Lighthouses: Life on the Rocks, National Maritime Museum, Cornwall, Falmouth - Museums Association

Lighthouses: Life on the Rocks, National Maritime Museum, Cornwall, Falmouth

The story of the UK's lighthouses and their keepers is well told in Cornwall, says Simon Stephens
Wherever there is a declining industry such as coalmining or shipbuilding, you can be pretty sure that an exhibition will follow.

The focus is usually on the people who worked in the industry, with their stories placed in a wider historical context. Lighthouses: Life on the Rocks at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall (NMMC) fits into this genre.

The exhibition is supported by Trinity House, the General Lighthouse Authority for England, which has a history that can be traced back to its incorporation by Royal Charter in 1514. The organisation, which is still responsible for what it describes as “aids to navigation”, has lent a large number of objects. It also runs a heritage centre on the Lizard, where Cornwall’s first lighthouse was built in 1619.

The Association of Lighthouse Keepers is also involved. Rather bizarrely, you don’t need to have been a keeper to join the association, but with the UK’s last manned lighthouse converted to automatic operation in 1998, maybe this makes sense for future membership levels.

The exhibition covers various subjects, including the engineering of lighthouses, but the focus is on the story of lighthouse keepers, a vocation that goes back more than 300 years. Visitors to the exhibition can step inside the reconstructed lighthouse living area, with its original curved furniture from Godrevy Lighthouse in Cornwall.

Information is provided on luggage tags, while a Scrabble board spells out lighthouse-related words. There is an effective approach to display throughout, with clear graphics and large photographs providing dramatic backdrops to the displays.

“A living nightmare”

Visitors are left in no doubt that being a keeper was a dangerous and hard occupation for many, particularly for those on offshore sites. Transferring people and provisions was treacherous, highlighted by a film of someone holding onto a rope but losing their hat while moving from a boat to a lighthouse. Life on board lightvessels, which were used when it was impossible to build a lighthouse, was particularly challenging.

“The life of a lightshipman in a hurricane was a living nightmare of holding on, body braced against every combination of reeling and pitching,” says the gallery text. The display focuses on a 1954 disaster when the South Goodwin lightvessel broke its mooring and capsized, killing the seven crew members.

But it’s not all tales of disaster and death: the exhibition contains a fair amount of humour, particularly in the section on the portrayal of lighthouses in popular culture. This includes a simple but fun interactive called Light and Lie, where visitors have to decide which names are real lighthouses and which are made up.

Real ones include the snigger-inducing Butt of Lewis and Muckle Flugga, while Fraggle Rock is made up, although the lighthouse featured in the children’s television programme of the same name was a real location – St Anthony’s Lighthouse near Falmouth.

A lonely life

The popular culture section also features a sketch from the BBC’s Alas Smith and Jones television sketch show about two lighthouse keepers whose familiarity from many years working together is breeding contempt.

Complete with poor Scottish accents and impressive beards, it ends with Mel Smith’s character shooting the keeper played by Gryff Rhys Jones. It’s very silly, but points to some of the real-life pressures keepers faced having to live for long periods at close quarters with other keepers.

This is highlighted in the Three’s A Crowd area of the exhibition. This includes details of the “bucket and chuck-it” practice, which involved using buckets as toilets and throwing the contents straight out of the window.

This area also includes a comparison of the different types of beds that keepers slept in: those in lightvessels, offshore lighthouses and shore-based lighthouses. Various oral history excerpts are included here – it’s interesting, but I would have liked to see more biographical information about the contributors, including photos.

Maybe it’s because of the museum’s family audience and the choice of stories it decided to pursue, but a lot of the stories about the keepers feel like despatches from a more innocent time. In the era before television was available on lighthouses, keepers passed the time with sedate craft-based pursuits that did not wake the other occupants.

As well as the stories of the keepers, the exhibition charts the history of lighthouses and the feats of engineering that were needed to build them. These include the fascinating story of Eddystone Lighthouse. The third structure built on the site, known as Smeaton’s Tower, influenced future lighthouse design and its upper portions were re-erected in Plymouth as a monument.

Refreshed by loans

The exhibition also contains information on optics and has a simple interactive that helps to explain how they work. The four-tonne Bishop Rock Optic provides a focal point for the gallery.

Lighthouses: Life on the Rocks is in a gallery that the NMMC has created next to its main hall to house temporary exhibitions such as this. The idea is that this more enclosed area allows it to give such shows more of an identity. It’s a good space for such exhibitions, although the long upper walkway at the back of the gallery is a bit awkward for displays.

The exhibition opened earlier this year and will run for two years, a long time for a temporary show. But longer-running exhibitions are something many museums are looking at in the face of budget constraints.

The NMMC is keeping the exhibition fresh by adding objects, the latest being an Eddystone medal, which holders used to prove to Royal Navy press gangs that they were exempt from going to war. This medal, one of seven left in the world, dates from 1757 and was loaned by Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery.

The exhibition also contains objects from a range of other museums, including Chatham Historic Dockyard and the Scottish Lighthouses Museum. More loans might give the exhibition a longer shelf life; it would be great to see more examples of lighthouses in art or some of the models in the collection of the National Maritime Museum in London.

But overall the exhibition provides a good mix of oral history combined with the wider story of the development of the UK’s lighthouses.

Project data

Cost £70,000
Exhibition delivered in partnership with Trinity House.
Main funders Heritage Lottery Fund £30,000, Sir John Fisher Foundation £10,000
Curators National Maritime Museum Cornwall exhibitions team
Exhibition design in-house
Graphics Gendall Design
Interactive exhibits Concept Shed
Audiovisuals in-house
Exhibition ends January 2012

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