Episode 323 – Maritime History Beautifully Revealed

After a lovely 1.2 mile stroll this morning to the nearest IKEA for a paring knife and knife sharpener, the rest of the day was ours to begin exploring non-retail venues.

On each of our walks through Greenwich Park we’ve noticed the beautiful National Maritime Museum, one of the 4 sites that combine to create the Royal Museums Greenwich (the other 3 are The Queen’s House, The Royal Observatory, and the Cutty Sark). The NMM and QH are free, although you “buy” a no-cost timed ticket to enter; the Observatory (which we toured in 2017) and the Cutty Sark (on this month’s to see list) cost £16 each per person, or £25 for both if you do them on the same day.

The centre wing of the National Maritime Museum. Th3 building was a hospital in its prior life.

There are currently two special exhibits at the NMM: Canaletto’s Venice, and Astronomy Photographer of the Year, each of which costs £10 per person, and which we chose to skip in order to concentrate on the permanent exhibits.

There was plenty to see and learn, far more than it’s possible to assimilate in just one day: polar expeditions; Pacific exploration and encounters; naval history and battles; Atlantic warfare; the East India Company’s dubious legacies; navigation tools; ship artifacts; TONS of artwork portraying ships, battles, and big personalities (whether Admirals or privateers); and wonderful ships’ figureheads and badges.

Before even going inside, I needed a photo with Yinka Shonibare’s replica of Nelson’s Ship HMS Victory in a bottle, which is one of the most photographed artworks in London!

The friendly guide at the museum’s entrance advised us to start on the uppermost floor and work our way down, so that we wouldn’t miss anything.

On the top floor are 7 galleries, of which we toured five: Polar Worlds; Tudor and Stuart Seafarers; My Greenwich; Nelson, Navy, Nation; and Forgotten Fighters.

The exhibits related to North Pole exploration were particularly interesting because of their focus on the Inuit peoples, the Hudson Bay Company, and ships exploring – or being lost in – waters we consider Canadian.

The Hudson Bay Company crest: “A Pelt for a Skin”, with a beaver in each quadrant, a fox on an ermine-trimmed cap on top, and flanked by 2 elk.
Snow blindness was a real problem for polar explorers. Ted tried out both the traditional Inuit design and a current version of snow goggles.

Between the north and south pole exhibits was a wonderful interactive display that tackled modern day issues (Should the Arctic’s resources be mined? Should the Antarctic continent belong to any one country? Should polar tourism be allowed?). At the end of each presentation, listeners could “vote” on the touch screen.

A painting depicting early “exploration” of the Antarctic. The heading reads: A Party from his Majesty’s Ships Resolution and Discovery Shooting SEA HORSES. Latitude 7 North.” Enough said.

“Tudor and Stuart Seafarers” highlighted exploration, but also recognized the exploitation of indigenous peoples and resources, and the blurry line between sanctioned privateers and pirates.

The display showing the changes in construction of naval ships during the Stuart/Tudor times was fascinating.
The 1690 Dockyards diorama had moving holographic figures in it, showing the hum of activity that a dockyard would have been.

“My Greenwich” was a small hall with chairs that provided a welcome respite from standing to look at the exhibits. The hall included a timeline of significant events that took place in Greenwich.

The window of the room looked out at the exact spot in represented in the mural!

I’d be hard pressed to choose a favourite area of the museum without making at least one more thorough visit, but I was drawn to the rooms housing “Nelson, Navy, Nation”, because I attended Nelson High School, and the HMS Victory graced every issue of our yearbook. I didn’t know before today how young (and kinda handsome) Horatio Nelson was. He joined the navy at only 12 years old, and was made a captain at just 21 – the paintings of him when he was young are completely different from the 47-year old war hero I’d seen depicted previously.

3 portraits and a bust of Admiral Nelson. Top left at 21 years old (1779) newly minted as a Captain. Top right: after being injured during the Battle of the Nile (1798, age 40). Bottom left: 1799 official portrait in full regalia (age 41). Bottom right: bust created from Nelson’s death mask (1805, age 47)
After his win on the Nile, not only were hundreds of commemorative coins struck, but also paintings, prints, china, figurines, and silk flags were created for people wanting to celebrate Nelson’s – and Great Britain’s – victory. Bottom: the gorgeously inlaid gun which was presented to Nelson, along with a scimitar and canteen, by the Ottoman Sultan, in appreciation for defeating the French.
The actual jacket that Nelson was wearing when he was fatally shot. The musket ball hole is visible in the jacket’s left shoulder.

“Forgotten Fighters” focussed on World War I merchant seamen and navy. I didn’t know before today about the “original” Falkland Islands conflict between the UK and Germany, or that the German navy ranged as far as Chile. That’s the beauty of visiting museums: there is always something new to learn.

On the centre level are 5 galleries: Traders; Pacific Encounters; Sea Things; a special exhibit of the Baltic Exchange Memorial Glass: and Atlantic Worlds (we didn’t get to that last one before the museum closed for the day – a reason to go back!) There’s also a little café where, despite the fact their tea and coffee come in paper cups, they serve a proper scone (Earl Grey with sultanas) with clotted cream and strawberry preserves. Yes, of course I indulged.

In addition to the café (right), the centre of the National Maritime Museum has a “great map” on which kids can “navigate” around the world.

“Traders” focussed largely on the East India Company, and certainly did not present this economic behemoth in a flattering light. Did you know that the East India Company illegally brought Indian opium into China, against the express laws and wishes of the Chinese Emperor? The money they made from creating opium addicts IN CHINA was then used to pay for Chinese tea, on which they again made huge profits. My high school English history never mentioned that when they talked about the British Empire in Asia, the Indian rebellion, and the Anglo-Chinese war. Now I understand a bit better why it was called the Opium War; I wrongly believed the Chinese were the ones pushing opium!

Quotes from English officials in China and William Gladstone indicate that at least some in Great Britain were aware of the immorality of the East India Company’s activities, but as the quote from Sir Walter Raleigh so succinctly puts it: “whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world” , and it has always been about wealth and power.
This figurehead from an Indian vessel was a visible way of showing discontent with British rule in India.

“Pacific Encounters” was not all flower leis and rainbows either. “Exploration” often meant religious conversion and wholesale “cheating” when it came to trade and land treaties.

We were really impressed by the full-size model of a drua, a Fijian open ocean canoe. There are no “fasteners” of any kind used in its construction, only coconut fibre!

“Sea Things” featured navigation equipment, shells and coral, log books, and a large collection of ships’ badges: colourful crests with the names and mascots or crests of seafaring vessels.

A large alcove on the centre level contained some of the loveliest stained glass we’ve seen to date. In April of 1992, the Provisional IRA detonated a one ton bomb in London’s financial district – the largest bomb detonated on mainland Britain since World War II. the bomb killed 3 people, injured 91, and severely damaged the Baltic Exchange, shattering its stained glass windows. They have been recreated from the shards in combination with new glass, and are on display in the National Maritime Museum, since the Exchange building was demolished after the bombing.

The ground level is where the special temporary exhibits are housed, but also wonderful displays of ships’ figureheads.

A highlight on the ground floor is Prince Frederick’s Royal Thames barge, built in 1731-32. It is gilded with small square sheets of 22-carat gold leaf, which is incredibly delicate after almost 300 years. Large clear signs invited us to “Look but don’t touch!” Up to 21 oarsmen powered the barge, which was designed with a long overhanging bow so that passengers could disembark without getting their shoes wet.

“Ich Dien” (I Serve), the Prince of Wales’ motto, is on the prow of the barge.
Top: try to get a sense of how really long the barge is. The entire back half is BEHIND the cabin. Bottom two: details of some of the gilded decoration.

The first floor also has a working paddlewheel mechanism on display. It’s really much bigger close up than I’d realized.

AND, there’s a working lighthouse lantern from the Tarbat Ness lighthouse!

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit – and it’s just the beginning of our London adventures!


  1. Wow! History of Canada ! Their ships spanned the world! Loved the ship in the bottle and the stained glass.

    Interesting seque to the Hudson Bay Fox …

    THEY ARE OVER RUNNING THE COUNTRY Because of animal rights advocates … the fox is shot and a generous bounty is earned. The rest of it is destroyed. Left, drowned … I HATE WASTE Rob wrote to the queen about the integrity of the tight control of hunters and trappers. My rant!


    Liked by 1 person

  2. ROSE:

    We did the Royal Observatory and Maritime Museum when we visited Greenwich. You got so much more out of the Maritime Museum than I did. Perhaps the difference between doing it with the time constraints of a Viking tour and doing it on your own plus the fact you capture much more than I do when visiting museums. Thanks for filling in details I missed.


    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I still felt like I missed an awful lot. It’s a place you could go back to over and over, and just concentrate on one area for a while. We did the Royal Observatory when we were here with Senior Discovery Tours, but it was on one of our “free days” so we luckily had no time constraints there either.


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