Travel UK: Greenwich's other dome

The British at sea, from Captain Cook to cross-Channel lager louts, all find a place under the National Maritime Museum's new glass canopy.

The National Maritime Museum may conjure up images of row upon row of Airfix model-style frigates whose insignia are being noted down eagerly by middle-aged men with anoraks and Thermos flasks. But with nearly pounds 20m (pounds 11m from the National Lottery and pounds 8.6m from sponsors) having been poured into 16 spanking new galleries at the museum, that image could soon be swept away.

The newly-refurbished museum in Greenwich re-opens to the public on Wednesday. Its curators have taken the wise decision to focus not so much on ships as the sea, the stage on which so much British history has been played out over the centuries. Theme-park touches abound - bold, eye-catching displays and clear explanations - but they haven't cheapened this part of our national heritage so much as livened it up. The curators are savvy enough to realise that in this Disneyfied age, visitors expect dynamism rather than dust.

As you approach the impressively colonnaded front of the 19th-century building, you are lulled into a sense of the sea by hidden speakers which relay a live broadcast of the sounds of waves crashing on Chesil Beach. In the lobby, you come face to face with an installation by Lucy Blakstad, maker of the recent Naked series for BBC2. Images of the 12 sites featured on the Radio4 shipping forecast are paired up with the sounds of the forecast being read out, a noise so mesmerisingly soothing that many people admit they can't get to sleep without it.

Inside the museum, the sheer scale of the glass canopy strikes you - at 2,500 square metres, it is the largest single-span glass roof in Europe - think King's Cross station crossed with a greenhouse. Dotted around the main hall are landmarks from the sea - Suhaili, the yacht in which Robin Knox-Johnston in 1968 became the first person to sail round the world single-handedly, the optic from the Tarbet Ness lighthouse which flashes out at the street 24 hours a day, and the constantly revolving, eight-ton propeller from a Type23 frigate, punctured with tiny holes to make its turning quieter and less easily detectable by submarines. On a raised platform in the centre of the hall is a display on "The Future of the Sea", designed with environmental issues in mind. A section of the hull from the Sea Empress, the tanker that came to grief off the coast of Wales, and a scary-looking eight-foot harpoon-gun from Norway are all part of the exhibit. Audio-visual displays help explain the water cycle and effects of rising sea levels.

Side doors off the main hall give onto a series of smaller, specialist galleries. "Explorers" includes a display on John Franklin's failed 1845 mission to find the Northwest Passage. Here, peeping out from under a tarpaulin, is the rather creepy, blueish waxwork hand of one of the dead men, discovered in a frozen lifeboat at the North Pole. By the end of the expedition, the sailors were apparently so hungry, they were reduced to eating their own shoes.

The nearby array of famous explorers includes Columbus, Drake, Cook, and Scott, but curiously omits Richard Branson. Meanwhile, "Rank and Style" presents costumes ranging from the first naval uniform in 1748 to the protective survival suit worn by Tony Bullimore during his dramatic rescue two years ago. In "The Bridge", visitors can have a go on various vessel simulators: a Viking ship, a Victorian paddle-steamer or a Seacat. "The Wolfson Gallery of Trade and Empire" features an emotive waxwork of an elegant 18th-century English lady taking tea beside a manacled black arm reaching out from a ship's hold - a reminder of Joseph Conrad's comment that imperialism "is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much".

"Art and the Sea" closes with a commission from a contemporary artist, the felicitously named Humphrey Ocean. In one corner of his large canvas, The First of England, a lager lout is lying drunk next to a crate of beer on the deck of a cross-Channel ferry. Nobody can accuse this gallery of not being bang up to date.

The new galleries of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London SE10 (0181-312 6565) open on 31 March. Opening hours will be 10am-5pm and entrance will cost pounds 5 (pounds 7.50 from 11 May) for adults, free for children

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum