Author and Historian

The National Maritime Museum

The National Maritime Museum from the North West The National Maritime Muesum from the North West.     All photographs © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London unless stated otherwise.

As my career has been in two halves, museum and academic, and friends and acquaintances from one half know little or nothing of the other, two brief, illustrated accounts follow.

I joined the National Maritime Museum on 2nd January 1974 as Deputy Custodian of Manuscripts. Strikes were rife at the time under the Heath government and electrical power in short supply. For the first weeks working in the manuscripts stack in the basement was only possible with the aid of a torch.

There was much to do, as the manuscript collections had been overseen by Alan Pearsall, the kindest and most knowledgeable of men, and he taught me a great deal in his role as Museum historian: but he never finished anything and piles of half-sorted manuscripts on the shelves and in cupboards, and many collections needed to be catalogued and boxed.

These tasks demanded more resources than Alan ever had, but the Director of the Museum, Basil Greenhill, an ex-civil servant who understood Whitehall, secured steadily increasing grants and the manuscript department gradually increased its staff. The number of collections proliferated, in particular the merchant shipping archives, which grew as the industry was rationalised in the later 1970s and as companies collapsed, the Museum acquired their papers.

With Campbell McMurray, I supervised the move into the Brass Foundry in what was then Woolwich Arsenal, which the Director had secured for the Museum’s use. He anticipated that the Museum’s occupation of this fine building would last for ten years: thirty-six years later those collections are still there. With a good number of willing and able staff, the collections became better organised and the Guide to Manuscripts was published in two volumes, 1977 and 1980.

Greenhill’s retirement in 1983 signalled change, for since 1980 the government grant had started to decrease and the days of plenty were over. He was succeeded by Neil Cossons, who had been Director of the Museums at Ironbridge, which received no government grant, and he very soon began a new restructuring of the Museum.

Up to this point, it was divided into departments which had responsibility for a particular type or types of collections. The Heads of each department were powerful figures, largely unconstrained in day-to-day business. Cossons saw that efficiencies could be achieved by moving into functional departments, and he asked me to head the ‘Information Project Group’ which was to computerise the museum’s catalogues and standardise the approach across the Museum. Much (understandable) resistance from the old departments followed.

These were early days for computers and a good deal had to be made up as we went along. Jonathan Cutbill was the in-house IT expert, and he spent many hours inventing and adapting software, some of which still survives (eg ‘Multi-Mimsy’, the inhouse system used by staff). My job was to explain the new way of working to the curators and then, not an easy job, translate the requirement for the IT people. The work we did then laid the basis for the system today and brought into existence the ‘Collection Manager’, a new breed of curator who understood retrieval and catalogue systems, applied legal rules, straightened out fuzzy loan arrangements for material in the collections, then called (incredibly to us in the twenty-first century) ‘Gentleman’s Agreements’.

Many inefficiencies were corrected, but the Collection Managers have now become very powerful, and in recent years have eclipsed the subject and object curators, who still retain specialist knowledge roles, but now lack influence. As with many radical reforms, the pendulum has swung too far, and the intellectual management of the collections is subsumed by those who have security and physical management as their chief priorities. I look back on the changes in which I had a large role in the 1980s with some regret.

National Maritime Museum Staff The Library and Manuscript Department staff, ca. 1980, at the Trustees summer party on the steps of the Queen's House.
Clockwise from bottom: Gervaise Vaz, Mary Patrick, Geoffrey Stow (half hidden), Ann Currie, Malcolm Barr-Hamilton, Roger Knight, Mary Shepherd, Terry Corbett, Jean Thomas, Kay Chapman, Jacky Hayton, David Proctor, Paul Pelowski

Admiral BeattyThe papers of Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty (1871-1936) were purchased from the family in 1981. They consisted of official and private letters and papers and occupied over fifteen feet of shelf space. This acquisition was the most complex of the large number in which I was involved and negotiations took many months.

Staff  Group Portrait An earlier generation of NMM staff in the Museum's Boardroom.
When Basil Greenhill retired as Director in 1983, he was presented with a specially-bound book of essays written by staff:
Left to right: Westby Percival Prescott, Gillian Lewis, Philip Annis, Basil Greenhill, Roger Knight, Neville Upham, Sean McGrail, David Proctor, Sally Unwin (who bound the volume) and John Munday.

Caird Library The public had access to the Library and Manuscripts collections in the old Caird Library in the West Wing from 1971 to 2010. It had been built during the 1930s when the Museum moved into the buildings of the Royal Hospital School, with funds provided by Sir James Caird. Until 1971 access to the Library was restricted to museum staff only.

After only three years, Neil Cossons left to become Director of the Science Museum and in 1986 was succeeded by Richard Ormond. He completed Cosson’s restructuring and reduced staffing levels. It was another period of high emotion from which the Museum emerged leaner. Richard had spent most of his career at the National Portrait Gallery. His period as Director of the NMM saw some high profile and successful exhibitions, notably ‘Armada’ (1988), ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ (1989),‘Henry VIII’ (1991) and ‘The Wreck of the Titanic’ (1995-6).

The last exhibition was a great success, but it was also controversial, since some in the maritime museum community did not feel that it was right to put it on, as the material had come from what was essentially an archaeological site, albeit two and half miles down on the Atlantic seabed, and the expedition which retrieved the items was financed by a salvage company. In particular, the Americans within the International Congress of Maritime Museums (I was on the Council) were vociferous in their criticism and wished to drum us out of the organisation. The NMM’s position was that it was better to engage with the salvagers to influence them to keep the collection of artefacts together and treat them responsibly. It was an argument which lasted for some years, but together with an American salvage court order that the collection be kept together and could only be sold as a whole, the NMM position was vindicated. The collection is still together twenty years after the salvage operation. It was a wearing time for me, with more argument and emotion: I did not care for the exhibition, but did not feel that the NMM should be dictated to by other museums, and from different countries.

During these years, maritime historical scholarship was quiescent, although in 1989 we diverted some of the private funds of the Museum to financing the ‘Caird Fellowships’ for junior scholars, which were added to by gifts from the Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation. Two decades later over a hundred fellowships have been awarded. I could do little writing in these years, though I served long on the councils of the two learned societies close to the Museum’s interests, the Society for Nautical Research and the Navy Records Society. I did finally complete a book in a records series, using material from my doctoral thesis: because of Museum commitments, the project lasted fourteen years. I led on organising the Anglo-French Historians Conference at Portsmouth in 1988. In those days conferences could be put on with very few resources: I borrowed £300 from my building society account to start the ball rolling, though Portsmouth Corporation were very generous in their support.

I did a good deal of travelling in these years, representing the Museum at the ICMM in Stockholm, Barcelona, Vancouver and Gdansk. The UK Maritime Curators Group, following the Dutch example, which I set up in close collaboration with the late Mike Stammers, of the Merseyside Museum, was responsible for many trips around the UK. Regular meetings of this useful group, representing both large and small maritime museums, still take place when current issues can be jointly considered. The other collaborative effort on which I spent a great deal of effort was the National Historic Ships Committee, to give leadership to a disparate community which possessed overall the finest collection of historic ships in the world. Supported strenuously by Admiral Lord Lewin, the Chairman of the NMM Trustees, this committee gradually gained acceptance and, in a new guise as National Historic Ships UK, it is today a permanent feature of the ship conservation world. A thousand vessels are now on the National Register.

However, the scholarly pendulum swung again, due to the efforts of two academic trustees, Paul Murdin and Alastair Couper, and the appointment of Margarette Lincoln as head of Research. The fellowships were invigorated, conferences and seminars put on. Using R.C. and Romola Anderson’s bequest to the Museum, and very much with the support of Lord Lewin, we part-financed Nicholas Rodger’s great three-volume Naval History of Britain, the first of which appeared in 1997. Financial support lasted until Nicholas was launched on his academic career. Twenty years after he started, he is now a Senior Research Fellow at All Souls, Oxford, and is bringing volume three to a conclusion, though the first two volumes have already gone a long way towards defining the subject.

For many staff and visitors, the second half of the 1990s was chiefly about the dismantling of the old Neptune Hall in the centre of the Museum, and the redevelopment of the main galleries of the Museum. In my role as Deputy Director, I was responsible for keeping the rest of the organisation going, a thankless task for those not involved in the great building project, who had to persevere with continual dust and noise (and a leaky roof) for several years. The new Neptune Court was opened by the Queen in 1999. However, my chief memory of that time is of many long journeys down to Falmouth, where funding had been gathered for building a maritime museum. The NMM had been looking for a partner museum to display its small boat collection, housed in a store in south-east London. With the help of a large grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, a new purpose built museum, the National Maritime Museum, Cornwall, was opened in 2003. I served as a Trustee there for seven years, resigning only when the NMMC opened for business.

Spanish Admiral In the old Caird Library, Roger Knight shows a Spanish admiral manuscripts relating to Spain.

Robin Knox-Johnson Sir Robin Knox-Johnston presented the Museum with the GPS navigational instrument which had been fitted to his 85 foot catamaran 'ENZA New Zealand' when breaking the record for a voyage round the world in 1994.

Ship ModelAnother Deputy Director duty: Photograph taken during an interview with a Guardian reporter, showing him the reserve collection of ship models, then at Kidbrooke before its transfer to Chatham Historic Dockyard. © The Guardian

H.M. the Queen opens the new Neptune Court at the National Maritime Museum on 11 May 1999.

National Maritime Museum Cornwall at Falmouth

NMMCThe National Maritime Museum, Cornwall at Falmouth.

After twenty-seven years, I left the Museum on 9 September 2000, the same day as the Director, Richard Ormond. The Trustees wanted new faces and it was clear that there was no role for me under the new Director, Roy Clare. After a two-week sailing holiday, I started teaching over the road at the postgraduate Greenwich Maritime Institute at the University of Greenwich, which had just moved into the wonderful buildings at the Royal Naval College, after the Navy had moved out. Welcomed by Sarah Palmer, the Director of the Institute, I have spent twelve happy years teaching and writing. As for the Museum, I envy the young curators: 40 years on, I would like to start again.

National Maritime Museum