Learning the ropes: redesigning the new Ropery Gallery at the Historic Dockyard Chatham - Museums Association

Learning the ropes: redesigning the new Ropery Gallery at the Historic Dockyard Chatham

Telling the history of ropework can pose a knotty challenge
Exhibitions
Lynnette Crisp
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Hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Historic Dockyard Chatham in Kent have marvelled at the story of rope and been amazed by the iconic Rope Walk, which stretches the length of 33 London buses.

Now, a new Ropery Gallery doubles capacity in this part of the dockyard, meaning even more visitors will be able to “learn the ropes”.

Dating back over 400 years, the iconic buildings, machinery from the Industrial Revolution and the addition of our collections of rope and rope tools all helped to attract funding (from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Wolfson Museums and Galleries Improvements Fund as well as the Garfield Weston Foundation Culture Fund) for the Ropery Gallery, which opened on 26 March 2022.

Rope has been made at Chatham for more than four centuries and today it is the last of the original four Royal Navy ropeyards to remain in operation. The unique traditions of hatchelling, spinning and closing rope continue today in the only working naval ropery in the UK.

The new gallery is inside the Hatchelling House, one of several listed buildings that make up the Ropery complex. The uneven floors and wonky brick walls present many challenges for modern gallery installation. But they also bring many positives – like many of the buildings at the Historic Dockyard, the Hatchelling House exudes history.

The worn limewashed timber beams overhead are the same ones under which scores of hatchellers (semi-skilled artisans who combed the raw hemp fibre across hatchels) sweated to prepare hemp fibre for ropemaking.

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Today the hatchellers are gone, but in their place are five new custom-built display cases from Glasshaus, packed to the brim with historic ropemaking machines and rope fibres from every corner of the globe. Mass displays of objects show a model of HMS Victory sitting next to full sized rigging blocks from HMS Invincible recovered from the seabed.

Above, the noise from the 200-year-old ropemaking machinery on the still working ropery whirrs into action as our master ropemarkers begin making their next batch of rope, using centuries-old techniques.

Collections highlights

The star of the show has to be the collection from the Museum of Knots and Sailors’ Ropework, which was recently acquired from Des Pawson, one of the world's leading authorities on knots and sailors' ropework.

He has been working with rope and knots for years, amassing a collection of thousands of tools, materials, and practical and decorative items connected with the subject along the way. 

Chatham’s collections team worked with Pawson to select some of the finest pieces to display in the gallery. Displaying the tools of the humble sailor and rigger in the place that once produced 10,000 tons of cordage for the Royal Navy each year helps to bring the story full circle.

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We also have what is possibly the largest fid in the world on open display. At over 1m tall, this giant version of the humble wooden rope working tool highlights the size of some of the ropes and cables that were once made at the former dockyard.

A piece of cable (a thick rope made up of nine twisted strands of hemp) that was recovered from the wreck of the Stirling Castle, which sank in 1703, is also on display. Four years before that fateful event, the ship had been refitted at Chatham. In those days, the average Royal Navy ship needed around 30 miles of rope, and it is highly probably that this cable was made at the Ropery in Chatham Dockyard in the late 1690s.

In a sense it’s a bit of a homecoming for the cable, returning to the dockyard after more than 300 years to go on display.

The visitor experience

The redesigned space dramatically increases capacity in the gallery for 2022 and helps to engage more visitors with learning about this integral part of the former Royal Naval dockyard.

Lima’s design draws on the history of the ropery, with punches of yellow breaking up the gallery panels. This is inspired by the practice of including yellow “rogue’s yarn” in the heart of a Chatham rope, so any rope surreptitiously taken from the dockyard could easily by identified by officials.

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The visitor is drawn into the gallery, which has had nearly all the natural light blocked out, towards a unique screen made of rope onto which photographs of the ropery through time are projected. An audio soundscape, produced by Brona Martin and Aki Pasoulas of the University of Kent and Andrew Knight-Hill from the University of Greenwich, plays giving a sense of the sounds heard in the working ropery.

There is also a series of interactives showing step-by-step the anatomy of the rope – from fibre to giant cable. Visitors can then get their hands on some real rope through the bookable ropemaking experience on the second floor of the gallery.

Once visitors have enjoyed the new gallery and the interactive ropemaking experience, they exit onto a quarter-mile long ropewalk – the very place where the 31 miles of rope were made in the mid-18th century for Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, HMS Victory.

The ropewalk is home today to ropemakers who make rope for a multitude of worldwide clients, including sailing ships, gymnasiums and cinema.

The redesign took seven months from start to finish, and had a budget of £250,000.

Key lessons from the project

  • The importance of building good relationships with the designers and sub-contractors, as well external stakeholders.
  • Be prepared to make changes to your vision mid-project.
  • Be flexible with object lists at the start of the project; don’t be too wedded to so-called “must have” objects in your collection.
  • Involve visitor-facing colleagues early in the process. Engage them and bring them along with you as the project develops.

Lynnette Crisp is director of communications & public engagement at Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust

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