t so many damn people that I couldn’t even wriggle in and get a picture with that gawping woman (I think she was watching the ship sink) without someone blocking me.
I was actually kind of fascinated by the section about how the ship was re-discovered and salvaged, simply because I hadn’t realised that people still used those kind of creepy old-school diving suits in the 1960s (though I guess I should have known, because there’s that scary claw suit guy in For Your Eyes Only, and that was in the ’80s. Apparently they’re still used for some things, but made of more modern materials). I also didn’t know that diving bells had been invented by the mid-17th century, when they were used to bring Vasa‘s cannons up to the surface.
One of the upper levels contained some objects that had been found on the ship, though there didn’t appear to be quite as many as were on the Mary Rose, or at least, they weren’t discussed in as much detail. I remember the Mary Rose Museum had a lot of quotidian objects, and they talked about the sort of people they would have belonged to, which was really interesting, but the Vasa Museum seemed to have mostly weapons and stuff, and not as many personal items. However, the Mary Rose had been in service for 34 years before sinking, whereas the Vasa didn’t even really make it out of port, so there probably wasn’t as much stuff accumulated on board.
Another one of the levels was about what was happening in Sweden at the time of the Vasa, and included some most excellent portraits. One of them showed a Polish nobleman from that time, and explained that one of the carvings on the ship was of a Polish man being crushed under the boot of a Swede, and that they could tell he was meant to be Polish on account of his distinctive mustache and eyebrows (I’ve got a fair bit of Polish ancestry, and though I don’t have the mustache (yet, anyway), I do pretty much have the unibrow if I stop plucking, so maybe they weren’t just being racist?). I learned that Sweden and Poland were at war a lot in the 17th century (my knowledge of most continental European history is abysmal (I know a bit about Western Europe, but almost nothing about Eastern Europe or Scandinavia)), and the Poles were even blamed for the sinking of the Vasa.
I have to admit that one of the highlights of the museum for me was a video that was definitely intended for children, about a piglet called Lindbom, apparently based on a children’s book. Lindbom ends up on board the Vasa, where he is about to be eaten, but manages to escape in the end, aided by the ship sinking. I literally stood there for ten minutes watching this video, just to make sure Piglet Lindbom was OK (he was very cute).
The other highlight was the osteoarchaeology section, which included the bones of some of the people who died aboard the ship, along with explanations of who they might have been and what conditions they were suffering from, and facial reconstructions of some of them. I took an online course in osteoarchaeology last year, and while I am definitely no expert (osteoarchaeology is hard!), it was nice to review some of what I’d learned. Plus skeletons are just cool, and facial reconstructions always crack me up.
Other than the people they’d done reconstructions for (ten people, including one woman and one person of indeterminate sex who may have been a woman), I felt like there wasn’t that much information about the people who might have been on board the ship, which is a shame, because that was what I loved most about the Mary Rose Museum, though maybe this was partly because only 30 people died aboard the Vasa, whereas almost everyone on the Mary Rose died, so there wasn’t as much osteoarchaeological evidence available for the Vasa.
Also, while there was definitely a pretty good explanation of the techniques they used to conserve the wood on the ship, Marcus mentioned that he thought they didn’t really seem to say how the ship was actually repaired, because it can’t have been as intact as it is now when they found it. For example, they mentioned that all the bolts in the ship had to be replaced, but didn’t say how they actually did it, just what the new bolts were made from. They did attempt to explain how the ship was originally built, back in the 17th century, but even that wasn’t very clear to me, since they seemed to skip some steps.
So we both thought that the content was somewhat lacking (while there were some explanations provided, we both wanted more), and the crowds really did have a detrimental effect on our experience, as many of the people were particularly annoying about not moving out of the way (one guy was standing there for five minutes taking pictures of the same small section of the ship, even though we were clearly standing there waiting to get closer). I feel like the Mary Rose Museum went into a lot more detail about both the people on board the ship, and the ship itself, while the Vasa Museum only skimmed the surface of its fascinating story (though part of the problem (in addition to the factors already mentioned) could be that I know WAY more about British history, so maybe they had the same amount of historical background, I just needed a lot more about Sweden because I don’t know much about it). But the ship is absolutely fantastic, no doubt about that, it’s just that the museum doesn’t quite match the Vasa‘s glory. 3/5.
Unless you’re brand new to my blog (in which case, welcome!), I’m sure you all know by now how interested I am in the grim history of polar exploration. John Franklin’s final expedition was perhaps the grimmest of them all (not only did everyone die, but there is also evidence that the last people left alive ate the bodies of their dead fellow crew members), so when I heard last year that there would be a Franklin exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in summer 2017, I was pretty excited. And now here we are, less than a fortnight after the exhibition opened, and I’ve already been to see it!
“Death in the Ice: The Shocking Story of Franklin’s Final Expedition” costs £12, and is located in the basement gallery of the National Maritime Museum. As usual, I balked at paying that much, so I went with Marcus so we could take advantage of the National Rail 2-for-1. There was initially a bit of confusion going into the exhibit because there was a sign at the top of the stairs saying that no “rucksacks” were allowed in the exhibition, so Marcus went to drop his off at the cloakroom, only to find there was a £1 charge (which I know is not that much, but still). The guy working there said that he could in fact take it into the exhibition, he just might have to carry it in front of him, which was fine. So we went down, only for the woman at the entrance to tell him to put his backpack in what she claimed was the “free cloakroom.” Fortunately, after we asked if he could just carry it instead, she did allow him to bring it in, which saved us a trip up the stairs (and a pound), but it did show that there is a lack of communication amongst the staff about official museum policies. One thing there is no confusion about, however, is their policy on photography in their special exhibit gallery. It’s never allowed, and this exhibit was no exception.
The exhibit space was dark and atmospheric, which I quite liked, but it clearly wasn’t a hit with everyone, because I immediately noticed a woman there who was standing right on top of all the labels, and using the flashlight on her phone to read them, despite the large print guides that were available (I did hear a security guard offer her one, but she apparently preferred her method, other visitors be damned). The first two galleries provided a bit of background on the history of British polar exploration generally, starting with Martin Frobisher, and some background on Franklin’s expedition specifically. However, it paled in comparison to the excellent and comprehensive history available at the Polar Museum in Cambridge, and I think that if you didn’t know much about Franklin going in, it was probably a little lacking. Because I don’t want to repeat the museum’s mistakes, let me give you a little background on Franklin and his expedition here:
John Franklin was a Royal Navy officer with extensive experience of surveying the Arctic. However, though he had mapped much of the Canadian coast, he still hadn’t uncovered the fabled Northwest Passage (a common belief for centuries was that there was open water at the North Pole, and if you could just find an entrance to it, you could cut journey times to the other side of the world in half), so agreed to undertake one final voyage in 1845 to try to find it. He took two ships, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, crewed by 105 men and 23 officers, including Francis Crozier, who captained the Terror. Both ships had been used on a previous Arctic expedition, but to keep up with the latest technology, were now outfitted with steam engines and propellers in addition to reinforced bows and iron rudders (which added a lot of extra weight). Unfortunately, the work had been done in a hurry, and wasn’t of the best quality. In addition, Franklin, though experienced, was quite old to be undertaking this kind of voyage (59 in 1845, which I know is not that old by modern standards (just look at Ranulph Fiennes!), but Franklin wasn’t exactly fighting fit), and like most Europeans, was disdainful of Inuit ways, which might have helped the men survive after they abandoned ship. No one is entirely sure exactly what happened on the voyage, which is what makes Franklin’s expedition so intriguing even to this day, but it is certain that they all died, some while they were still on the ships, and many more in camps on land as they tried in vain to reach civilisation, and some recent discoveries (as discussed later in the post), might eventually help shed more light on it. Now, back to the exhibition!
The third, and largest gallery was meant to be roughly the dimensions of the lower deck of the Erebus, Franklin’s flagship (I’m guessing they specifically arranged it that way, but perhaps it was just a happy coincidence), and this gallery had sort of sailory audio effects, with the sounds of men mumbling and coughing, and boards creaking all around us. I liked that this helped me imagine a bit what it would have been like inside the ship, and to further the effect, they had seats in there the size of a ship’s chest, which would have been shared by two men, in which they would have kept all their personal belongings (they weren’t very big). The downside of Franklin’s expedition being a complete and utter disaster (besides everyone dying, of course), is that aside from some letters mailed from Greenland, before Erebus and Terror set out for Nunavut, and a note found inside a cache (more on that later), there is virtually no information about what happened on board the ships – no diaries, logs, or unmailed letters have survived, so the museum didn’t really have a lot to say about ship life, other than using Franklin’s previous Arctic voyages, and other voyages around that time to infer what might have happened. Thus there was a display of games (used to keep up morale), accounts of the plays men often performed in on these kinds of voyages (again, morale), and a cat o’nine tails in a display about discipline, and not a whole lot else.
Anyway, because there wasn’t much to be said about the expedition itself, the exhibition quickly moved on to the search efforts. The expedition had been supplied for three years, so nobody thought too much of it when a couple years went by without hearing word from Franklin. Typically, ships would get frozen into the pack ice, and were then trapped until the summer thaw, which didn’t happen some years, so they’d have to spend another year trapped in the ice (more than one other expedition met disaster that way, though not to the extent that Franklin’s did). But when 1848 rolled around and nobody had heard anything, people, especially Jane, Franklin’s wife, began to get concerned, and the Royal Navy sent out some search parties, in addition to offering a £10,000 reward to anyone who discovered the fate of the ships (which was a lot of money back then. Hell, it’s still a decent chunk of cash now!). My favourite of these search parties was led by Dr. John Rae, a Scottish surgeon who befriended many of the Inuit and was a successful explorer because he used their survival techniques and lived off the land. Rae was the one who got closest to the truth, again, because he listened to the Inuit, which is why many people in Britain hated him, not least Jane Franklin, and when he dared to say that there was evidence that the men had resorted to cannibalism, his reputation was ruined. (There was a letter here from Charles Dickens to a newspaper saying that he thought the stories of cannibalism were just the Inuit trying to cover their tracks, because they probably murdered and ate the men themselves, because you can’t trust an Inuit (his words). It made me hate him even more than I already did.)
Sadly, John Rae only rated about a paragraph in this exhibit, though a little more space was given to some of the other search parties, and some of the artefacts they’d left behind in the Arctic (including a metal food box with polar bear tooth marks in it!). But the main artefacts I was there to see were from the Erebus and Terror themselves. Yes, after over 160 years, the ships were discovered at the bottom of a bay off the coast of King William Island. The Erebus was found in 2014, and the Terror even more recently, in September 2016, hence the timing of the exhibition. There was a video of scuba divers exploring the wrecks, which was pretty cool, and some neat stuff that they’d dredged up from the deep, including the ship’s bell, various metal bits and pieces, and even a bit of cloth from a uniform. There were also artefacts found in the camp of the last men to die (it’s thought about 30 or 40 men made it to the northern coast of mainland Canada. Inuit actually encountered some of them, but they didn’t help them because the Inuit themselves were starving that year, and had no food to spare), and these were really neat, including a hymnbook, a small beaded purse, a pair of mittens with hearts stitched into the palms, and a few pieces of silverware with one of the officers’ family crests on them which had initials crudely scratched into them, so it’s thought that the crew might have shared out the officers’ possessions after they died and discipline broke down.
Speaking of artefacts, there was also the aforementioned letter left by some of the officers in a cache, initially in 1846 when the voyage was still going relatively well, saying that they’d wintered on Beechey Island, where three crew members had died, and then again in 1848 after the boats sank and Franklin had died (he died in June 1847, probably well before most of his men. As I’ve said, he was not in the best of shape, so the voyage would have been quite taxing even without starvation and frostbite and everything else) along with 9 officers and 15 men. I saw a facsimile of this at the Polar Museum, and was excited to see the real thing, but unfortunately, the real thing was all ripped and stained, and harder to read than the facsimile! The same could be said of Jane Franklin’s letters to her husband, sent when she thought he was still alive (obviously, he never got them, and they were returned to her), not because the condition was poor, but because she had absolutely appalling handwriting.
My absolute favourite part of this exhibition was the medical section. In one room, they had very clear photographs of the bodies of three men (William Braine, John Hartnell, and John Torrington) who had been buried at the first camp on Beechey Island and exhumed in the 1980s. They were still remarkably well preserved on account of the cold, and it might have been a little grisly for some, but I loved reading accounts of their injuries and what diseases they might have been suffering from whilst getting to look at their actual remains (and I wasn’t the only one…there was a child in there asking his mother which corpse was her favourite. I don’t much like kids, but this was a child after my own heart!). There was also a display on what might have killed the men of the Terror and Erebus, because starvation alone apparently doesn’t explain all the deaths, especially because a cache of food was found near some of the bodies. Theories range from botulism, scurvy, tuberculosis, hypothermia, lead poisoning (the food for the expedition was prepared in a hurry, and some lead solder contaminated it during the canning process, plus the ship had a water distillation system that also leached lead), and others, but none of those conditions provides a complete explanation (it was probably a variety of causes of death that did them all in), and the exhibit explained why, as well as offering a helpful interactive screen showing a breakdown of exactly how men did die on other naval expeditions of that period. The interactives in this exhibit were generally quite good, with a few that played short videos of Inuit oral testimony that explained what they witnessed happening to Franklin’s men and ships (recorded by modern Inuit people, from oral traditions that had been passed down), maps of the probable expedition route, and a 3D virtual model of the wreck of the Erebus that you could “explore.” Because it wasn’t too crowded when we visited, I actually got a good look at all of them, though of course the disease one was my favourite.
Although it was exciting getting to see some of the artefacts from Franklin’s final expedition, something about this exhibit just felt rushed to me…perhaps they wanted to get it out quickly in order to capitalise on interest about the discovery of the Terror? They mentioned how much time it takes to preserve artefacts that have been left underwater, and it seems to me like they hurried to get some out in time for the exhibition, when it might have been better if they’d held off for a year or two til there was more to look at, and maybe some conclusions could have been drawn from the ruins to tell us more about what went wrong. I also felt the content was a little lacking…I read Anthony Brandt’s The Man Who Ate His Boots (mainly about Franklin) a while back, and while the book wasn’t perfect, it was quite interesting because it pieced together what might have happened on the voyage from accounts given by Rae, other search parties, the Inuit, and modern historians. This exhibition really didn’t do that, perhaps because they didn’t want to use speculation rather than fact, but trying to tell more of a story about Franklin’s voyage would have made it a more cohesive exhibition, rather than it skipping abruptly from the interiors of the ships to search parties. It was interesting enough, it just didn’t give the complete picture (unlike their Emma Hamilton exhibition, which was excellently comprehensive). I’m glad we only paid £6, as it didn’t take that long to see it, and I don’t think it was worth £12. It runs until the 7th of January 2018, so you’ve got plenty of time to go visit, which I would do if you’re as keen on polar exploration as I am; otherwise, I think you can safely give this a miss and wait for their next special exhibition instead. 3/5.
Since I live in the Borough of Merton, and volunteer on local history projects, I probably hear more than most about Horatio Nelson and Emma Hamilton, because they lived in a house called Merton Place for about four years until Nelson’s death, in what is now South Wimbledon (much to my disappointment, however, the welcome gift you get for attending a citizenship ceremony in Merton is not a Nelson doll or mug, but a crappily made passport case. I think they need to upgrade, especially because I remember reading that one of the Scottish councils gives out Highland cattle stuffed animals. I got cheated). In fact, apart from William Morris and the Wombles (and of course the tennis), it’s kind of our main claim to fame. So when I heard that the National Maritime Museum had a new special exhibit devoted to Emma herself, I had to go see it (because I feel kind of bad that Nelson gets all the attention, but especially because Greenwich means Brazilian churros, and I am addicted to those delicious things).
Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity, opened on the 3rd of November, and runs until 17 April 2017. Admission is £12.60, but they do offer half price admission either with a National Rail 2-for-1 or a National Art Pass, though they sneakily don’t advertise that fact (fortunately, I have no shame in asking for a discount). It’s in the downstairs gallery where the National Maritime Museum seems to host all their temporary exhibitions, which means no photography (why does almost every London museum seem to let you take photographs of the permanent collections, but not allow them in special exhibitions? Is it because things are on loan from other institutions and they’re worried about copyrights? It’s annoying for us bloggers, is all. Otherwise I wouldn’t care), but a decently-sized space in which to wander about. Because I couldn’t take pictures, I’m including some of Romney’s portraits of Emma, and other relevant images, all obtained through Wikimedia Commons.
I visited at midday on a Friday, when it was only moderately busy, but I appeared to be the youngest visitor by a good 40 or 50 years, which obviously wouldn’t have been an issue had it not been for the following: I think the dim lighting in the exhibition may have been causing problems for some of my fellow visitors, because despite clutching special large print guides, they were still bending WAY over to read the normal item captions, thereby blocking the cases from everyone else’s view. I suspect the large print guide might also have been contributing to this problem; many of the artefacts were letters and other hand-written documents, which I’m surmising weren’t transcribed in the guides. Perhaps the National Maritime Museum could consider doing this in future, to improve everyone’s experience. Still, because it wasn’t super crowded, I managed to persevere with only a medium level of annoyance (I’m always at least a mild degree of annoyed, so it wasn’t bad going, all things considered). Anyway, as promised this was mostly about Emma (or as much as it could be in a time when a woman’s life choices tended to be dictated by men. Oh wait, that shit STILL HAPPENS (says the angry feminist in me)), so I’m going to do more of a biographical thing here than I normally would (not that I go to all that many exhibitions focused on one person) because that seems the easiest way to go about it without photos, plus I hope you’re all interested in learning more about Emma.
Emma was born in Cheshire in 1765 to humble beginnings; her father was a blacksmith who died shortly after she was born, leaving her mother to raise her (her birth name was Amy or Emy Lyon). Not surprisingly, Emma was forced to work as a maid from an early age, eventually moving to London. Here, things get a bit murky; some historians think she briefly worked as a prostitute, others say that was just people attempting to smear her name after she became famous. What is certain is that she eventually caught the eye of an aristocrat named Harry Fetherstonhaugh (which is bafflingly pronounced “Fanshaw”), and became his mistress, even though she was only 15 (hmmm, perhaps Fetherstonhaugh should actually be pronounced “sexual predator”). Naturally, he discarded her as soon as she became pregnant, but Emma managed to find another “protector” in the form of Charles Greville, though she was forced to give her daughter up, and changed her own name to Emma Hart. Greville was a complete and total ass as well, but this is nonetheless where Emma’s fortunes began to improve, because he sent her to have her portrait painted by George Romney. Emma was an extremely pretty young woman, and she became Romney’s muse. He seemingly painted her hundreds of times, judging by all the paintings that were on display in this exhibition, which began to make her known in society circles, her intelligence and personality doing the rest of the work.
All this was nicely covered in the exhibition, mostly illustrated by the actual portraits of teenaged Emma (there sure were a lot of her as a “Bacchante,” whatever the hell that is. Something related to Bacchus, perhaps?). It then went on to talk about what happened when she was abandoned by Greville; he decided he needed to take a rich wife, so in an unbelievably dickish move, he shipped her off to Italy, telling her he was sending her on holiday, but really he had arranged for her to become his uncle’s mistress, his uncle being Sir William Hamilton, British Envoy to Naples. Fortunately, Hamilton seemed to be slightly less of a jerk than his nephew, because while he clearly fancied Emma, he didn’t seem to have been the rapey sort; instead, he left her alone to grieve for Greville (well grieve, and be angry. There was one of Emma’s letters to Greville in here from after she realised she’d been discarded, and it was deliciously venomous. Go Emma!), and recognising Emma’s spark, hired tutors for her so she could have the education she’d been denied as a child. This led to Emma’s “Attitudes.”
No, these were not the natural response to all the shitty circumstances of her life thus far (though I wish they had been); rather, they were an almost unbearably pretentious-sounding entertainment that Emma devised wherein she would wear a loose, flowing white gown, as was the style at the time, and adopt poses of famous women from antiquity with the help of a shawl. Some of these were demonstrated in a video in the exhibition, and there were illustrations made of these from life, as well as a tea set decorated with Emma in her poses, so I can tell you that they are not at all the sort of thing that would go over well today, but it was a simpler time, and they gained Emma a great deal of fame. Hamilton was clearly won over too, because after Emma had been his mistress for a while, he consented to marry her, which was a HUGE deal at the time, as she would then become a Lady. (Also, Hamilton was a keen geologist who collected antiquities, so there’s some of that type of stuff in this exhibition too.)
It was the marriage that allowed her to become BFFs with Queen Maria Carolina, who was the Queen of Naples, and also to meet the love of her life, Lord Nelson (she was fond of Hamilton and all, but he was more than twice her age, so not the most thrilling lover, I’m sure). While she was living in Naples, the French Revolution began, and Maria Carolina was extremely concerned about this, especially because Marie Antoinette was her sister. When an uprising began in Naples some years later, Emma begged Nelson to come help the Neapolitan Royal Family, as she and Nelson had formed an attachment a few years before when he was convalescing in Naples after the Battle of the Nile and Emma nursed him back to health. Nelson rocked up and did some politically iffy things, like execute one of the leaders of the revolution, despite not having the backing of the British government (the revolutionary pleaded to Emma for mercy, and got cruelly denied), but he did save the Royal Family, and he and Emma officially became an item (surprisingly, Hamilton was basically OK with this, and all three lived together for a time. Nelson’s wife was not cool with it, but she was a woman, so Nelson could easily get rid of her. Grrrr). Also, Emma became the first woman to be awarded the Maltese Cross around this time (for sending food to Malta whilst it was blockaded), which she was extremely proud of, and she had her portrait painted whilst wearing it (both portrait and cross are on display. I’m not saying much about the political situation that led to the blockade, because I’m not entirely clear on it myself. My knowledge of Continental 18th century history is not great).
Unsurprisingly, this was the most interesting part of Emma’s life, which was reflected in the exhibition. There were lots of neat things from this era, including patriotic nautical-themed scarves and jewellery that she wore to support Nelson (only those in the know would have realised the extent of their relationship, because Nelson-themed jewellery was very popular at the time), and letters written between the two when they were apart. They also exchanged cool snake rings as a token of their love. In 1801, they bought Merton Place, and furnished a home together, even though it was mainly Emma doing the work, because Nelson was away at sea much of the time. I was really excited to see that they had a load of furnishings from Merton Place, because I’m always keen to learn more about it (the house was demolished in 1823, so it’s not like I can go and see it or anything). Being that they were both self-made individuals, from humble beginnings, their taste tended towards the gaudy, and they had lots of things celebrating Nelson’s victories, as well of portraits of Emma in her prime (Emma supposedly put on a lot of weight in her 30s, and there were some pretty mean-spirited cartoons here mocking her, but she still looked lovely in portraits, so it’s hard to say what she really looked like at this point). Whilst living at Merton Place, Emma became pregnant with their daughter, Horatia, who was also sent away after she was born to prevent a scandal (Nelson having an affair was one thing, but apparently a child born out of wedlock was a bridge too far).
William Hamilton died in 1803, and Nelson was of course killed at Trafalgar in 1805, and this is when Emma’s life all came crashing down. Because she was “only” a mistress, the English government refused to acknowledge her, despite Nelson’s pleas to do so in his will. She not only wasn’t granted a pension, she wasn’t even invited to Nelson’s funeral (it’s a bit difficult to know who to feel sorriest for, because I do have sympathy for Nelson’s discarded wife, and I can understand why the government chose to ignore Emma, but considering she was the mother of Nelson’s daughter, they could have given her and Horatia something (or maybe not since Emma and Nelson had to pretend that Horatia didn’t exist), or you know, at least let her come see his body at a time when his wife wouldn’t be there, since he was laid out in the Painted Hall for ages)! She tried to carry on living the lifestyle she had enjoyed during Nelson’s lifetime, with lavish entertainments, but soon ran out of money (I presume William Hamilton must have left her some, since they were legally married, and he was fine with the whole Nelson thing, but it wasn’t really mentioned. Maybe she spent it all?) and had to sell Merton Place to pay her debts, as well as most of her possessions, which were listed on auction bills in the exhibition. She was great friends with many of the Royals, including the Prince Regent (George IV), but of course they all deserted her when she needed money. She was briefly sent to debtor’s prison, and eventually moved to France to escape her creditors, where she died, aged only 49, from the effects of alcoholism.
As you can probably tell, I learned a lot from this exhibition, and I think the choice of artefacts to support Emma’s story was generally good. However, I did think it was a little obnoxious that in an exhibit that was supposed to be all about Emma, they still chose to feature Nelson’s Trafalgar coat as the final display. I get that people want to see the coat, but it’s normally kept at the National Maritime Museum anyway, in the Nelson gallery on the second floor, so they could have just had a sign directing people up there. It just seemed a little distasteful that a woman who spent her life being frequently mistreated and overshadowed by men also had Nelson as the last word in her exhibition. I also would have liked to learn more about Horatia, because she did eventually end up living with Emma briefly in France, but nothing was said about what happened to her after Emma died (I think she led a fairly boring life, and never really admitted she was Nelson’s daughter, but they still could have said something about her in here). Other than that, though, I think it was a solid exhibition, and even though Emma clearly had her faults (like calling for revolutionaries to be executed), she was obviously an intelligent and fascinating woman in her own right, and it’s nice that she’s finally getting some recognition for that. So 3.5/5 overall, and definitely worth 6 quid, but perhaps a bit expensive at the full price. Sorry for the Emma-essay!
Butler Point is on Doubtless Bay. I tell you this because it is a great Cookism, wherein Captain Cook sailed past the area, and remarked in his journal, “it is doubtless a bay,” and the name stuck. I know you all know that I love Joseph Banks, but that includes a fondness for Cook by extension, and I rather adore his characteristic matter-of-factness. Butler Point Whaling Museum is one of those annoying appointment only places (though when I got there, I could kind of see why) which I normally avoid like the plague, but fortunately my boyfriend’s aunt kindly called them for us (she’s the best!), so I could avoid the sort of awkward phone conversation I hate (i.e. any phone conversation. I HATE calling people, even people I know). So with that out of the way, we were free to head down at our appointed time and enjoy ourselves.
Though this information is not easy to find online, I’ll tell you here: the museum costs 20 NZD. This did seem steep (still does), but it’s not massively out of line with what some other small museums in New Zealand charge (although the really nice ones in major cities usually cost about the same, or are free, so…), so it was best to just suck it up and pay it, especially because we weren’t asked to pay until midway through the tour, and it was certainly too late to back out then. The museum is not exactly easy to find…satnav will fail you here, as the road it’s on doesn’t exist according to GPS, so best to go with the directions on their very old-school website. Basically, you drive up to a gate that you have to open yourself (so it’s useful if you have a friend/travelling companion) and then carry on for another couple kilometres down a winding gravel road (unsealed, in the Kiwi parlance). Even though we left early, we still managed to be about five minutes late, which was slightly awkward as there was already a lady waiting for us by the parking lot when we got there. Fortunately, she didn’t seem too put off, and as we were the only visitors that day, proceeded to take us on the tour.
(There were no pictures allowed inside the museum, so you’ll have to make do with these pictures of the rather beautiful gardens the museum is situated within.) Now, whilst I am intensely interested in historical whaling practices, I do not condone whaling in any shape or form (nor does the museum – its focus is decidedly historical). Obviously it was a terrible thing, and it’s awful that it still goes on in some places, but nonetheless, I am a realist, and that does not change history, and the fact that whaling was once a thriving, commercially important industry. What’s more, I tend to favour many of the more brutal aspects of history, and whaling is right up there on the harshness scale, especially where maritime history is concerned. So it’s fair to say I already knew quite a bit about whaling at its mid-19th century peak, and unfortunately, what this museum really provides is an introduction, rather than something more in-depth. This is not to say that our guide wasn’t well-informed, because she certainly knew loads about the whaling industry, and perhaps if I had mentioned that I was already familiar with many of the things she was talking about, she could have deviated her explanations, but it seemed rude to interrupt, and besides, it wasn’t uninteresting, especially when illustrated with the use of actual objects used in the industry. It was more that with such a specialist subject, I guess I was hoping for a more specialised museum, rather than the overview I got. That said, I did learn more about whaling practices specific to the area, so that’s something.
Basically, she began by leading us up to the whaling boat parked outside the museum. Initially, it seemed bigger than I had pictured them being after reading In the Heart of the Sea, but once I saw how it looked when full of men (or towing a whale), then it really did seem insubstantial against the task at hand. Which of course, was to harpoon whales, and then let then swim around until they tired themselves out (which could easily take hours – 3 on average, but sometimes a full day!) or managed to wreck the boat and escape. If they did eventually tire, they’d be hauled in for the kill, and towed back to the ship, where they’d be cut apart and hauled on board, and then flensed and the blubber boiled down into oil (and spermaceti set aside for candles and such, if it was a sperm whale). There were also big pots and a giant ladle, so you could see how the boiling-down process would have worked. And a few portions of whale skull; baleen and toothed.
Once we got inside the actual museum, we were free to look around at leisure. The collection was fairly standard (having since been to another whaling museum, I can safely say this); lots of scrimshaw and ambergris and such. There were maps and factual posters, but the most interesting part was undoubtedly a video made in the 1920s that actually showed whaling in action (which is how I was able to gauge the size of the whaleboats when full), as our guide said, it really did tie everything together.
The whole reason the museum is here in the first place is because of Captain Butler (William, not Rhett, much to my disappointment), a retired whaling ship captain (I believe he was British, but also lived in America for a while) who had his finger in many pies that horribly exploited the environment, from provisioning other whaling ships, to exporting kauri gum and trees. Anyway, once he’d accumulated a good bit of money, he built a house here to accommodate his wife and their 13 children (though frankly, the house looks much too small for all of that), which still stands today, and is included in the whaling museum tour (still no pictures allowed though). He wasn’t the only whaler in the area, of course, as many American whaling ships docked nearby as well (hence the provisioning), but he’s the only one who settled and has a house still standing nearby, so this is what you get. The house only dates back to the 1840s, but is rather stuffy and rich in authentic smells. However, as a historic house it was fairly unremarkable, and many of the rooms contained random objects (ladders, posters, etc) clearly used by the curators/caretakers rather than meant to be seen by the public.
Once we’d finished the tour, which took about an hour and a half, we were free to explore the rest of the property on our own, which included a fernery, a walk that went down to the edge of the bay (so you could dip your feet in if you’re like me; there were a lot of bits of leaves and things floating around, but the water was nice and warm), and most excitingly, a giant tree. While not as tall as the kauri trees, it was massively wide and clearly extremely old (I think something like 1000 years), and unlike the kauri trees, you were allowed to get right up to it and hug it if you were so inclined (which you may be able to spy me doing in the photo). You could also walk through the forest to look out onto nearby Mangonui (a little, touristy bayfront town with a “world famous” chippy. I can’t judge the fish, since I don’t eat it, but I’ve had much better chips). There was also a teeny graveyard where Captain Butler was buried, along with some of his family and the subsequent owners of the house.
Although I didn’t walk away feeling as though I’d learned quite as much as I’d hoped, I think it’s difficult with this sort of attraction where you have to cater for all levels of knowledge, which is many cases may be fairly slight, and you don’t have that many unusual artefacts for people to admire. As I said, I did like the video, and I did learn more about local whaling practices, so I think it was still a worthwhile trip, even if this small and surprisingly expensive museum wasn’t quite all I was hoping for. 2.5/5.
And so my treks around London continue (for once, I think I might actually see every special exhibit currently here that I wanted to see, plus some I didn’t!). Lured by those Brazilian churros yet again, I made my way out to Greenwich last week for the first time in months, only to discover that the churro stand isn’t in Greenwich Market on Wednesdays anymore. Thankfully, I was planning on visiting some museums out there anyway, so my voyage was not made in vain (though I was very hungry and cranky going churro-less).
Although I often don’t really see the point of steampunk, I’d nonetheless wanted to see Longitude Punk’d at the Royal Observatory for a while, and as £8.50 currently gets you a combined ticket to the Observatory and the special exhibit at the National Maritime Museum, there was really no time like the present. I began with Ships, Clocks, and Stars: The Quest for Longitude, housed in the downstairs galleries of the National Maritime Museum, as it seemed like it would probably be the less interesting of the two exhibits. I wasn’t wrong about that.
Basically, as ship technology improved and sailors were able to travel farther distances, the main thing holding back exploration and navigation was the problem of calculating longitude at sea (well, and scurvy, but they were working on that too). Latitude was no problem, as you can just do some quick calculations based on the angle between the North Star and the horizon (I use “you” in a general sense here, as I certainly am not going to be calculating any damn angles. I hate geometry), but to calculate longitude, you need an extremely accurate clock, which for reasons I probably got into when I was writing about the Clockmakers’ Museum, was a tricky thing to achieve at sea. To this end, rewards of up to £20,000 were offered, until John Harrison came through with his crazily complex clock. Actually, I’m pretty sure I also said this in my post about the Clockmakers’ Museum, but I still don’t really want to get into the science or the technology here, because I don’t fully understand it, and it kind of bores me. This is probably why I didn’t enjoy The Quest for Longitude very much, as 80% of the content was about the science behind longitude and the way the clocks were made, and I found my eyes glazing over as I was trying to read the captions (side note, I only just discovered, from the video inside the exhibit, that British people pronounce “longitude” with a hard “g.” I don’t know how I lived here for six years without knowing that. No wonder the guy at the admissions desk initially seemed confused when I tried to buy a ticket).
However, I do seize on any points of interest where I can, so the exhibit wasn’t a total bust. There was a small room devoted to the voyages of Captain Cook (and that dishy Joseph Banks), which I remain fascinated by, and even more enticingly, a lone case containing objects belonging to Captain Bligh, that notorious captain of the Bounty who was set adrift in a small boat with 18 of his men by the mutinous Fletcher Christian. I think Bligh’s feat of navigation was just incredible (really must get around to reading that book about the Bounty that’s been sitting on my bookshelves), and I was enthralled by the artefacts here from that journey: a bullet Bligh used to weigh out bread, a small cup (shot glass sized) for liquid rations, and a coconut bowl that he took his own meagre meals from. If the whole exhibit had been on Cook, Bligh, and other explorers like them, I would have been thrilled (maybe that’s what they should have next?) but alas, the title did promise longitude, and that is mainly what was delivered. One other item of note was an insulated suit worn by Nevil Maskelyne, Astronomer Royal, when he was taking calculations in the freezing Royal Observatory, of which more later. Anyway, it seems like I mainly took issue with this exhibit for living up to its description, so it’s really my own fault that I didn’t enjoy it, knowing that I’m not that interested in technology and such. So I’ll give it 3/5 with the caveat that if you’re like me and aren’t very mechanically minded, this probably isn’t the exhibit for you.
Moving on…I next talked myself into taking that long, steep trudge up the hill to the Royal Observatory (if you’ve ever been there, you’ll know what I mean) to see the steampunk wonders of Longitude Punk’d. It is sort of the partner exhibit to The Quest for Longitude – whereas the National Maritime Museum was all business, the Royal Observatory took on the fun side of navigation. The premise behind the exhibit, as outlined in a cute little booklet at the entrance, was that a mysterious Georgian Commodore took on the task of solving the problem of longitude…with the help of trained Kiwi birds. The exhibit was thus dedicated to the strange explorations of this imaginary Commodore, and the “alternative history” of many of the other figures of the time. It was based inside Flamsteed House, and spread out throughout the building; initially with one piece in each room, and then a final gallery doused with cheeky steampunk madness (the pictures throughout this post are taken from Longitude Punk’d, as The Quest for Longitude didn’t allow photography).
This included a range of fantastic clothing, like Captain Cook’s jacket with a map painted on so he would never get lost again, a constellation dress (shown before the previous paragraph, and absolutely gorgeous), the solar system dress shown above, and another example of a useful quilted suit that wasn’t too far off from the actual suit used by Maskelyne (I have to wonder if the designer saw the original). My favourite part was undeniably the gallery right at the end though (and this despite the presence of many loud obnoxious teenagers who didn’t know how to conduct themselves properly in a museum), which was a mix of steampunk creations and normal looking maritime art with hilarious cheeky captions. For example:
And (assuming you can read the caption through the shadows of the weird way I curl my fingers when taking a phone picture):
And so on, as most of the captions in here literally gave me a good chuckle (which probably looked creepy, as I was there by myself, quietly laughing in the corner). I guess it’s even funnier if you know the real history behind it, so I suppose it was useful in the end that I went to the National Maritime Museum first (and also that I just happened to be reading a book on maps at the time that discussed the conference that led to the Prime Meridian being set in Greenwich); I guess these museums know what they’re doing after all.
I really really loved how clever and beautiful everything in this exhibit was; I think the creators must have a sense of humour similar to mine, and I really do recommend checking it out before it finishes in January. Longitude Punk’d is only in one building of the Royal Observatory, and the combined ticket gives admission to the whole of it; weirdly, I’d never visited the non-free galleries of the Observatory before, so I had a good look around. I liked that there was a camera obscura, though it was somewhat ruined by the constant parade of tourists who didn’t seem to understand how it worked and so kept failing to close the curtains properly, and the giant telescope was pretty cool, even though there were some guys repairing it whilst I was there. There were a few galleries with clocks and stuff, but it wasn’t ultimately that memorable or different from the stuff in the free galleries or the Clockmakers’ Museum I seem to keep mentioning in this post, so you’re really primarily paying for the steampunk stuff.
(The picture above left is of the magic longitude tracking kiwi birds in diorama form, and is pretty adorable in person). So I’m going to give Longitude Punk’d 4.5/5, even though I don’t think it’s worth £8.50 by itself (and therein lies the beauty of the combined ticket) because it really meshed with my personality and interests a lot better than The Quest for Longitude, but if you’ve got the ticket to both, you may as well see them both, right? Just don’t make the mistake I did of visiting on a non-churro day, as even though I really enjoyed my steampunk adventure, I still regretted the lost opportunity to consume a fried-to-order pastry piped full of oozing dulce de leche.
Ah, Liverpool. Home of The Beatles and technically, the Titanic (though she launched from Southampton, Liverpool was registered as her home port). As the city was only one stop of many on this road trip, my time there was limited, so this will only be a partial review of these museums, since I didn’t have a chance to explore them as thoroughly as I normally would. I go to a lot of maritime themed museums, so I probably would have felt safe skipping the Merseyside Maritime Museum, had it not been home to the Border and Customs Museum, which resides in a corner of the Merseyside Museum’s basement.
I think I was expecting something slightly more awesome, based on the description in the outdated, but still quite useful Weird Europe guidebook, like maybe all the really unusual things that have been confiscated by customs over the years – there was some of that, but not to the extent I was hoping. I don’t know, I mean, it was perfectly fine, just not quite what I anticipated, which is probably my own fault. It did kind of feel like a “what not to do” guide for potential smugglers, with a few games to see how well you could identify suspicious behaviour. However, aside from a case of exotic (dead) animals that had been smuggled in, and a prosthetic leg that had been used to hide drugs, most of the prohibited items on display were mundane things like counterfeit bags and shoes.
Fortunately, not all was lost, as the other side of the basement contained an exhibit on the immigrant experience, complete with a re-creation of steerage class on a ship, which possibly had authentic smells, it was hard to tell. Even if it didn’t, odours were available in the customs bit, where you could even smell “faeces” (of course I did, why wouldn’t you?), but when I turned the knob, a puff of some kind of faeces dust went up my nose, so use with care! All this was just in the basement- the museum had three more floors to explore, but the fact that it was so huge meant that I didn’t have time to give the rest of the museum my full attention.
I did walk through the International Slave Museum on the third floor, which looked very interesting, and included an example of a slave’s hut. Even though I’m not really all about the Titanic (my friend and I went to the cinema when the film came out for the sole purpose of making fun of it, and as an excuse to eat ourselves stupid on candy and popcorn of course), I checked out the exhibit on it because, like the Thackray Museum, they had character cards to choose from, so you could see if you would have survived the sinking (I chose wisely), and I love that kind of crap. I was also quite interested in “Hello Sailor,” an exhibit about homosexuality at sea, as cruise ships often served as a safe haven for gay men back in the middle part of the 20th century. It included a guide to “Polari,” a special language invented by gay sailors both as a way to identify each other and prevent others from understanding their conversations.
There were many other galleries that looked fascinating, including ones on the Lusitania, sailing during wartime, and even a special trail you could follow that would take you to all the objects pertaining to the American Civil War, that I would love to go back and check out someday (Liverpool had close ties to the South due to all the American cotton coming through its ports for British mills, as anyone who’s read Gone with the Wind knows, so I bet there was some cool stuff in their collections), but I also wanted to see a bit of the Museum of Liverpool, so I headed over there instead.
The museums are just across the river from each other; the Museum of Liverpool in some fancy modern glass construction, with an awful lot of steps winding round the interior. The museum focuses on the non-maritime side of life, primarily the former and present inhabitants of the city, which means of course, The Beatles. I like The Beatles just fine, but I wouldn’t say I’m suffering from any kind of “Beatlemania,” so I was content just to look at what they had in the museum rather than go on one of the full-fledged Beatle tours or something. We were nonetheless enticed by the Beatle Experience, which takes place on the top floor every half an hour or so, but rather than being some kind of mini-concert involving impersonators or even holograms (that would have been cool) as I was expecting, it was just some informational video projected onto the walls of a round room. It wasn’t really worth waiting for, but it does give you a chance to check out the stage where John and Paul met, which is kept inside the room.
They had more Beatles memorabilia outside, like a set of their suits, and a quilt that John and Yoko slept under when they were doing their protest for peace and stayed in bed for a hella long time, but if you really want to get a proper Beatles experience, I think you’d be better off on one of the aforementioned tours of Liverpool. Most of the rest of that gallery was devoted to other stars of Liverpool – a few actors, and quite a few sports stars.
The other half of the top floor was about Liverpool life, and my favourite things were a large model of the Liverpool Anglican cathedral, which is apparently super huge in real life, a small replica of a working class Victorian street (which had a stuffed cat, and an outhouse that made farting noises when you touched the door and told you to go away, loved it!), and a little quiz about the Scouse accent, which I found hilarious and informative. The floor below this appeared to be a timeline of the city, with an old train you could climb into and stuff, but I gave it the most cursory of glances in our (unsuccessful) attempt to get back to the mega-expensive carpark before we got charged for another hour.
Bottom floor was a crazy mix of objects from Liverpool’s history, as well as a section on immigration that also appeared to have neat stuff in it. I feel bad that I didn’t get to really appreciate everything, but both the museums were massive and free, and I’d love to go back and investigate them more thoroughly in future, in addition to checking out some of Liverpool’s many other museums. 4/5 for both.
Here’s part 2 of my outing in Portsmouth, which mainly means the new Mary Rose Museum. I was probably more excited to see this than the Victory, even though I generally prefer Georgians to Tudors, simply because I think the history behind it is pretty incredible. (Do you have the first version of the Gilligan’s Island theme song (before the Professor and Mary Anne rated a mention) stuck in your head from my post title? Just thought it would go with the maritime theme!)
For those of you unfamiliar with its story, the Mary Rose was a Tudor ship (Henry VIII’s flagship) that famously suddenly sank during a skirmish with a French ship in 1545, thereby drowning most of the crew (only 25-30 people survived out of a crew of over 400). Contrary to popular belief, the Mary Rose was actually a perfectly capable ship for the 34 years prior to sinking, so the theories as to why it sank are numerous, and include being hit by a French cannonball, a mistake during battle, or being toppled by the wind after extra guns had been loaded on board. At any rate, the ship sat at the bottom of Portsmouth Harbor until 1982, when it was hauled up and preserved. Because the ship is understandably fragile after being underwater for over 400 years, and only half the ship survives (the half that was covered up by silt, which protected it from various hungry and probably disgusting looking sea creatures), unlike the other ships at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, it is kept inside the museum, with scaffolding to protect it. The actual wood has been preserved by somehow replacing the water molecules inside it with wax, which is apparently quite a lengthy process (I’m not sure of all the science behind it, but it is briefly explained inside the museum). The end result is amazing to behold, and the fact that half the ship is missing makes it into a convenient cross-section, so you can really admire the interior.
Although the Mary Rose is undeniably the showpiece of the collection (and you can walk past it at multiple levels to give you the chance to admire every aspect, including a trip up a “viewing lift”), it is by no means the only incredible thing about this museum. Because the ship sat undisturbed for so long, and many of the crew kept their possessions in heavy chests, it turned out to be a treasure trove of Tudor artefacts, most of which are on show in the museum’s galleries. The museum has arranged them according to the type of people who would have been working on each deck of the ship, which makes for a trip through all the seafaring social classes. Common threads that united them all were the prevalence of fine combs, designed to remove lice, and the ubiquitous dagger (including my particular favourite, the “ballock” dagger, so named for its resemblance to a certain part of the male anatomy. You can probably see what I mean from the example above). So, you do see a lot of the same objects again and again, but there are enough tools that were unique to particular trades (I loved the section on the ship’s surgeon, with all his medical implements), and personal touches on the more common items, like carved pictures or initials, to keep things interesting.
Of course, since most of the crew went down with the ship, there were also lots of skeletons in the wreckage, as well as jewellery and scraps of clothing. They’ve analysed the skeletons to try to determine the age, health, and occupation of each man (aside from the captain, George Carew, we don’t really know the names of any of the crew members), and the results are fascinating. Judging from the skulls on display, not a single man on board had a complete set of teeth in his head, and even the men who were still in their 20s already had a whole host of injuries (many of them caused by Henry’s law that required every able-bodied man to practice archery; using a longbow from an early age means that shoulder bones never fuse properly), and probably looked quite rough, judging from the facial reconstructions. I love anything to do with medicine, so I was enthralled by their findings (and the display of bones with various types of injuries and conditions).
We spent more time in the Mary Rose museum than any other part of the Dockyard, and I think I could have lingered even longer if we didn’t have a tour of the Victory to catch. I really think they did an excellent job displaying all the artefacts, and the amount of signage was just right. Plenty of great information and special sections about the history behind each job or custom, but not so much that it felt overwhelming. My only complaint was that some of the galleries were so crowded that it was difficult to see everything, and it’s only the start of March, so the crowds must be horrible during the summer. Because of this, I’d definitely recommend going in the off-season or possibly on a weekday if you can (although I’d worry about schoolchildren being bussed in on a weekday).
In addition to the ships I wrote about in my earlier post, there were some other attractions at the Historic Dockyard. Since we were starving, my boyfriend and I queued for ages just to get a tea and some chocolate fudge cake from the small case in the museum (there were only like three people ahead of us, but service was so slow, though the cake was not bad); there are a few other cafes and a chippy, but I’d rather venture into Portsmouth and take my chances with a proper seaside chippy, personally. But there were statues of famous people to have your photo taken with, which I love doing! (Here’s another tip, some guy will offer to take your picture with the Henry VIII inside the Mary Rose Museum, which you can buy for 8 quid at the end. But there’s another Henry VIII statue hidden in a corner across from the building where you buy your ticket, which you can photograph as much as you like for free. Not that I think anyone would pay £8 for a hastily taken photo by a bored museum employee anyway, but just in case you really wanted a picture with Henry.) I liked the giant Nelson the best, especially since they accurately made his one eye look all milky and weird (he lost most of the sight in it in the same accident that took his right arm. Poor banged-up man).
There’s also a figurehead of some Restoration era gent who was a contemporary of Samuel Pepys, and even looked a great deal like Pepys, but was not Pepys (though I think there should have been a Pepys figurehead, he was Chief Secretary to the Admiralty after all!). Another building on the site holds some cheesy gift shop, and this weird “dockyard apprentice” exhibit that you can walk through in the back. I did not have time to read all the text associated with it, but I guess if you do, you emerge a full-fledged worker at the other end (conveniently, they sell diplomas in the gift shop. I seriously wonder whether anyone has ever bought one). However, it did contain two of my most favourite things; mannequins with amusing expressions, and authentic smells, so it’s worth walking through just for that.
I guess because they were trying to give the place more of a “seaside” vibe, there were a handful of penny arcade games in there as well (I say penny, but they cost between 10-50p). We had a couple 20ps to hand, so got suckered into the crappy ones showing some kind of tableaux that “comes to life” after you stick the money in (usually a ghost or something pops out). Like others of their kind, these were pretty lame, and I refused to try the one where a “war criminal” was hanged, as he was a supporter of the Americans during the Revolutionary War, so I couldn’t really endorse his execution.
I should mention that the National Museum of the Royal Navy is also part of the Dockyard, and it looked rather large and impressive, but I simply did not have time to go in (assuming we don’t lose our stupidly small and awkwardly sized tickets, we’ll probably head back to the Dockyard within the next few months), so I think it would be quite easy to spend two days at the Dockyard, particularly if you have children. Though I felt the main ships (Victory and Warrior) were kind of a mixed-bag, though certainly historically significant, and worth seeing for that reason alone, I really loved the Mary Rose Museum, and it made me slightly less salty about the admission price (though only slightly, I mean £26!?). I think the Dockyard as a whole should get a 3.5/5, though I’d probably rate Mary Rose as a 4/5, easily. Not at all a bad day out, if you can stomach the price.
I’ve been feeling very tired of London lately (not necessarily tired of life though, sorry Dr. Johnson), so I was glad to get down to Portsmouth for a day to check out the Historic Dockyard. Though it wasn’t quite the usual seaside excursion, it’s still a bit cold to go promenading with an ice cream (I will happily eat ice cream year round, but prefer to enjoy it indoors in the wintertime), so this was a marginally warmer alternative.
I’ve done a lot of complaining about prices of late, but really and truly, the Historic Dockyard is not cheap. They charge £17 per attraction, so the only sensible option is to get an all-in-one pass for £26, which is valid for one year (another pet peeve of mine: places that offer an annual membership with the admission price, but require you to hang onto a small ticket that you present for subsequent visits, with no replacements offered. If you’re just issuing someone with a cheap paper ticket, odds are pretty good they’re going to lose it or accidentally throw it out and have to buy a new ticket if they come back, which I suspect is exactly what these museums want to happen. I’d be a lot happier if they could at least humour me by giving me a membership card to stick in my wallet or something, so I’d have some chance of hanging onto the thing.), but paying £52 for the two of us to spend a day somewhere is not the kind of outing we can afford often. Anyway, the pass gives you access to all the ships and museums on the property; I’ll be talking about the HMS Victory and the HMS Warrior today, and cover the rest in the next post.
The HMS Victory was most famously Nelson’s flagship during the Battle of Trafalgar, and although I can see its colour scheme not being ideal for stealth, it certainly is a beautiful ship. You can see the Victory through guided tours only (they give you a time slot when you buy your ticket), so we joined up with the large group (30 or so people, more than I find ideal) outside and waited for our guide. After “boarding” the ship, we received a brief introduction, and then were taken on an overly fast-paced tour that required trekking up and down very steep steps, and ducking under narrow entries (I’m only 5’4″, and I had a sore neck after leaving from bowing my head so often, so just a heads up (ha) for the tall people out there).
Following a brief tour of Nelson’s surprisingly plush and spacious living quarters (almost everything in the ship is a replica), we were herded up on deck to see the spot where Nelson was fatally wounded (the shot passed through his lungs and lodged in his back; he was immediately carried belowdecks where he died three hours later), and then back down again to see the low-ceilinged and depressingly dark decks where the common sailors lived and worked.
The tour guide did a very good job of engaging the children on the tour, but unfortunately, this meant that the rest of us had to stand in the back, and it was difficult to hear him at times, or see anything, for that matter. As expected, he went through the origins of many common phrases which have their basis in nautical terms (there’s not enough room to swing a cat, pull the cat out of the bag, etc. etc.), but he also did provide some interesting facts about the ship and its crew. It was launched in 1765, so it was already 40 years old by the time of the Battle of Trafalgar (making it a near-contemporary of the Endeavour, Captain Cook’s ship; sadly the original Endeavour was wrecked, so I’ll never get to see that dishy Joseph Banks‘s quarters), and the aforementioned distinctive yellow and black colour scheme was Nelson’s favourite, called “checkerboard” as that’s what it resembled when the black gunports were closed.
I did very much enjoy getting to see the interior of Nelson’s gorgeous ship, and picture it in action, but I wish the tour had been more comprehensive (perhaps if they offered separate tours for families and adults?), as the whole thing felt quite rushed, and half the time was spent waiting for everyone to finish climbing up or down the scarily narrow steps.
There was a small HMS Victory museum nearby, so we popped in to see if it could flesh out the scant details provided on the tour (although even with my limited knowledge, I managed to get 9/10 on the computerised quiz inside, go me!). I felt bad for not experiencing the film and light show on offer, as the man working there seemed slightly disappointed when I turned it down, but I really was in a hurry. There wasn’t a tonne of content in the actual museum, although I did pick up a few more tidbits, but I was ultimately distracted by a glimpse of the flamboyant figureheads perched upstairs.
I do love a good figurehead, and these were brilliant, with lovely eye-popping paint, and nipples galore! Quite a few of them were based off royalty or Roman/Greek gods, although there were a few Victorian (meaning, slightly racist) depictions of various foreigners. On the whole, however, I loved this display, and it was probably one of the highlights of the Dockyard.
I know I’m already running on, but I still want to mention the HMS Warrior, which is seemingly there in large part to show the advances in technology in the century between the building of the Victory and the Warrior, though it is an interesting ship in its own right. When it was built, in 1860, it was the “largest, fastest, and most powerful warship in the world” (according to the pamphlet we were given), but it was never actually used in battle (I know I’m meant to refer to ships as “she,” but having no naval background myself, it just feels kind of awkward doing so).
The Warrior is viewable by self-guided tour, so we saved it til last, figuring we could always rush through if we ran out of time, though it turned out we were easily able to see everything in 45 minutes. There were steps all over the place, so our route was a little confused, but I’m confident we saw everything in the end.
Like the Victory, the Warrior also had very swanky Captain’s Quarters, though they lacked a little of the Victory‘s charm. There wasn’t much information posted inside the ship, so I was fairly reliant on the free pamphlet, which quite frankly wasn’t detailed enough for my liking (I guess I could have paid extra for the official Historic Dockyard guidebook, but that would be completely out of character for me).
By studying the map, we did manage to work out the locations of the jail cells, for seamen guilty of serious crimes, and some pens for the sheep and other livestock that were kept for meat. Like any ship, things got grimmer the further you travelled down into its aptly-named bowels, and the engine rooms were the grimmest yet.
The mood lighting did help me appreciate how hellish things must have been, and it was a comfortable temperature (instead of 120 F +) and not full of sweaty men when I was down there, so I can only imagine how bad things were when the ship was at sea. No wonder they were paid more than normal sailors, though whatever it was, it wasn’t enough.
I’ve got far more pictures than words at this point, so I’ll just start throwing the pictures up here with brief descriptions as I’m sure you’re sick of reading by now anyway. There are the engine room and the Officer’s Dining Hall.
Wheels (your guess is as good as mine, probably better as I don’t know much about ships) plus washing bowl (not a toilet)
The raisin bin, plus “special issues” of food, in addition to the normal menu of bread and meat. Conditions had certainly improved since Nelson’s day, when common seamen mostly ate ship’s biscuit, porridgey things, and rancid meaty stews, but I loathe raisins, so I would not have been a happy camper even on the Warrior.
Barrel, perhaps it contained rum, which would explain the spirit of generosity towards the Queen, and cannon.
The Warrior had scantier information on offer than the Victory, but it’s still worth a look around as part of the combined ticket. Although I think I was meant to be marvelling at how modern it was in comparison to the Victory, I couldn’t help but think about how some of the romance of sailing had been lost (though that “romance” included a crew mostly comprised of men who had been press-ganged into service, who were flogged for any infraction and had terrible living conditions, so it is possible any positive connotations of a Georgian sailor’s life are all in my mind). Honestly, I’d probably rather be aboard a ship in the heat of battle than stuck in a horrible boiler room, as at least your suffering wouldn’t last as long. The Warrior just seemed more utilitarian than the Victory (though it was a Victorian ship, so not THAT utilitarian), and in purely stylistic and romantic terms, I think the Victory unquestionably wins out, though I’m sure the Warrior could have easily blown it to bits with its advanced technology. I’ll hold off giving a rating until I’ve written about the entire Dockyard, as I’ll grade it as a whole. So, I’ll just throw in a couple more pictures of figureheads to finish off the posts, because damn, they’re cool!
(Oh, and that’s Charles II’s royal barge that you can see in that picture, also awesome.)