The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich tells the story of the British navy from the Spanish Armada all the way up to the submarines of World War II. Along the way you’ll learn about Drake’s round the world voyage, trade during the days of the British Empire, and Nelson’s sea battles with Napoleon.
The Maritime Museum’s most historic building is the Queen’s House, which Inigo Jones designed in 1615. Although unremarkable by today’s standards, it caused an utter sensation in the 17th-century because it was the first time that anybody had seen a Palladian-style edifice.
The two larger buildings on either side of the Queen’s House, connected by two long white colonnades, were commissioned in 1807 to celebrate Britain’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.
Alongside the museum’s huge collection of scale-model ships and boats, you can see some genuine old boats like Frederick’s golden barge of 1732, one of Ernest Shackleton’s lifeboats from his arctic expedition, and a replica of the 7th-century Sutton Hoo burial ship, which was found in Suffolk in 1939.
Admiral Nelson’s naval career is covered in great detail. The prize exhibit is the actual jacket that Nelson was wearing when he was shot by a French marksman on board HMS Victory – you can even see the bloodstained bullet-hole in front of his shoulder.
This review originally appeared in his London blog
I caught a boat from Westminster to Greenwich this morning, so then I had to decide what to do when I got there. There’s quite a few places to go, but I plumped for the National Maritime Museum. I briefly thought about going to the Observatory first, but that would have involved walking up Greenwich Hill and doing some actual exercise. So that was out. When they move it down the hill, I will go.
From the outside the museum looks nice and old, but when you step inside and the whole place turns ultra-modern. It’s all shiny metal and glass and office carpets.
I’m not really into boats so maybe I didn’t enjoy the exhibits as much as other people might, and I thought it was a bit boring to be honest. There are very few big boats. I suppose I was expecting it to be more like the Imperial War Museum, with full-sized tanks and jeeps and planes hanging from the ceiling, but there’s nothing like that.
They’ve got a few tiny ones inside, but nothing more than 20-feet. They’ve got one of those gilded ones from George I’s party on the Thames, when Handel played his Water Music. And they’ve got one of those carved wooden sterns from a big ship at Trafalgar, along with a couple of the big busty heads that decorated the end.
But that’s practically it for the big ships. All of the other boats are scale models about 5-feet long – the kind of thing you’d build as a kid if you had too much time on your hands.
After that come some right-on exhibitions about slavery, with some of the evil white traders’ guns and pistols and whips. (Moral message: slavery is bad. Like we didn’t already know?) And there’s a lot of timepieces and clocks and watches, too. The rest of the displays are filled with old maps and naval charts and paintings of famous sailors.
The best part of the museum is easily the Nelson exhibition. It seems almost unbelievable to me, but they’ve got the actual uniform that he was wearing at the Battle of Trafalgar, complete with the bullet hole where the French guy shot him. You can even see his bloodstained undergarments!
If you’re looking for some information about World War II, then forget it. There’s hardly anything here – just a scale model of a battlecruiser about five feet long. The submarine section consists of three objects no bigger than a fridge, and some pictures on the wall to show how deep they go. The exhibition inside HMS Belfast is a hundred times better than anything they have here.
> Read Craig’s latest review of the National Maritime Museum “I do like the National Maritime Museum, but given Britain’s rich history of war on the waves, and the fact that we won just about every battle we ever fought, it always seems a bit sparse on content to me. Where’s the rest of it? I suppose we must have sunk it all. All you’ll find downstairs are some ship’s figureheads, a titchy model of Nelson’s Column, a gilded barge from Georgian times, two old industrial engines, a few scale models and a silver speedboat. That is practically it. That is downstairs done in fifteen minutes… unless you like looking at old paintings… continued.”
> Read Craig’s review of Queen’s House “Queen’s House is one of those buildings that gets eulogised in all the guidebooks, but when you actually come and see it you’ll think… huh, okay. Is that it?. If you weren’t told it was famous beforehand then you wouldn’t have a clue it was. Can you see the Old Royal Naval College on the other side of the road? That’s where the Tudor Palace used to be. Whenever you read about Henry VIII and Elizabeth I staying at Greenwich Palace then that’s where it was. James I added Queen’s House in 1616 but when the English Civil War kicked off in 1642… continued.”
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The best boat in London is the World War II HMS Belfast. Francis Drake’s Golden Hinde is better for children, whilst the Cutty Sark is just a short walk from the museum. Or how about a day trip to Chatham Dockyards? You you can see HMS Victory and the Mary Rose in Portsmouth. You might like to catch a boat ride up the Thames as well.
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