History’s Greatest Witness Gets Interactive

Great Britain


There’s that dread word again – interactive – and this time its victim is poor old Samuel Pepys.

There’s a tendency to think of London’s great diarist as a dull man living in interesting times, but this is not actually the case. It’s the description of all those dinners that have left this impression, and the equal weight he gives to so many events. In fact the MP and naval administrator was far from ordinary – he had the ear of the king, for a start – and although his diary remains the most famous thing about him he only kept it for nine years, but lived from 1663 to 1703 – and was there ever a more turbulent age?

A quick canter through the salient points: Born in Salisbury Court, off Fleet Street, the fifth of eleven children, but due to the high mortality rate he soon became the oldest survivor. Perhaps it was an indicator of what was to come. Baptised at St Bride’s, he went to St Paul’s and Cambridge, watched the execution of Charles I at 15, married Elizabeth when she was 14, spent his life in permanent pain from bladder stones, lived through the second Dutch war and the Great Plague and saw the Great Fire, shagged about a lot, saw some great plays, wrote over a million words. Now he’s the subject of an exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, where I headed yesterday in a hammering rainstorm.

The museum is now easy to reach from central London, thanks to DLR trains. I’d like to call this a ‘definitive’ exhibition, but it’s not quite, although there are several fine parts, including some excellent portraits and paintings.


Unfortunately you’re first greeted with a gift shop, peculiarly beset with buckets which are either on sale or more mysteriously part of a display, before heading through rooms in which the determination to provide interactivity has caused a loss of imagination.

There’s no diary, alas – the 54 volumes never leave Cambridge – but the Tangier diary is here, and anyway this is about Pepys the man. He’s here partly for his naval connections, after all, so we get nothing on the books’ coded parts, and little on his astounding passion for women beyond a saucy painting of Nell Gwynn, the king’s mistress.

The Restoration and turbulence of the times are covered before we hit a pointlessly huge depiction of the fire, displayed on several screens, which tells us less than a single painting, and a dumb-show of a theatre – yes, Pepys saw ‘Macbeth’, so we don’t have to watch a chunk of it badly performed in silhouette on a mocked-up stage. The Great Plague is covered with little imagination – there’s a parish church’s Bill of Mortality and an incense burner, but no sense of what such a plague is, despite this being an event that resides in the collective memory of everyone raised in Great Britain.

ExhibitionMore disappointing is the use of touch-screens to highlight, well nothing much really, just a few random paragraphs. That’s not interactivity, it’s called ‘reading’. The curators should visit the Churchill Museum and the Wellcome to see how exhibits can be made properly interactive, and surprisingly so.

The best part is about John Smith, who in the early 19th century transcribed the entire early diary. He assumed it was written in code, which he broke by comparing an account of the escape of Charles II from the battle of Worcester with Pepys’s later longhand version. A year after he’d managed this feat he found out that Pepys had actually written in a shorthand system, and that the book from which he learned it was on the shelf above his head.

My advice; it’s a good start before a bracing dip into a volume of the shorter diaries, where you will find the man himself.

A word about the museum itself. The Maritime has changed a lot since I was a boy (I lived nearby and spent my childhood in it). It has rightly received a lot of criticism for massively dumbing down, its treasures thinned out and made child-friendly. The largest area of the first floor is a kids’ play area and Turner’s painting of Trafalgar has been turned into some sort of show. Reading the Greenwich Phantom’s excellent website here proves the point.

As a maritime country we deserve better than this. The Maritime once held an astonishing selection of paintings, statues, histories of Nelson, Drake, Raleigh, artists, life aboard ships, sea battles, trade routes, exploration, a gigantic model of the Battle of Trafalgar and full-scale rooms of a 1920s liner – unless they’re all hiding in a basement somewhere they’ve gone, replaced with simple displays for toddlers. I suspect some items have been spread out to other attractions, but it leaves the museum itself exposed and empty. The problem extends to the patronising large-type website boasting about cafes and gift shops.

9 comments on “History’s Greatest Witness Gets Interactive”

  1. Jan LW says:

    Would love to read the diaries one day. Don’t think I’ll bother with the exhibition in that case! It’s a shame to hear the museum has been dumbed down, they’ve done the same at the Imperial War Museum – it’s now a massive, crowded disappointment. You’re right, we deserve more!

  2. Jo W says:

    Agree with you,Chris,on the parlous state of the Maritime Museum. Where have all the paintings,models and other fascinating things gone. A short bus ride took my brother and me there,in the days of yore, to spend hours wandering about. The last few times I’ve popped in and out again- probably about half an hour. As you said, wide open spaces and little else. Perhaps they are trying to give an idea of what there is on the vast oceans? Nothing much. 😉

  3. davem says:

    There have been a number of excellent exhibitions at the NMM in recent times, particularly Royal River.

    Unfortunately, I found the Pepys exhibition to be distinctly average – they could have done so much more on this fascinating subject.

    The ‘hidden’ exhibits to which you refer are still under ownership of the NMM but are kept in a secure warehouse – their rationale being that they do not have enough space at the museum – a sentiment I thoroughly disagree with.

    Like you, I grew up in the area and remember that it used to employ the available space to much greater effect.

  4. davem says:

    Ohhh … and the Great Fire of London ‘screens’ are woeful – with the technology available today, this should have been so good.

  5. Peter Dixon says:

    Somewhere there must be a mandatory course for museum directors in Advanced Dumbing Down and Pointless Interactivity.

    Maybe exhibition designers are taught that people get confused if they have to read more than 20 words at a time.

    Presumably electricians can’t get hold of buttons that work for more than 1000 presses.

    Looking back at the last 10 museum visits I’ve done only 3 stand out (and one of those was the excellent Natural History Museum), the others were lacking in background information and often in sad state of wear and tear.

    Even sadder is the fact that most stuff on display is about 5% of any museum’s collection – they’ve all got stacks of stuff hidden away that is never seen by the public. On a number of occasions while doing research I’ve been allowed access to various museum’s archives and its truly jaw-dropping what’s locked away.

  6. Vivienne says:

    I visited to see the Turner and the Sea exhibition, which I enjoyed, but agree the rest is rather thin. I pointed out to an attendant/curator? that their information display about tides was so simplistic that it was inaccurate – and this in the Maritime Museum! He agreed, but said there wasn’t room to explain it properly.

    To get into the right watery mood, I try and go by riverboat.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    There isn’t room to explain it properly and instead allow an incorrect simplification take its place!! British tides are complicated because they roll around the whole set of islands but surely you could be given an accurate generalisation. This is really sad. I read a “Selections from Pepys’ Diaries” in my teens back in the 1950s and have since read novels which included him, lots of fun. He was responsible for the Navy at an important time and he died aged only 40.
    The director of the Vancouver Museum was in York when the underground tram ride opened and he was tremendously impressed but said that you had to do something like that really well or it would just be laughed at and to do it really well cost a lot of money. We had a set of extremely well done “permanent ” galleries but we couldn’t afford to change them so citizens came once and then only came again to bring guests. I went to a museum in Portland Oregon which had gone the “interactive” route. Everything was a display with a range of panels which asked a question which could be answered by pressing a button, over half of them not working, of course. We have a fish cannery which still has the machinery installed. They have put in artificial fish and salmon cans and crates and silhouettes of workers so you can follow the process. There are two or three interactive panels which allow you to follow the expansion and contraction of the coastal canning industry (on one map) the different fish caught and a couple of others I don’t remember. (I have a couple of other things to say, but Ken wants to do the drops in my eye – I’ve had cataract surgery- so I’ll say it tomorrow.)

  8. chris hughes says:

    Thank you for this – I was intending to trek up and see this but think I’ll give it a miss. I used to love visiting the Maritime Museum back in the day. It was a regular trip out during the holidays with school friends – we’d meet up, jump on a bus to Tower Bridge, get on one of the pleasure steamers down to Greenwich and spend the day there, always being very particular to stop at the case with Nelson’s blood stained stockings! I remember it as being crammed full of interesting things – perhaps now best left with my memories than being painfully surprised by its current state.
    Pepys was a fascinating character and I dipped into his diaries when I was in my teens and obsessed with history. In fact, I have a guilty conscience whenever someone mentions them because on a visit to Foyles’ secondhand bookshop (another regular jaunt out in the school holidays) I bought the first volume of what seemed to be a very old set and now I get a twinge whenever I think of it drifting through life without its first part! We didn’t know anything about the rude bits then. The BBC dramatized it – or some of it – without what would be today’s requisite nude romping – and Pepys was played by Peter Sallis in a very large wig!

  9. Helen Martin says:

    The public wasn’t allowed to know about the rude bits. (“Better just left out, doncha know, hrmm, hrm.”) I gather the new transcriptions are much more complete. Interesting the attitudes we have had to all that over the years. No one actually published the accusations made against Marie Antoinette because they were too shocking and patently (to the decision makers) false. They are available now and are certainly to me shocking and most probably false.

    As I was saying – museums. They have to decide who their audience is because they can’t be all things to all people. Do you make it all straight forward and accessible to pre teen classes and general interest tourists?
    Do you set it up to explain details and straighten out sequences for adults with some background?
    Do you show a gathering of objects which bring you close to events or individuals – Nelson’s bloody stockings?
    You can’t do it all effectively and if you try you’ll end up with a hodge podge. Personally, I think you go for the first and last. Nelson’s bloody stockings are so real it would draw anyone and if you want a long explanation with diagrams, circles and arrows, get a book. There’s sure to be one in the gift shop. It’s a hard decision, but I think a lot of museums have stripped their galleries bare to get away from “those dusty cases with curled up labels on boring old stuff”. It’s fortunate if there is a ban on selling off collections so when the pendulum swings back all the things they need will be found in storage. I volunteered at our museum and my favourite activity was going through storage.

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