Cutty Sark Museum

Busman’s holiday?

Last year when I posted for the DOA I was on holiday and this year I am… on holiday again. This implies that I have a lot of time off but the reality is that this is just pure coincidence. Plus things have changed for me, a lot, in the past year. A year ago I worked jointly between local government and academia: now I am solely employed by the government heritage agency English Heritage. A year ago I mostly worked on archaeological sites; now I work on sites ‘across the asset range’ as they say, from prehistoric monuments to post-war office buildings, and everything in-between. A year ago I was also living a quiet [ish] life with my wife; now I have a lively and noisy 3 month old baby girl.

Anyhow, on this DOA I was actually on a busman’s holiday – i.e. a holiday that seemed a lot like work at times. My parents came to visit their granddaughter and we decided to go and visit the new Cutty Sark Museum in Greenwich, somewhere that I have long been meaning to visit since it re-opened in 2012 but had yet to get round to. It was a busman’s holiday because it touched upon many of the issues that I deal with daily in my job in English Heritage’s designation department: ultimately it involved questions of significance, authenticity and public engagement. The poor old Cutty Sark has had a hard time over its life – most recently, when a fire caused major damage in 2007. Since that time the vessel has been painstaking repaired and a new museum created around its dry-dock in Greenwich, to much public interest but intense critical debate. The historic ships people have questioned the ‘repairs’ to the old, and extremely badly damaged vessel – asking questions about its authenticity when so much of the original vessel has been lost and ‘repaired’ with new, and also asking questions about its new supporting latticework that lifts the ship to hang in mid-air and support its weight. Meanwhile, the architectural people have questioned the ‘greenhouse’ surrounding the lower decks of the ship, protecting it from the environment while allowing easier access and interpretation – their views have not been kind in many cases, comparing the new museum as akin to a suburban greenhouse at the gentlest and calling it cultural vandalism – this is within a World Heritage Site don’t forget – at the harshest. The museums people have then had a go as well, questioning every aspect of the display and interpretation of the ship, and especially its balance of use of space, airing, inevitably, worries about commercialisation – i.e. too much shop and cafe, not enough museum?

My opinion? Well, I went with trepidation, fearing that I’d dislike a lot of what I was about to see, hence the delay in visiting (I live less than an hour away so have little excuse), but I really enjoyed myself. Partly, this was the company: my wife and daughter and my parents. And I *do* take the points of the architectural critics on board: from the outside in particular the greenhouse protecting the ship is ungainly at best and makes it hard to appreciate the fine lines of the ship. But the pragmatist in me is aware that the ship *had* to be better protected from the elements or face total loss (something that at the time of the fire in 2007 I actually thought would be the best solution – let the poor ship ‘die’ in the fire after a long and dramatic life and be done with it). Moreover, once inside the museum, I was really impressed – a good balance of information for all ages and interests; a lot to see and do (i’ll be back once my daughter is older, 3+ at least, to have a proper explore with her); and a good balance of museum and commerce – including what has to be the most dramatic cafe in all of the London museums – and what’s wrong with a nicely air-conditioned museum cafe asks this new dad for one? And most importantly, as an archaeologist, I was impressed at how the ‘hanging’ of the ship on its supporting latticework really worked as an educational tool. You get to see inside and also right outside of the ship from all angles, something that no other historic ship museum that I know of currently enables. To be able to stand right under the keel and bows of this incredible racehorse of the seas and appreciate her impossibly fine lines – more akin to those of a racing yacht than a cargo vessel – is genuinely awe-inspring, and heritage needs to inspire all of the awe it can muster in these current troubling times…