This week I am delighted to introduce my guest bloggers Roshni Hirani, Endeavour Community Participation Producer, and Kris Martin, Exhibitions Interpretation Curator at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Here they give us an exclusive insight into the work that has gone into selecting objects from the London, a designated wreck which sank in 1665. Thank you both for showing how the story of the London continues!
Sailor Stories: a National Maritime Museum co-curation project themed around the wreck of the London
2018 is an exciting year for the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. In the autumn we will open our new Exploration Wing, a Heritage Lottery funded project consisting of four new permanent galleries which will bring the theme of exploration alive for people of all ages. One of these new galleries will be Tudor and Stuart Seafarers, which will tell a compelling story of exploration, encounter, adventure, power, wealth and conflict during the 16th and 17th centuries. Among the 100 objects from the Museum’s collection, we are delighted to be displaying a small assemblage of artefacts recently recovered from the wreck of the Stuart warship London which sank in the Thames estuary in 1665.
While the Museum has a rich and significant collection of objects from this period, one of the challenges we identified from an early stage was how to represent the lives of ordinary sailors in the Tudor and Stuart navies in the gallery. Members of the project team were already avidly following the progress of the excavation of the London wreck and were fascinated by finds that were being brought to the surface by Steve Ellis and his team. With this in mind, in 2016 we approached Historic England and Southend Museums, the receiving custodian of the excavated material, about the possibility of collaborating on a co-curation project themed around the London, with the outcome being the selection and display of 5 or 6 objects from the wreck in our new gallery.
We were aware of the importance of the London to the Southend community and from the outset, wanted to work with them to help us explore, select and interpret objects from their ‘local wreck’. Through Southend Museums we approached Jessica Russell, Community Outreach, and Patricia North, Head of Art, at Southend Adult Community College and invited them to take part in our Sailor Stories co-curation project. The response from their students was fantastic: 12 adult learners, with different skills, abilities and backgrounds, but with a common interest in heritage and the London wreck, signed up to take part. Encouragingly most of the group stayed with us until the end of the project and we were also delighted to later welcome 2 A-Level students interested in history and museums from nearby Chase High School.
Historic England’s involvement in the excavation, temporary storage and conservation of the London finds meant that it was wonderful that the team at Fort Cumberland, with HE Archaeological Conservator Angela Middleton leading, agreed to come on board as a project partner. A fruitful kick-off meeting there between Southend Museums, Southend Adult Community College, Historic England and the National Maritime Museum laid the foundations for a rich and varied 5-week programme at various sites over the summer of 2017.
The Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth was the destination for our first Sailor Stories session. Here, Mary Kinoulty, Head of Learning, and Curator and diver Chris Dobbs introduced the Mary Rose, the museum and its new displays. This was the ideal place to give the group a taster of the processes, techniques, challenges and opportunities associated with the selection, interpretation and display of shipwreck material. Moreover this was a chance to enthuse and engage the Southend team with the subject matter and encourage further participation through a well-known wreck and the spectacular interactive displays at the museum.
The second session took place at the National Maritime Museum where our co-curators learnt about the museum, its collection and displays, and the planned new galleries. They were given time to explore the museum with Curator Aaron Jaffer, and together considered the different ways objects can be displayed and interpreted. We introduced the London through an original drawing of the ship by Willem van de Velde, the Elder, in the museum’s collection and looked at ships of the time through paintings and models in the company of Nick Ball, the Museum’s Assistant Curator of Ship Models.
The following week at Southend Museum’s store, participants went ‘behind the scenes’ for a session that considered the excavation, storage, handling and conservation of wreck material. Led by Conservator Claire Reed and Curator Ciara Phipps, this included a hands-on session where the team relished the opportunity to work in small groups to assess and repack waterlogged organic objects excavated from the local area.
Back in Portsmouth for the fourth session, we joined Angela Middleton and the Archaeological Conservation team at Fort Cumberland. This was the first opportunity for the group to see actual objects from the London wreck. As the objects were at various stages of conservation, the participants gained an understanding of the processes and challenges involved, and learnt more about what the work at Fort Cumberland is revealing about the objects and the London.
The group was then split into two and was presented with a preselected assemblage of 25 London objects, taken from over 750 that had been recovered. Without any interpretation they looked at the objects closely thinking about what they could have been used for, what they were made from, what questions they would want to ask about them and what they could tell us, before presenting to the other group a selection of five objects that they would initially pick for public display. After learning more about each object, participants created their ‘final’ selection which had invariably changed from their first choice. Choosing the final selection was challenging given the short amount of time and it was important for participants to have some time to reflect on their choice.
For the final session all participants returned to the National Maritime Museum where the four new galleries will open next year. This session concentrated on museum audiences and interpretation. We asked participants to write their own museum label about something that belonged to them or a piece of clothing they were wearing. They learnt about the importance of ordering information and the difficult decision-making involved in choosing material relevant to their target audience. These were then discussed as a group. The session ended with a review of the London artefacts selected, which includes a leather shoe, a clay pipe, a pewter pot and a broken candle, and a discussion of how they would be interpreted at the National Maritime Museum. We then celebrated the success of the project with a preview of our brand new temporary exhibition, and tea and cake!
The Sailor Stories co-curation project was a great triumph and a mutually enriching and inspiring experience for all involved. Feedback from the participants was universally positive: the group enjoyed ‘seeing and handling artefacts – feeling involved and working in a group’ and ‘meeting the team behind the scenes’. They also loved seeing how museums work, engaging with heritage and conservation professionals and creatively contributing and responding to the project. Southend Adult Community College has produced a short film to commemorate their experience:
(This video has no voiceover)
it appears that the project has inspired at least one participant to seriously consider a career in museums or heritage. The experience opened our eyes to the different perspectives, discussions and debates surrounding the wreck and how members of Southend’s community felt it should be displayed and represented in a national museum. This co-curation model is one that we are keen to follow in future gallery development. We look forward to seeing the outcome of Sailor Stories on display next year.
We would like to thank everyone from Southend Adult Community College, Chase High School, Southend Museums, Historic England, the Mary Rose Trust and Royal Museums Greenwich who took part in the Sailor Stories co-curation project.
Glossary: Co-curation describes community participation and collaboration in creating exhibitions together with professional museum curators.
Roshni Hirani, Endeavour Community Participation Producer (@RoshHirani) and
Kris Martin, Exhibitions Interpretation Curator at the National Maritime Museum (@kristianjmartin)
For previous blogs on the London:
The London blows up, 7 March 1665 on the 350th anniversary of the wreck
The London wreck today on the wreck site as she now lies
The London: A conservator’s tool-kit, by Angela Middleton, on the challenges of conserving objects from the wreck site
Conservation of artefacts from the wreck of the London, by Eric Nordgren, continuing the theme of conserving further objects from the London