I went on a primary school trip to the National Maritime Museum (NMM) and I remember thinking it was amazing. Either my 10-year old self was completely deluded or something has gone very wrong in the meantime. I intended to see their Visions of the Universe exhibition showcasing the history of solar system imagery which their publicity implies is pretty much the best exhibition ever seen. It was broken! So I thought I’d look round the rest of the museum instead – and what a disappointment. Apparently, the whole history of Britain’s seafaring heritage can be distilled into the Atlantic Slave Trade, East India Company, Nelson and the Battle of the Atlantic. Even within these galleries, which have some fantastic objects, the brief information gives a stilted picture of their history. The Traders gallery, for example, has simplified 250 years of British interaction with India and China so that you bounce between pepper, cloth, tea and opium trading, through the India Rebellion and Opium Wars leaving you slightly breathless and with no better understanding of the complex and altering effects this had on the nations involved. As often with museums now, there’s no overarching chronology that shows you how Britain’s maritime history evolved from the seeding of the Royal Navy under Henry VIII to its role in the modern armoury. Where is the sense of naval innovation and development – including the crucial movement from sail to steam; where are the multiple roles of the Royal Navy as fighting force, transporter of goods and men, scientific explorers and pioneers, and where are the distinctions between different elements of naval warfare including submarines, seaplanes and decoy boats such as Q-ships? There’s not even anything dedicated to life on-board naval vessels – the social and cultural history of sailors which is still quite poorly understood. The NMM needs a rethink and to takes lessons from its own past – I definitely learned more on that School trip than I did all these years later.
There’s so much to do in Greenwich, however, that it needn’t be a wasted journey. The Painted Hall is part of the Old Royal Naval College (in front of the NMM) and was built as a hospital dining room for naval veterans. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and painted over almost 20 years by Sir James Thornhill, it was eventually thought to grand for the patients and opened to the public instead. Celebrating the glories of British naval power, it really is a spectacular place incorporating members of the contemporary royal family, with Christian imagery and Greek mythological symbols, as well sections celebrating the (then) four continents of the world. Much like the Reuben’s ceiling in the Banqueting House on Whitehall, this is a remarkable artwork and an interesting piece of propaganda on naval history.
The Queen’s House next door to the NMM is most famous for the often photographed spiral staircase and chequered marble floor, but it also holds one of the most interesting collections of paintings in London. Largely it contains naval portraitures, battles and seascapes, with a few royal figures as well, by everyone from Holbein to Lowry. The house itself, designed by Inigo Jones, was commissioned for James I’s wife, Queen Anne but first lived in by her daughter-in-law Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I. It was also the first classically designed building in England and is a quiet refuge after the bustle of the NMM. In fact skip the more famous NMM, Cutty Sark and Royal Observatory, and visit these two places instead – both free and far more enlightening.