History’s Greatest Witness Gets Interactive
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.
More 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.