When you think of Greenwich, there are a couple of things that you think of. It’s an important spot in world geography and history because it is where time begins, as it were, marking the meridian line. Clocks were set here and the Royal Observatory was founded in 1675 by Charles II to help measure the time. Sailors would set the clocks on their boats from here, which brings us to the second thing that Greenwich is best known for: its naval and maritime history.
Even the earliest records of Greenwich show that it has had long links to the sea. It was a port for the Romans, the navy has its roots on the banks of the Thames, and it was where many cargo ships came to deposit their imports. There are no places in London, then, better suited to hold our National Maritime Museum.
Britain has always been a maritime nation, partly simply due to the fact that we’re an island, meaning that throughout history the navy has had to be strong simply to defend the coasts. With a navy that has rarely been rivaled and that led to a world in which the sun never set on the British Empire, we are justly proud of our seafaring history. The National Maritime Museum celebrates that legacy, combining history, art and science to showcase our finest moments.
Opened in 1937 by George VI, accompanied by his daughter, Princess Elizabeth (our future queen), the museum has since become a hugely important building, with a collection of over two million maritime-related artifacts. These include artworks, both British and Dutch, manuscripts, maps, navigational instruments, figureheads, ship models and astronomical tools. The museum also houses many items taken from Germany after the events of World War II, and depending on who you ask, these are described as “looted art” or “war trophies”. The argument is unlikely to be settled soon.
Despite appearing to be a scientific museum, it does however have so many portraits of sailors and explorers that only the National Portrait Gallery boasts more. Its wide range of displays related to Horatio Nelson and James Cook, among others, are bigger than any elsewhere.
But even though it is clearly proud of our navigational history, there is also a strong sense of the present and the future. The museum explores how the British changed themselves and changed the world because of their unhampered exploration of the globe, and allows for a greater understanding of not only maritime history, but also cultural, economical and political history, and how these still have consequences today. There is also an exhibition dedicated to how we use the sea now, revealing just how much waste we throw into the oceans and what we need to do to save them before they are irreparably destroyed.
The Museum is also home to the Caird Library, the “largest maritime historical reference library” in the world, containing over 50,000 books, pamphlets and periodicals. Books, charts and maps here date back to the 1400s, and family historians in particular can find answers to genetic questions here.
Although perhaps not as well known as either the National History Museum or the Science Museum, the National Maritime Museum is nonetheless a wonderful look at Britain’s proud – if somewhat complicated and at times controversial – history riding the seas. Britannia rules the waves, after all, and this museum isn’t going to let you forget that in a hurry.