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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Wing and a Bear

A very jolly evening at Greenwich for the reception opening the first exhibition at the Sammy Ofer wing, the National Maritime Museum's new showpiece extension for the 21st century (with not a little focus on the Olympics, as demonstrated by the equestrian test event marquees littering the park opposite). The wing is named after an Israeli shipping magnate, ex-Royal Navy matelot and generous philanthropist who unfortunately died just a month before the opening that his largesse had made possible. A large audience consumed champagne (plenty), canapes (minimal) and listened to some brief and entertaining speeches, notably from Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Media, Olympics, Sport and Dubious Antipodean Media Moguls, who by his own admission was hugely relieved to be doing something so pleasant and non-controversial for a change. There was also confirmation of the new collective name for the Maritime Museum, Royal Observatory and Queen's House, namely the Royal Museums, Greenwich - a story first broken, albeit with a slightly different form of words, on this blog much earlier in the year

We then had ample opportunity to explore the new building, and first things first - as a piece of architecture, it's stunning. A brilliant piece of design has created a part-sunken structure that preserves the integrity of the original buildings behind while also making a bold statement of its own, and yours truly was particularly pleased to see that the statue of King William IV, Britain's most avowedly naval monarch, which spent many years in an obscure locked garden, has been given pride of place in the approach to the new entrance. The interior of the new entrance space is light and spacious, and leads into a fascinating introductory exhibition on the centrality of the maritime element to British life that has a significantly greater proportion of naval material than has sometimes been the case in this museum in the last twenty or so years.

As soon as we were able, certain of us made directly for the new Caird Library on the first floor. I have to declare an interest here: I was on the panel of stakeholders which advised on its design. And it has to be said that it has huge plusses, notably a clear separation (aka a glass wall) between groups of chatty amateur genealogists and serious individual researchers, rather more spaces than were available in the old Caird, and above all, having a much greater amount of important archival research material held actually in the building rather than outhoused. Unfortunately, at the moment it has the appearance (and smell) of a brand new hospital ward; it will need some imaginative deployment of pictures on the ample wall space to liven it up and make it feel more homely. Moreover, the functional long tables and plastic chairs bear a distinctly uncomfortable resemblance to some of the less atmospheric classrooms in which I taught, and there are clearly aspects of the internal layout that will have to be fine-tuned - notably the reservation of all the best desks for Caird fellows and research staff of the museum (thereby suggesting implicitly, or perhaps even explicitly, that what the rest of us are doing is far less important), as well as the selection of open-shelf materials. As a very distinguished naval historian remarked with some horror, The Mariner's Mirror (one of the most essential tools for any maritime researcher) isn't on open shelves, while to this observer, it seemed somewhat perverse that the Navy Records Society volumes should fill up all the space to the end of the top shelf of a bookcase, with the rest of the case occupied by other books - despite the fact that, as the library staff must know full well, the society publishes three volumes in every two years, and that additional shelf space will therefore need to be found on this particular bookcase by October of this year at the latest.

But enough of a researcher's gripes, which will doubtless be resolved by patience and good humour on all sides. The focus of the event was meant to be the exhibition 'High Arctic', which is a piece of installation art. I intend to say very little about this, as I am to modern art what King Herod was to mother-and-toddler groups, and I always thought 'installation' was what one did with kitchen units. Suffice it to say that I'm still trying to work out what the word 'Southamptonbreen', on top of one of hundreds of white columns with similarly cryptic slogans and readable only by means of the little ultra-violet torches handed out on entry to the gallery, actually means. (As an ex-teacher, I can only imagine what fun entire legions of little darlings will have in disobeying the injunctions not to point these torches into people's eyes.)

Let's look on the bright side, though; at least the exhibition has provided an excuse for the museum's splendid new shop to stock some adorable toy polar bears.

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