The Merseyside Maritime Museum, which is in the heart of the Royal Albert Dock, a Unesco World Heritage Site, explores Liverpool’s rich yet sometimes dark history as a port city. Seafaring has been central to the city’s identity long before the site first opened its current doors in 1986. Links to the slave trade, merchant shipping and the wealth it brought to the city can be found throughout the museum and the docks that surround it.
The redisplay of Life On Board illuminates “the dangers, joys, cultures and community at the heart of seafaring” through objects and first-person accounts. Overall, the new gallery’s design has a more uniform and modern feel than its predecessor, with improved lighting, brighter display cases and contemporary interpretation panels.
On reaching the exhibition floor by stairs or lift, visitors are greeted by a series of ship models and figureheads, while the sound of the ocean washes over them. The prominent figureheads on display were made in Canada, highlighting the economic exchange between Britain and its colonies that also share a maritime history.
On show is the recently conserved Arandora Star ship model, which hadn’t been displayed since it was damaged during the 1941 Liverpool blitz, when a bomb was dropped near the original museum site.
The placement of panels and cases does not provide an explicit direction around the gallery. But the self-contained sections are well spaced and the thematic organisation (as opposed to chronological) means that there are multiple routes visitors can take around the galleries.
For visitors with a smartphone, an information panel provides details on how to access the online audioguide in English, French and Spanish.
Not every section of the exhibition is featured on the audioguide, but the major themes are covered. This information panel also provides details for those requiring audio description assistance.
The first main section, Work at Sea, features stories of shipworkers including captains, cooks, marine engineers and radio officers. One of the individuals highlighted is Belinda Bennett, the first Black female captain in the commercial cruise industry. Bennett’s uniform features prominently in the gallery and showcases the capabilities of women in the world of seafaring.
Along the wall is the navigation equipment display – a high point for those seeking the traditional maritime museum experience – followed by a captioned video of interviews of other individuals in the exhibition. This creates a more human connection to the objects while also showcasing the diversity of roles held by people of all genders, races and classes.
The next gallery focuses on campaigns for ship safety, sailor health and the significance of trade unions. Ideally, there would have been more space to dive even deeper into these important topics, but maybe their complexity is being saved for future iterations or temporary exhibitions.
Life on the high seas
Opposite these panels is a small theatre with information about the MV Derbyshire, a carrier ship owned by the Liverpool-based Bibby Line, which was lost at sea in 1980. A captioned video discusses what led to the ship being lost and how the MV Derbyshire Families Association worked with investigators to ensure a similar tragedy would not happen again.
The adjacent panels explore the environment and cultures that flourish among sailors living at sea. In line with advocating for positive change aboard ships, topics such as fatigue, stress and poor mental health are discussed. To keep isolation at bay, sailors would frequently keep pets on board, often of the exotic variety.
In one of the display cases is Jeremy, a taxidermied kinkajou (a relation of the raccoon, native to Central and South America) who was bought as a companion in Chile by ship cook Robert Ng in the 1960s. If Jeremy had been brought to Liverpool today, he would likely have ended up in the UK Border Force gallery instead, located in the basement of the museum.
In the next gallery, visitors are transported aboard the luxury liners that once sailed out of Liverpool’s cruise terminal, a stone’s throw from the museum itself. A large, well-lit display case is dedicated to Gertrude Walker, who sailed frequently to Chile and kept a detailed diary of her travels across the Atlantic. Interestingly, the information text in this display mimicked the flamboyant language with which Walker wrote in her diary. While it did fit the theme of that section, this could pose a problem for some visitors, because unlike the rest of the exhibition text panels, some of the wording is complex.
On the opposite wall, a large display case houses a variety of dining dishes. In contrast to the other cases, little information is provided about the objects. A more detailed text panel to fully explain the function of each item and which ship it came from would help visitors understand their historical context.
A small section on toys and souvenirs paints a picture of what life was like for children on these luxury liners through the decades. The objects have been placed in lower positions for viewing by children and those using mobility aids. An abundance of interactive activities are interspersed among the displays, but due to current Covid-related restrictions they are not in use.
Focus on identity
The redisplay of Life On Board brings fresh perspectives to a subject that often neglects the stories of women and Black, Asian and minority ethnic people due to the nature of objects that have been collected and interpreted by maritime museums in the past. Identity is a strong component of this exhibition and great care has been taken to ensure new voices and stories are heard.
Overall, Life On Board touches on important and contemporary subject matter while still providing visitors with a traditional maritime museum experience, filled with tales and objects of adventures on the high seas.
Emily Jeffers is a facilities assistant at Riba North, Liverpool
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