Discover Greenwich, London - Museums Association

Discover Greenwich, London

A new visitor centre could do a better job of helping visitors to discover Greenwich, writes Oliver Green
Discover Greenwich is a new interpretation and education centre in the heart of Maritime Greenwich, one of the UK’s 28 World Heritage Sites.

It is centrally located in a waterfront building right beside the pier where so many visitors get their first dramatic view of Greenwich as they arrive in the traditional way by boat down the Thames.

When it was opened by the Mayor of London in March, Discover Greenwich was heralded as a portal and contemporary cultural venue that would unlock the history of Maritime Greenwich for over a million visitors a year.

At the moment the Greenwich Pier area still has the look of a building site while major restoration work continues behind hoardings on the Cutty Sark in its dry dock.

This separate heritage project would have been completed by now had it not been for the fire that nearly destroyed the ship three years ago. But the iconic tea clipper will be open to visitors by the time London hosts the Olympics in 2012 and Greenwich attracts what it hopes will be a big influx of summer tourists.

Discover Greenwich sets itself the daunting task of explaining how the name of a small town in south-east London came to be known throughout the world. The displays are designed to “show how cultural, scientific and industrial innovations in Greenwich have changed its relationship with London and the world”.

This is ambitious for a visitor centre that is surely more of a first introductory stop for people wanting to enjoy a day exploring historic Greenwich.

Brewhouse riot

The Greenwich World Heritage Site covers an extensive area including the town centre, the Royal Park and Observatory, the National Maritime Museum and the Queen’s House.

All of this is outside the monumental Royal Naval Hospital complex on the Greenwich waterfront, which was designed by Christopher Wren in the 17th century on the site of Henry VIII’s long-gone palace.

The hospital (really an enormous baroque almshouse for old sailors) was completed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, John Vanbrugh and other illustrious architects, eventually housing nearly 3,000 naval pensioners by the end of the Napoleonic wars. It became the Royal Naval College in 1873; in 1997, the Navy moved out.

The site is now managed and cared for by the Greenwich Foundation, with many of the historic buildings reused by the University of Greenwich and Trinity College of Music. Public access has been improved, with buildings renovated and an impressive range of cultural activities created on site.

Discover Greenwich is housed in the Grade II-listed Pepys Building, originally a squash and racquets court for the college built in 1874, which was later extended to become a naval engineering workshop.

Along with the new interpretation centre, the building also hosts a Clore learning centre, a large tourist information centre and shop and the Brewhouse cafe, restaurant and bar.

The Brewhouse is a particularly imaginative conversion. It is run by an award-winning local brewing company that has installed a micro-brewery on site and brews specialist new and historic beers.

About 150 years ago the Royal Hospital’s Brewhouse was the most important building on the site as far as the residents were concerned, piping beer directly to the pensioners’ dining room.

Each man had a ration of three pints a day, and there was nearly a riot by the old boys when the Brewhouse was badly damaged by fire in 1843. The Brewhouse is already a well-deserved success.

The visitor centre is more of a curate’s egg. Although it is branded as an introduction to Maritime Greenwich as a whole, Discover Greenwich is actually about the old Naval College site.

As you can enter from three different directions and there is no linear story, visitors are recommended to start in the middle where there is a large interactive display of Greenwich’s key position.

A good architectural model of the current site with a commentary and Pepper’s ghost of the vanished Tudor palace that once stood here would have been easier to understand, but less state of the art.

You are then invited to explore the surrounding displays that cover four main themes: the Tudor palace; the architecture of the Royal Hospital; the experience of the Greenwich pensioners; and the site’s most recent incarnation as the Royal Naval College.

There is no obvious storyline, which makes this more of a pinball experience, where you bounce around at random but pick up some interesting hits on the way.

Starting point

Some of the displays incorporate important real objects on loan from museums, with over-detailed descriptions of conservation work that had to be carried out on the buildings and a plod through classical architectural styles. Close by are heritage-centre-style set reconstructions with off-the-peg family activities such as a “dress up as a pensioner” photo opportunity.

Done thoughtfully and with creative flair, integrated displays can work brilliantly, but some of this is just a bit off-beam. The interpretative approach ranges wildly from dull and detailed to dumb, and this scattergun probably doesn’t hit the spot for anyone.

My favourite was a large box of wooden pieces labelled: “Can you be a grand designer like Sir Christopher Wren? Please put the blocks back when you have finished.”

The real problem with the displays is a shifting focus between the bigger picture and the detail. This left me, and I suspect most visitors, confused about what story it is trying to tell.

My prediction would be that the Discover Greenwich displays will need to be changed and adapted before too long. A programme of temporary exhibitions starts this summer, and the fact that the main display area is one large room means that it too can be treated as a flexible space rather than a permanent gallery.

Unlike the National Maritime Museum or the Cutty Sark, this is not a heritage attraction, but it could become a good starting point for visitors to Maritime Greenwich.

Oliver Green is a research fellow at the London Transport Museum

Project data

Cost £6m
Main funders Heritage Lottery Fund, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Clore Duffield Foundation, private individuals
Exhibition design Real Studios
Architect John Miller & Partners
Main contractor Crispin and Borst

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