Nelson, Navy, Nation
Discover the new permanent gallery at the National Maritime Museum, Nelson, Navy, Nation and find out what the curators’ favourite object are.
Quintin Colville: Hello there.
James Davey: Hello.
Lucinda: What are we going to be talking about today?
Quintin: We’re going to be talking about the Museum’s new permanent gallery which is called Nelson, Navy, Nation.
James: What does this gallery set out to achieve?
Quintin: The main aim of this gallery is to place the important figure of Admiral Lord Nelson in a much broader historical context. That means the story of the Royal Navy but it also means the story of the British people across the 18th century.
What we have in this gallery is not just admirals but sailors, it’s not just people afloat, it’s also people ashore, civilians from merchants to fashionable women in the provinces. We’ve got a very broad and a very rich story to tell.
James: I think the other thing to say is that we want to show how the navy shaped British history. Just to give a couple of examples, we can show that the dock yards were vast industrial enterprises and significant employers that drew resources from across Britain. We can also show that the navy defended Britain from foreign threats but also protected British trade around the world, ensuring that the nation became wealthier.
We also want to show how the navy impacted upon British society and culture and demonstrate that naval heroes and even the stereotype figure of the British seamen became important representations of Britishness and helped to forge a sense of national identity.
Lucinda: How much prominence do you give to Nelson?
Quintin: Nelson remains for us the pre-eminent naval commander of the age. He’s the man who united extraordinary qualities and characteristics in terms of command, leadership, the ability to communicate with his sailors, whether they were officers or lower deck.
But beyond that he also analysed that with celebrity. He was an extraordinarily famous man during his own lifetime, which means that he meant things to people who had never met him across British society. We’ve got someone who is a brilliant commander but who is also famous and celebrated across the land. How could he not be central? How could he not be important to a gallery like this?
But the thing is that at the same time we want to look beyond him. We want to look at the people who thought he was so important and ask why.
Lucinda: Does the gallery offer a new interpretation of its subject?
James: Absolutely it does. We’ve really tried very hard to use the National Maritime Museum’s collections to tell exciting stories about the navy that query myths and highlight hidden histories. We can show that most people joined the navy voluntarily and for a range of motivations.
We can show that life on board a naval ship was built around consensus, undermining this longstanding idea of ships dominated by punishment and violence. We can also point to the diverse backgrounds of sailors and indeed the presence of women on board naval ships, the relatively good quality of food and drink and also, as I’ve mentioned already, show the various ways that the navy could impact on British society and culture.
Lucinda: Are there stories you nonetheless found it difficult to tell?
Quintin: Well this is a gallery that focuses on the relationship of Britain and the Royal Navy. You could say that it has a limited remit but there are enormous stories that actually connect to it. Think for instance of the story of slavery, of transatlantic trade, of the Indian Ocean and commerce and that context. These are all hugely important.
But this is a museum, it’s not just one gallery. We have a range of galleries that can actually help tell these stories to, in particular Atlantic Worlds and Traders, precisely target those themes of the Atlantic, of the Indian Ocean, of slavery and of trade. These can work together with this gallery of navy and nation to create a much broader and much richer story.
Lucinda: Were there objects you had to leave out?
James: Unfortunately there were. The National Maritime Museum houses the pre-eminent collection that relates to naval history in this period. I think it’s probably true to say that we could have filled this gallery many times over. There are literally hundreds of thousands of objects relating to the 18th century navy in our collections.
This has therefore necessitated a considerable degree of selectivity. We weren’t able to include every story but I think we’ve assembled a very representative narrative and also a gallery that includes the most important objects from our collections.
Lucinda: What I really want to know is what’s your favourite object in the gallery?
Quintin: There are objects in this gallery that are among the most important in any British museum. Key ones like the uniform that Nelson was wearing when he was wounded at Trafalgar. But for me there are some more every day stories and objects that really leap to the forefront.
We’ve got an artist represented in the gallery called Lieutenant Gabriel Bray, an ordinary officer, a Lieutenant who happened to be startlingly gifted as a water colourist. He creates these snapshots. They’re like Polaroid’s of every day naval life, not just officers but everyone on board. He just picks out human characteristics, ordinary scenarios, people shaving, people snoozing, people fishing off the end of a canon.
It’s stuff like that that just brings the realities of everyday life, not great battles to our visitors. I think he’s incredibly powerful as a result.
James: In a similar vein I think I would say a letter that we have in a section called Officers Lives. It was written by a young midshipman called George Perceval, writing home to his parents on Christmas Day in 1806. He’s writing about what he and his ship mates are up to. They’re doing some celebratory drinking, seeing the festival in.
But as you read the letter this becomes increasingly evident as his handwriting deteriorates from perfect copper plate to essentially an illegible scrawl. The last few words are very difficult to make out. It’s an object that, similar to Gabriel Bray, offers this wonderful insight into the life of a young officer.
Lucinda: Thank you, that’s wonderful. Nelson Navy and the Nation is open now at the National Maritime Museum.