The museum has been developed as part of Southampton’s Cultural Quarter

SeaCity Museum, Southampton

Oliver Green, Issue 112/07, p44-47, 01.07.2012
The story of the people of Southampton and the city's maritime connections is well told in a new museum, says Oliver Green
Southampton’s maritime importance has brought both prosperity and tragedy to the Solent. The city has long been divided on whether to celebrate this heritage or bury it.

In the 1980s and 90s, when the tag “Gateway to the World” sounded out of date, Southampton was inclined to reinvent itself as a city of marinas and shopping.

The 21st-century fashion for urban centres to hitch their regeneration plans to arts and culture instead has taken Southampton in a more creative direction, although not without controversy.

The impressive new SeaCity Museum is a key part of this, at the heart of what is now called Southampton’s Cultural Quarter.

The project has involved refurbishing one of the city’s most important civic buildings, the 1930s Grade II*-listed Magistrates’ Court, part of a complex that includes the Guildhall, City Art Gallery, Library and Archives.

The new museum occupies 2,000 sq metres of exhibition and learning space that were in use as courtrooms and a cell block until just over a year ago.

Civic landmarks

The careful but imaginative conversion has been carried out by WilkinsonEyre, a firm of architects whose work also includes the millennium bridge over the Tyne and the new Mary Rose Museum planned for Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

A new single-storey pavilion housing some of SeaCity Museum’s galleries connects to the north facade of the old building. From the outside it has a strong geometric form and looks very obviously modern, though the shapes also echo the prows of ocean liners cutting through art deco waves.

At the same time, the white Portland stone matches the colour and style of the civic centre’s striking 1930s clock tower, which rises high above it and is a landmark visible from all over the city.

The converted court has belatedly given the city a suitable museum space to present Southampton’s modern maritime history.

The Wool House on the waterfront, built as a warehouse in 1417, had housed the city’s Maritime Museum since the 1960s. This is an important historic building, but was completely unsuitable as a museum for telling the story of 20th-century Southampton and in particular the rise and fall of the great passenger liners with which the city became closely associated.

Unfortunately, the city had allowed its most famous heritage assets to simply sail away as the liner trade declined and had secured virtually nothing from the great ships it had serviced over the years.

The City of Southampton did not own any of the liners, of course, but it does seem bizarre that the Queen Mary should have ended up as a hotel in Long Beach, California.

In 1967 she was not considered a floating work of art to be preserved and cherished by her home port, and a few years after the Cunarder’s last voyage the wonderful art deco Ocean Terminal used by liner passengers at Southampton was closed and demolished.

The City Museums were not able to acquire much material at the time, but it is good to see the enormous builder’s model of the Queen Mary and a large decorative feature saved from the Ocean Terminal as centrepieces of SeaCity Museum’s Gateway Gallery.

It was presumably this year’s centenary of the Titanic disaster that prompted the city to create a suitable new maritime museum. Appropriately enough, SeaCity was ready for opening on the anniversary of the Titanic’s fateful maiden voyage from Southampton in April 1912.

At that time the future looked promising for the rapidly expanding port and the White Star Line’s decision to move its north Atlantic operations from Liverpool five years earlier was a major change for both cities. Southampton was on the up while Liverpool was about to go into decline as a passenger port.

Titanic impact

When the world’s largest liner headed for America from its final port of call, there were supposed to be 2,208 people on board. At least 1,500 of them lost their lives when Titanic sank; about 815 passengers and 688 crew are thought to have died.

The disaster had a particularly devastating effect on the people of Southampton. Of those who died, 549 had given a Southampton address when they signed on or bought their tickets. Most of the crew lived in the town and more than 500 households lost at least one family member.

Worldwide interest has increased over time, particularly since the discovery of the wreck in 1985 and the success of the 1997 film. It was inevitable that the epic story of the Titanic had to be a major part of SeaCity and the focus for promoting the new museum as a visitor attraction.

At present more than half the permanent display space as well as the temporary exhibitions gallery is given over to aspects of Titanic, which might seem excessive but makes complete sense from a marketing perspective.

In fact, the displays cover much wider ground. The museum tells a broader story of the people of Southampton and the city’s historic connection with the sea, mainly through the lives of named individuals and living memory.

The Gateway to the World gallery highlights the stories of residents and migrants who have passed through or settled in Southampton from Romans and Saxons to those who live in the city today.

I was very impressed with the creative but restrained use of multimedia, which has been carefully integrated with museum collections and just the right amount of text with short, well written interpretation panels and labels. There is plenty of scope for expanding and changing displays over time and showing more of the city’s extensive stored collections.

The Titanic Story starts with the sights and sounds of Southampton in 1912 when it was home port to more than 20 steamship companies and a growing population of nearly 120,000 people.

The story of the voyage then unfolds partly through the experience of six named individuals in the crew, from Captain Smith to male and female stewards and a stoker, revealing their fate at the end.

Through powerful oral testimony from survivors, the Disaster Room describes the sequence of events from the time the ship struck the iceberg to its sinking and the eventual rescue of surviving passengers by the Carpathia.

Finally there is a gripping audiovisual, in the setting of a restored court room, using edited transcripts to re-enact the British inquiry held in London soon after the disaster.

This is hopefully only the first phase of SeaCity, which has more potential gallery space within the old Magistrates’ Court complex to be developed if funds permit.

It would be a real shame if the project were to falter at this stage because of the economic downturn. It must surely be good for the city and its future success, and right now the increasing popularity of cruise liners is bringing even bigger passenger ships to the port.

Watching one these giants moving down the Solent as you stand on the deck of the Isle of Wight ferry is one of the great sights of the south coast, but of course you can never predict what might happen to a big ship.

Oliver Green is a research fellow at the London Transport Museum

Project data

  • Cost £15m
  • Main funders Heritage Lottery Fund £4.9m; Southampton City Council
  • Exhibition design Urban Salon
  • Architect WilkinsonEyre Architects
  • Fit-out contractor 8build
  • Building contractor Kier Construction
  • Structural and services engineer Ramboll
  • Cost management Davis Langdon
  • Project management Focus Consultants


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Oliver Green
MA Member
30.07.2012, 11:00
Stephen New is absolutely right that there is a lot more about the modern history of Southampton that could be included in SeaCity. I hope I got across in my review that this is an impressive step forward for the city's museums after years of indecision and comparative neglect. The cynic in me would say that new capital projects often never get to phase 2 but looking on the bright side this is an opportunity that Soton must surely build on. There is plenty of scope for further development and Titanic displays alone will have diminishing returns. On the other hand this museum is perfectly placed to develop popular and imaginative displays about some of the subjects for which the Solent is famous: the great ocean liners, seaplanes and flying boats, sailing, marine engineering, Ordinance Survey mapping etc. The potential is enormous and none of these areas is well covered anywhere else even by the national museums. The field is wide open and would attract both local people and visitors to Southampton.The new galleries should represent an innovative start for the city to develop further, not be seen as a one-off achievement to cash in on a single well known anniversary.
Stephen New
MA Member
11.07.2012, 21:54
Comment on Review of SeaCity Museum, Southampton – Oliver Green Issue 112/07, p44-47, 01.07.12

Oliver Green in his review makes a valid statement when he writes of the relationship between Southampton City Council and Southampton’s maritime heritage. He states that ‘The city has long been divided on whether to celebrate this heritage or bury it.’

The new ‘SeaCity Museum’ is the £15m legacy of a decade of indecision and drastic reshaping of the City’s leisure and museum resources. All speared on by the nationwide deadline of April 2012 to produce the best ‘Titanic’ centenary exhibition.

To give credit, Southampton now does have a new museum, and a very impressive major exhibition that will attract local and foreign visitor patronage. Like Oliver Green I am also impressed by the ‘Titanic’ exhibition and in particular the ingenuity shown in display of the limited artefacts available. The environment of the old city court suited well the reconstruction of the ‘Court of Inquiry’ and the audio-visual (Wall-Wide video) re-enactment is superb.

Whilst I appreciate the impact of the ‘Titanic Disaster’ upon the city & peoples of Southampton, I support those that believe that there is a much greater tale to tell; particularly of its industrial, aviation and maritime history. This is where I beg to differ with Oliver Green’s assessment that ‘The story of the people of Southampton and the city’s maritime connections is well told in a new museum’.

Visiting the new SEACITY museum I had anticipated more space being allocated to the telling the history of Southampton. It was my impression that whilst the archaeology museum was well represented other areas were not. I was also disappointed not to see on display many of the artefacts that I had seen previously at the old maritime museum and even the mention of major key events in Southampton’s history. I am of the impression that rather than space having been gained in respect of the ‘Story of Southampton’, space had been lost and had been the subject of an in-house heritage lottery.

There was some good and inspired use of audio-visual media. To utilise display space and provide an information search facility for the visitor, a large horizontal circular multimedia touchscreen display unit is situated in the middle of the main floor. This can be accessed by up to four visitors simultaneously from four different points on its perimeter. Viewing of a large horizontal screen may be good for viewing maps, but does not necessarily provide the best platform for viewing archive photographic images. Neither is it well suited for the height impaired such as the younger generation. Most pertinent during my own observations of fellow visitors, was the fact that they found the search procedure to be slow; tedious to the extent that they gave up on the process and soon moved on to more physical traditional displays.

Having worked as a part-time museum assistant at Southampton’s Tudor House, The Archaeology Museum and the old Maritime Museum, and being a qualified maritime historian, I have a particular interest in seeing Southampton’s maritime heritage displayed not only for the benefit of local interests, but all visitors; so important is the history of Southampton to the development and security of the English People. Sadly, the new museum hardly tells the story of the people of Southampton, let alone tell it well!

Missing from the display of key important artefacts is the grand detailed panoramic model of the post-war Port of Southampton along with all its ships: This originally adorned Waterloo Station before its transfer to the Woolhouse Maritime Museum. I am told that this may be sold off to The Association of British Ports, so that it may adorn their own head office away from the eyes of the public.

I am keen to glean from the Southampton City Council details of where the artefacts from the old maritime museum will be deposited and publicly displayed. Most important, are the details of any artefacts to be disposed of and their probable destination and custodianship.

I leave you not with my words, but the recent sentiments of a responsible member of Southampton City’s own heritage team.

‘I suspect that with the opening of the new museum, with its emphasis on the Titanic, any opportunity to develop an exhibition outlining a coherent history of the port has gone.’

Comments penned by:

Captain Stephen New MA
Membership No. 0016107