Maritime museums – ships, war, and trade

Greenwich is famous for many good reasons. It is the home of the meridian line for Greenwich Mean Time, the location of the Astronomer Royal’s observatory, where John Harrison’s sea watches (for calculating longitude) are displayed; there is a tea clipper, by the River Thames, in dry dock, the Cutty Sark, a museum ship nearly lost to fire in 2007; park land surrounds the Queen’s House, a former royal residence; and there is the National Maritime Museum, which was created by the Maritime Museum Act of 1934 and housed in the former Royal Hospital School.

Greenwich is a worthy site for maritime history given its role in naval history and navigation, especially as the meridian, 0 degrees longitude runs through the park. The old Royal Naval College is the centrepiece, and now a World Heritage site. Before it was a college, the building was used as a hospital for seamen and was designed by Christopher Wren.

The site is a popular location for film sets. It has been used for Marvel’s Avenger films, Les Miserables, Pirates of the Caribbean, The King’s Speech, the Dark Knight Rises and the Madness of King George. The museum is part of this complex of buildings and parks, and its collections are diverse. From model boats, some made by French prisoners of war during Napoleonic times, to astronomical instruments, such as chronometers crafted by artisans. There are paintings of naval battles, fleets and admirals, and an exhibition of Titanic artefacts. There are navigational maps and charts, and the usual medals and coins that so many museums collect.

Greenwich isn’t the only Maritime museum. There is one in Falmouth, Cornwall, which has an eclectic collection of boats, a boat building workshop with a live exhibit (you can watch shipwrights restoring boats), and an underwater tidal zone where you can look at the sea life of the harbour, or you could enjoy sailing model boats on an indoor marine pool. The museum is focused on learning all about maritime life in Cornwall, which has shaped the region for centuries. It’s an excellent example of a local museum.

Liverpool also has a maritime museum situated on the docks within a cluster of museums. Liverpool’s nautical history isn’t the naval history of Greenwich, nor the small flotillas of Cornwall, it is linked to immigration and trade. The collection began in 1862 and a dedicated museum was opened on 1980 at the time when the docks were in decline. It incorporates a separate but wholly linked museum: the International Slavery Museum. The legacy of the transatlantic slave trade was represented in the original maritime museum but the growing interested in slavery led to a separate museum, and the current version opened in 2007. Liverpool has acknowledged that wealth, the trade shipping brought to the city, came at a high human cost. Museums should never shy away from telling the difficult periods in history, and the museum will take you into recreations of the claustrophobic ship holds and the stories of those enslaved. It also celebrates the lives and culture of West Africa before the slave trade arrived; as well as the history of the abolition movement. Well worth a visit.

7 comments

  1. The Maritime Museum at Greenwich is a good one to visit. Lots of towns around the coast must have museums too. In Whitehaven on the Cumbrian coast, which has a maritime history dating from before Liverpool’s, there are two museums with some maritime content. The Beacon Museum is quite diverse in its collections and The Rum Story is about the slave trade.

    A to Z 2021

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    1. I will have to look out for them the next time I visit Cumbria.

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  2. I visited the National Maritime Museum in 1998. I remember learning a whole lot about Admiral Lord Nelson. While in Greenwich I also enjoyed straddling the Prime Meridian and seeing the camera obscura in the Royal Observatory.

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    1. Crossing the line is definitely a must.

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  3. My aunt brought me to London when I got honours my first ‘big’ exams in 1983, We went on a day trip to Greenwich, where I remember stepping over the meridian line and going aboard the Cutty Sark.

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    1. Straddling the Meridian line is Aust for visiting Greenwich.

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  4. Having lived near the Great Lakes all my life, Greenwich and Liverpool museums hold a lot of interest for me. If I ever get across the big pond again, I’d love to do a theater (didn’t you cover theaters last year?) and museum tour of England.

    My “M” Jethro Tull song is here:

    A2Z 2021 Jethro Tull Songs Day 13 Mother Goose from Aqualung (1971)

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