Ocean treasures of the National Maritime Museum, London

By Dr Erika Jones, Curator of Navigation and Oceanography, and Aimee Mook, Lloyds Register Foundation Assistant Curator of Contemporary Maritime

The National Maritime Museum, in Greenwich, London is one of the largest maritime museums in the world. It is part of Royal Museums Greenwich which includes the Cutty Sark, the Royal Observatory, the Queen’s House, and the Prince Philip Maritime Collections Centre. These sites are home to a huge range of collection of over 2.5 million objects covering all things maritime, including oceanography. This blog post introduces some of the material that can be found at Royal Museums Greenwich to help you in your pursuit of knowledge of the ocean.

The National Maritime Museum’s collection reflects the convergence of oceanographic, navigational, and commercial interests in the ocean. The oceanography collection contains over 100 objects used for obtaining information about the marine environment, from the late nineteenth century- to modern-day instruments. Both historical and contemporary instruments are included in our collections, including current meters, bathythermographs, depth sounders, and thermometers.

Highlights of the collection include a rare, early example of Joseph Saxon’s current meter from 1832 (NAV0985), a modern sophisticated moored data buoy (ZBA5141), deep sea thermometers (NAV0993, NAV1777), an early water collecting bottle (NAV1003), and seabed samples collected by the Challenger Expedition (1872-76) (NAV0843).

Our ship plan collection and most of our photographic collections can be found at the Brass Foundry in Woolwich. Highlights that relate to oceanography include plans and photography albums from the Challenger Expedition (1872-76) (ALB0174/5/6; ALB0859) and photography in the Desmond Wettern collection showing HMS Weather Reporter, a castle class corvette converted into a weather ship in 1962. Some of these collections have been digitised and can be found on the Collections Online website http://www.rmg.co.uk/collections/. If you’re looking for a specific vessel, be sure to include the name and any dates you know in the search box. Our team at the Brass Foundry can be contacted on plansandphotos@rmg.co.uk for any questions you have about these collections, or to arrange a visit.

RMG’s ship model collection is one of the largest in the world and features a range of examples of oceanography related vessels- including weather ships like HMS Marguerite (SLR1558), the non-magnetic research vessel Research from 1939 (SLR1541), a paddle survey vessel HMS Lightning (SLR0709), the survey vessel HMS Investigator (SLR0929), and diving support vessel Star Arcturus (SLR1750).

Our polar collection contains oceanographic material, but most of the physical objects are more modern than historical. The earlier scientific instruments and experiments focused more on meteorology and magnetism than specific ocean science. Material relating to scientific expeditions, such as the Discovery Investigations exploring whale biology in the 1920s through 1950s (RRS Discovery, RRS William Scoresby, RRS Discovery II), can be found in our Polar Worlds gallery. In other areas of the collection, you can find a plethora of material such as globes, charts, and artwork, that support the wider history of oceanography and the changing human relationship with the marine environment.

The Caird Library and Archive at the National Maritime Museum contains lots of supporting material in the field. Our wonderful team of librarians suggest using the library catalogue section of the RMG website (http://librarycatalogue.rmg.co.uk) to find oceanography related library content, as the collections online service sometimes doesn’t retrieve all the relevant records. If you’re looking to view the content on site, make sure you check the website or contact our team for the correct advance ordering time, as some items are stored offsite. Highlights of the Library collection include rare books such as PBD3301– An historical collection of the several voyages and discoveries in the South Pacific ocean, 1770; 38968-1001– On the results of an extensive of tide observations made on the coasts of Europe and America in June 1835; PBE6493– Thermometrical navigation… 1799.

Our archives can be searched using our collections online service, by selecting the ‘archive’ tab (https://www.rmg.co.uk/collections/archive). Note that a lot of the content of these archives and manuscripts are undigitized and have quite often never been explored in detail, so the online result may not be entirely accurate. Some highlights in here include LMQ/8/3 – Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) expedition to TITANIC, 1985; TIZ/39/1 – Thirteen letters to Tizard from (Sir) George Nares, Captain of HMS CHALLENGER on her world oceanographic voyage, 1872-80 (see related blog on our website from our curator of oceanography! https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/hms-challenger-expedition-oceanography-trailblazer); WTS/34/14 – Lieutenant-Commander David Watkin Waters – Navigation and Hydrography, Oceanography’s Eyes.; EVA0001 – Specification for repairs and alterations on Discovery (1901). Our archive collection contains lots of manuscripts relating to scientific work on polar expeditions, for example, journals and photographic albums kept by different officers on board HMS Discovery during the British Arctic Expedition 1875-76 (STP/4; MRK/13; MCL/58, MS1976-121). Our ship plans collection and uncatalogued transcripts contain related material too. As mentioned above, lots of the archive content is stored offsite, so requires advanced notice to order.

As well as the history of oceanography, the museum highlights contemporary ocean relationships using different formats. In exhibitions, the ‘Poles Apart’ gallery showcases the work of the British Antarctic Survey and their newest polar research vessel, the RRS Sir David Attenborough. The online platform, Our Ocean Our Planet, collates all areas of how we understand our ocean in these challenging times. By looking at viewpoints of artists, scientists, historians, and photographers (just to name a few!), the platform has become a hub of human relationships with the ocean.

If you’d be interested to learn more, please don’t hesitate to contact any of our teams for more information.

http://www.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects – to look at our museum collections (objects) online

https://www.rmg.co.uk/collections/caird-library/electronic-resources – to search both digital and paper materials that the museum may have access to- please note a lot of the subscriptions, although digital, are only available to access onsite.

https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/blogs – for blog content written by our museum experts, including the library and archive team, conservators, curators, and astronomers.

research@rmg.co.uk – to contact the curatorial team about our collections and research

archive@rmg.co.uk – to contact the library and archive team about paper materials

http://librarycatalogue.rmg.co.uk – library catalogue online, to browse paper collections

plansandphotos@rmg.co.uk – to contact the team at the Brass Foundry regarding ship plans and historic photographic collections.

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