Sharon Heal

Voyage of discovery

Sharon Heal, 24.04.2012
A little interpretation goes a long way
Now that the Cutty Sark comes under the “operational management” of Royal Museums Greenwich it’s easy to coordinate events such as the two press views that took place on the same morning this week.

First up was the National Maritime Museum’s Royal River, Power Pageantry and the Thames. The exhibition is curated by David Starkey and is the museum’s contribution to the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. And fair enough, if you’re going to change your name to Royal Museums Greenwich you might as well throw a watery celebration of the monarchy in for good measure.

The museum has brought together a fabulous collection of objects to tell the story, from the opening Canaletto showing the Thames on Lord Mayor’s Day in the mid-18th century to the huge carved Stuart coat of arms from the Royal Charles warship.

The design and display are good too, with royal colours delineating sections and object-rich presentations left to take centre-stage.

In this ultra-traditional display, the problem is that the story gets forgotten. I was fortunate to hear the curator’s tour but his knowledgeable titbits and anecdotes are not available to the average fee-paying member of the public (adult tickets are £11, it’s £3 extra for the audioguide).

There are fascinating glimpses into river life in this exhibition such as sections on swan-upping, the Thames watermen and the Great Stink, which deserve more creative interpretation than a few dry and factual labels.

I left feeling that there was an interesting story here that was not being told.

The newly opened Cutty Sark by comparison has very few objects (apart from the very big one in the middle) but it does have interpretation in abundance. Its message about the history of the ship, its use, rescue and conservation is told directly and through a variety of media from AVs to simple interactives. Sound and smell add to the evocative atmosphere.

There were some gaps – including the stories of the people that worked on the ship but I assume these could be added to the AVs in time.

The difference in approach to storytelling and interpretation in these two venues is marked. Both have iconic objects at their heart, but it is how they are used, or not, to tell a story that will ultimately intrigue and engage visitors.