Category Archives: Museum

National Maritime Museum

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.

the_national_maritime_museum_newEven 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.

national-maritime-museumBut 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.

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Inside the Horniman Museum

My favourite museum in the city is the Natural History Museum; always has been and probably always will be. My friend Claire again accompanied me this week for my London jaunt, and while we had originally planned to go to Kensington, we decided spontaneously that morning to go somewhere else instead. Thus, the Natural History Museum isn’t the focus of this week’s post. The Horniman Museum, however, is.

Situated not far from Forest Hill train station, the museum was founded by Frederick John Horniman in 1901. He was an avid collector, and after years of travelling had amassed around 30,000 items, mostly anthropological artefacts, examples of natural history, and slightly more unusually, musical instruments.

He's not hungry; he's stuffed.

He’s not hungry; he’s stuffed.

The natural history cases are particularly marvellous, although some of the taxidermy is perhaps slightly unnerving. (If you visit, look for the rockhopper penguin and you’ll know what I mean.) Standing proud in the centre of the room on an enormous iceberg is a behemoth of a walrus. It’s a real one, now stuffed, and it’s been on display for over a century. However, when it was mounted, few people had ever seen a walrus alive, so this particular model is, shall we say, “overstuffed”. Walruses are far wrinklier than this in real life, but his popularity is assured, being a mascot to the museum in the way that Dippy and the blue whale are to the Natural History Museum.

Around him are many cases containing examples of many mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and invertebrates. They are mostly arranged by species and family – for example, whole cases are given over solely to different species of ducks or parrots, but some work in other ways. One, for example, shows the many different ways that animals have learnt to defend themselves, lining up creatures with spikes, horns, toxic bites or noxious tastes together. One notable exhibit has the head of a wolf surrounded by the heads of various breeds of dog such as a bloodhound, bulldog and collie, showing how selective breeding has changed dogs into so many different appearances.

Personally, my favourite creatures in here are a bittern with a serious case of “resting bitch face”, two skunks, the okapi and the family of musquash (also known as muskrats). There’s plenty else to see in this room alone, though. Almost every species of primate seems to be present and there are comparative skeletons of all the great apes, including a human one, making the similarities look even more striking.

Downstairs is a small aquarium which splits off into tanks showing several different biomes, from a typical British pond to coastal seas and rainforest swamps. It’s small and you have to pay extra to go in, but it’s worth taking a look around. It’s home to dogfish, jellyfish, rays and rather a lot of frogs.

I'd but a joke about being horny here, but I'm not that crude.

I’d but a joke about being horny here, but I’m not that crude.

Another room is called the African Worlds Gallery. I confess that Claire and I didn’t spend too long in here because of an unnecessarily loud school party (we’re too old for that nonsense) so I can’t give you too much detail about it. From what I did see, it was a lot of photos, costumes and artefacts from all over Africa, displaying great examples of the people and culture of this often misunderstood continent. If I go back again, I shall check out this exhibition in more detail.

The final part of the museum’s interior is perhaps the oddest, dedicated as it is to thousands of musical instruments. Contained here are examples of everything you could ever imagine from pianos to mouth organs, violins to bagpipes, xylophones to flutes. Whether you pluck it, blow it, bang it, shake it or tap it, there’s one of it here. We got excited at the prospect of the primary school favourite, the recorder, turning up and weren’t disappointed. The museum has several, including an enormous bass recorder that would certainly make school assemblies a bit more interesting.

I’m not musically inclined, but seeing all these together is rather astounding. Humans have been making music for as long as we’ve been talking, probably longer, and the wide variety of instruments we’ve created for the purpose is nothing short of breath-taking.

Can't keep up with these Joneses.

Can’t keep up with these Joneses.

Our visit to the Horniman Museum was rounded off by a stroll through the beautiful gardens. It was a gloriously clear day and from the bandstand just above the museum itself you can see right across London, taking in Battersea Power Station, the Shard and the other nearby skyscrapers and St Paul’s, which looks miniscule from this far away. There are also specialist gardens here, one for food and one for medicinal plants, all labelled to tell you what they do. Most spectacularly of all though is the Grade II listed conservatory that sits just behind the museum. It dates back to 1894 and used to be at the Horniman’s Croydon family home, but was moved to the museum in the 1980s. It is beautiful in the extreme, ornately crafted and makes your average conservatory look pathetic in comparasion.

The Horniman Museum is a reminder than London is packed full of museums that most people don’t bother to go to, or even know about. The three in Kensington get all the glory, but one of the purposes of this blog is to show people places off the beaten track and find treasures like this that they may not normally see. I daresay there will be many more museums to come, so watch this space.