Royal Museums Greenwich opens four new galleries covering 500 years of human exploration

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Royal Museums Greenwich opens four new galleries covering 500 years of human exploration
Tudor and Stuart Seafarers gallery, National Maritime Museum. © Hufton + Crow.

GREENWICH.- On 20 September 2018, Royal Museums Greenwich opened four new permanent galleries following a major £12.6M redevelopment project, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund through The National Lottery (4.6M). With over 1,100 objects going on display, the galleries based in the National Maritime Museum bring the theme of exploration alive, giving visitors unprecedented access to its world-class collections and responding to the public’s growing fascination with Britain’s maritime heritage.

The four new galleries – Tudor and Stuart Seafarers, Pacific Encounters, Polar Worlds and Sea Things – cover British and European exploration from the late-fifteenth century through to the present day. Through recurring themes of encounter, legacy, science, trade, exploitation and power, visitors will delve into the complex story of Britain’s exploration of the world, examining how men and women ventured beyond the nation’s shores to explore the ends of the Earth in a quest for knowledge, riches and adventure. Furthermore, the galleries highlight how Britain’s relationship with the sea and its growing maritime power and ambitions shaped the country and impacted the world we live in today.

Designed by Casson Mann, the visually enticing and object-rich galleries offer a welcoming environment for both new and existing visitors to engage with and contemplate significant moments of Britain’s maritime past. The redevelopment project sees 1,000m2 of space in the Museum’s East Wing, previously closed to visitors, converted to public use. The transformation has provided the NMM with an additional 40 per cent of permanent gallery space, allowing the Museum to substantially expand the breadth of its public offering.

Working in consultation with the Museum’s wide network of community groups, each gallery presents multiple perspectives on Britain’s maritime legacy, connecting past events with the contemporary world and adding a deeper insight into the Museum’s collection. Visitors of all ages will be inspired to question and reflect on what they have learned, whilst going on their own personal voyage of exploration and discovery.

Tudor and Stuart Seafarers
Tudor and Stuart Seafarers explores how England, and later Britain, emerged as a maritime nation between 1500 and 1700. In the late 15th century, England’s priorities were predominantly domestic and European but over the subsequent two centuries, the people of the British Isles travelled further across the seas, and transformed the country into a leading maritime, economic and political force on the world stage.

Using over 120 objects from the Museum’s unrivalled collection, including navigational instruments, such as astrolabes, compasses and telescopes and through the stories of ordinary seamen and well-known characters, such as Christopher Columbus, Elizabeth I, Francis Drake and Samuel Pepys, Tudor and Stuart Seafarers highlights how the desire for wealth, power and knowledge dominated this period and led to rapid technological development that would unlock our understanding and the potential of the wider world.

Though the themes of adventure, encounter, power, wealth and conflict, visitors will experience compelling stories which include the exploration and colonisation of the ‘New Worlds’ and the devastating impact this had on the indigenous communities who lived there; the growth of English trading networks and the moralities associated with the exportation of goods and people; and the ferocity of early-modern naval warfare through the conflicts with the Spanish Armada and the Dutch. In the struggle for naval supremacy, and the significant development in shipbuilding and investment in the dockyards, visitors will see how by the end of the 17th century Britain had emerged as the most powerful maritime nation in the world.

Pacific Encounters
Pacific Encounters tells the story of exploration and exploitation, as European travellers turned their attention to the Pacific in the 17th century, venturing into the world’s largest ocean in search of greater knowledge. The gallery examines the far-reaching consequences this had on the people and cultures they encountered, who had lived in the Pacific for more than 50,000 years.

Using the stories of Pacific voyages, including the HMS Endeavour, the first of three expeditions lead by Captain James Cook in 1768, visitors will see how navigational advancements and the desire for knowledge and enlightenment was a key motivation for Pacific exploration. Through the stories of Pacific islanders, such as Tupaia, whose knowledge of his surroundings was of great assistance to Cook, the gallery demonstrates that communication, collection and exchange with the islanders, which could vary from friendly to violent, was vital to the success of these expeditions.

Artistic representations of the Pacific islands and their occupants by artists, such as William Hodges and George Stubbs, are being displayed. They show how the westernised depiction of the ‘exotic’ lands and inhabitants of the Pacific fascinated the population back home, whilst relics from the infamous story of the mutiny of the Bounty, a vessel that was tasked with cultivating Breadfruit as food for enslaved people in the Caribbean, provides visitors with the earliest examples of the exploitation of Pacific land and resources. Furthermore, the accounts from missionaries who introduced, and in some cases imposed Christianity on the islanders, whose practices and beliefs they tried to outlaw, indicate that British interest in the land and the people living there was both state-sponsored and privately organised, both helping pave the way for later British colonisation of the Pacific.

With a focus on Pacific histories, identities and the legacies, the gallery touches upon the plentiful practices, beliefs and traditions of Pacific people and how these communities were impacted by European exploration and exploitation. A drua, a life-size Fijian open ocean canoe takes pride of place in the gallery highlighting how boat-building, navigation and performance continue to be celebrated across the Pacific. The gallery will leave visitors reflecting on the complex legacy of European exploration and how this has shaped the Pacific as we know it today.

Polar Worlds
Polar Worlds explores British endeavours in the Arctic and Antarctic within a wider world-view of collaborative scientific investigation, cultural encounter, international economies, and national political rivalries. It examines the major British polar expeditions of the past 250 years, whilst shining a spotlight on the contemporary and changing significance of the Arctic and Antarctic regions today.

The gallery introduces visitors to the geography, environment and histories of the Arctic and Antarctica through their similarities and differences, the people and wildlife that live there, as well as the numerous expeditions and pioneers who risked their lives to explore them. With Arctic exploration in the North end of the gallery, and Antarctic exploration in the South side, the central display brings both polar regions together, examining their political, cultural and environmental status in the world today, and considering what the future may hold for these important places.

The display uses the Museum’s outstanding collection to bring polar exploration to life, with objects such as a large steel ice saw, suspended from the gallery ceiling giving an example of the vital equipment needed by explorers to tackle the seemingly impenetrable terrain. Through the stories of heroic explorers including Scott and Shackleton, visitors will see even the most experienced of explorers being pushed to the extremes of human endurance, whilst examples of expedition clothing and food supplies accompanied by extracts from explorers’ diaries help to tell the moving human story behind these historic expeditions.

The contemporary Arctic and Antarctic regions are united in the centre of the gallery, with exhibits looking at the shifting significance of both regions today, encouraging visitors to reflect on several contemporary issues facing these regions, such as tourism, territorial claims and resource exploitation and asks what the future will look like for the world’s most remote locations.

Sea Things
Sea Things is a playful gallery exploring how our identity is shaped by the sea. It showcases the Museum’s rich and varied collection in a visual spectacle of over 600 objects, many on open display. Hands-on activities including a maritime personality quiz, talking sculptural busts and an interactive to share and discover maritime memories are just some of the ways that visitors can discover the collection and find connections to the sea.

Unlike its fellow galleries, Sea Things is not a traditional or chronological gallery. Instead it invites visitors to explore and experience the breadth of the Museum’s collection through diverse objects, ideas and the Museum’s key themes: Navy, Trade, Technology, Environment, Migration, Exploration and Leisure. Visitors are encouraged to create their own route around this gallery, finding objects and ideas that capture their imagination and have a personal resonance.

At the heart of the gallery visitors will be drawn to a dramatic digital ‘sea shore’ where a changing seascape will wash back and forth around 200 objects. Stories of adventure, exploration, achievement, love and loss are told through unusual or poignant objects such as a carved whale’s tooth, a Roman stone anchor, a pocket watch worn by a victim of the Titanic disaster and an Ancient Egyptian votive ship model – one of the oldest artefacts in the Museum’s collection.

Elsewhere visitors will see a dramatic display of 55 ship models celebrating the variety of vessels used around the world, as well as a mass hang over 150 ship badges and a selection of newly commissioned busts and figurines which come alive to reflect on and provoke ideas about commemoration, representation and heroism. The visual spectacle of Sea Things aims to open up the understanding of maritime history to a wider audience, by presenting the collection in unusual, interesting and accessible ways.

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