What Is the British National Maritime Museum?

C. K. Lanz

The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England includes three separate sites that highlight the relationship between the sea, ships, and stars. The maritime galleries house collections that feature ships and sailing life. The Royal Observatory strives to educate visitors about astronomy and navigation. Maritime paintings and portraits are displayed in the Queen’s House, a former royal residence built between 1614 and 1617. The total collection of the National Maritime Museum includes more than two million pieces.

Sculpture on the Prime Meridian, part of the National Maritime Museum.
Sculpture on the Prime Meridian, part of the National Maritime Museum.

The museum, part of the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site, was created by the British government in 1934 by the passage of the National Maritime Act. The site is located within the 200-acre (0.81 square-kilometer) Greenwich Royal Park in London, England. It is sponsored and administered by the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport under a board of trustees and does not charge admission because it is publicly funded. Major donations by Sir James Caird helped establish the project, and the museum was formally opened in 1937 by King George VI, accompanied by his daughter, Elizabeth, who was herself crowned in 1952.

Prime Meridian at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, United Kingdom.
Prime Meridian at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, United Kingdom.

The maritime galleries feature models of all types of ships and dockyards as well as sailing gear throughout history. Navigational instruments like diptych dials, horizontal dials, and early compasses are also on display. Figureheads, weapons, and flags are also featured, as are uniforms. This building also houses nautical objects from other cultures.

The Queen’s House is a classical building and former royal residence that houses maritime art and portraits of important maritime figures. Visitors can experience works by Gainsborough, Lely, and Hogarth, among others. The house is sometimes used to host important guests, and as a result, parts of the building are occasionally closed to the public. The architecture of the building with the tulip stairs and great hall can be as interesting as the works it houses.

Also part of the National Maritime Museum is the Royal Observatory, home of Greenwich Mean Time and the Prime Meridian. Additionally, the observatory features London’s only planetarium. The galleries feature educational exhibits on the formation of the universe, astronomy photography, and timekeeping. King Charles II commissioned the observatory in 1675. Given that core scientific work continues elsewhere, this original Greenwich site is now primarily a tourist attraction.

In addition to nautical and nautically themed works, the National Maritime Museum houses the world’s largest maritime historical reference library. Texts dating back to the 15th century are among the museum’s more than 100,000 volumes and official records. Items from this collection are seen throughout the United Kingdom and abroad as part of an active loans and outreach program.

Education and community outreach are important facets of the National Maritime Museum’s overall mission. The observatory hosts skywatch events. Exhibitions about climate change seek to educate the public about the sea as a vulnerable resource as well as a force of nature. The museum welcomes groups and schools, offering guided tours and other activities.

The museum features several types of eateries and gift shops, and the surrounding grounds include gardens and courtyards. By visiting all three buildings of the National Maritime Museum, people can experience the confluence of history, art, and maritime sciences. The relationship between these areas helps illuminate how power over the sea and stars could lead to conquest and empire. Visitors will explore humanity’s past and current relationship with the sea as well as the future of maritime life and its impact on the world’s oceans.

The observatory at the national maritime museum hosts skywatch events.
The observatory at the national maritime museum hosts skywatch events.

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