National Maritime Museum in London

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The National Maritime Museum (NMM) in Greenwich, England is the leading maritime museum of the United Kingdom and may be the largest museum of its kind in the world. The historic buildings forming part of the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site, it also incorporates the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, and 17th-century Queen's House. The museum is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Like other publicly funded national museums in the United Kingdom, the National Maritime Museum does not levy an admission charge although most temporary exhibitions do incur admission charges.

Creation and official opening

The Museum was created by the National Maritime Act of 1934 Chapter 43, under a Board of Trustees, appointed by H.M. Treasury. It is based on the generous donations of Sir James Caird (1864–1954). King George VI formally opened the Museum on 27 April 1937 when his daughter Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth II accompanied him for the journey along the Thames from London. The first Director was Sir Geoffrey Callender.


Since earliest times Greenwich has had associations with the sea and navigation. It was a landing place for the Romans; Henry VIII lived here; the navy has roots on the waterfront; and Charles II founded the Royal Observatory in 1675 for "finding the longitude of places". The home of Greenwich Mean Time and the Prime Meridian since 1884, Greenwich has long been a centre for astronomical study, while navigators across the world have set their clocks according to its time of day. A painting of the Great Comet of 1843 that was created by astronomer Charles Piazzi Smyth. The Museum has the most important holdings in the world on the history of Britain at sea comprising more than two million items, including maritime art (both British and 17th-century Dutch), cartography, manuscripts including official public records, ship models and plans, scientific and navigational instruments, instruments for time-keeping and astronomy (based at the Observatory). Its British portraits collection is exceeded in size only by that of the National Portrait Gallery and its holdings relating to Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson and Captain James Cook, among many other individuals, are unrivalled.

It has the world's largest maritime historical reference library (100,000 volumes) including books dating back to the 15th century. An active loans programme ensures that items from the collection are seen in the UK and abroad. Through its displays, exhibitions and outreach programmes the Museum also explores our current relationship with the sea and the future of the sea as an environmental force and resource.

By virtue of its pairing with the Royal Observatory, the Museum enjoys a unique conjunction of subjects (history, science and the arts), enabling it to trace the movement and accomplishments of people and the origins and consequences of empire. The outcome of the Museum's work is to achieve, for all its users at home and overseas, a greater understanding of British economic, cultural, social, political and maritime history and its consequences in the world today.

The collection of the National Maritime Museum also includes items taken from Germany after World War II, including several ship models and paintings. The museum has been criticized for possessing what has been described as "Looted art". The Museum regards these cultural objects as "war trophies", removed under the provisions of the Potsdam Conference.

The Museum awards the Caird Medal annually in honour of its major donor, Sir James Caird.

The site

The museum was officially established in 1934 within the 200 acre of Greenwich Royal Park in the buildings formerly occupied by the Royal Hospital School, before it moved to Holbrook in Suffolk. These buildings had previously been occupied by the Royal Naval Asylum before it was incorporated into the Greenwich Royal Hospital School. It includes the Queen's House (part of the historic park-and-palace landscape of "Maritime Greenwich", which was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997) and the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, until 1948 the home of the Royal Greenwich Observatory.

The gardens immediately to the north of the museum were reinstated in the late 1870s following construction of the cut-and-cover tunnel between Greenwich and Maze Hill stations. The tunnel comprised part of the final section of the London and Greenwich Railway and opened in 1878.

Flamsteed House (1675–76), the original part of the Royal Observatory, was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and was the first purpose-built scientific research facility in Britain.

In 1953, the Old Royal Observatory became part of the Museum. Flamsteed House, was first opened for visitors by Queen Elizabeth II in 1960.

The 17th-century Queen’s House, an early classical building designed by Inigo Jones, is the keystone of the historic "park and palace" landscape of maritime Greenwich.

All the Museum buildings have been subsequently upgraded. A full redevelopment of the main galleries, centring on what is now the Neptune Court, and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, was completed in 1999.

The Queen's House was refurbished in 2001 to become the heart of displays of art from the Museum's collection.

In May 2007 a major capital project, "Time and Space", opened up the entire Royal Observatory site for the benefit of visitors. The £16 million transformation features three new modern astronomy galleries, four new time galleries, facilities for collections conservation and research, a learning centre and a 120-seat planetarium (named for the major donor, Peter Harrison) Peter Harrison Planetarium designed to introduce the world beyond the night sky.

At the end of March 2008, the museum announced that Israeli shipping magnate, Sammy Ofer, has given the Museum, £20M for a new gallery. Mr Ofer who has close contacts with the London shipping community, was a Royal Naval sailor, and part of his shipping operation is London-based.

Directors of the National Maritime Museum

  • 1937 to 1946 - Geoffrey Callender
  • 1947 to 1966 - Frank George Griffith Carr
  • 1967 to 1983 - Basil Jack Greenhill
  • 1983 to 1986 - Neil Cossons
  • 1986 to 2000 - Richard Louis Ormond CBE (born 1939)
  • 2000 to 2007 - Rear Admiral Roy Clare (born 1950)
  • 2007 to present - Dr Kevin Fewster

Caird Medal

The Caird Medal was instituted in 1984 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the National Maritime Museum Act of 1934 that established the museum. The medal is awarded annually to "an individual who, in the opinion of the Trustees of the National Maritime Museum, has done conspicuously important work in the field of the Museum's interests and is of a nature which involves communicating with the public. The medal is named for Sir James Caird (1864–1954), the principal donor at the founding of the National Maritime Museum.

The award of the medal is associated with the Caird Lecture, a public lecture presented by the recipient, which is usually published after the lecture.

The Caird Medalists

  • 1984 Eric McKee
  • 1985 Michael S. Robinson
  • 1987 Jules van Beylen
  • 1989 C. R. Boxer
  • 1990 Helen Wallis
  • 1991 John F. Coates and John Sinclair Morrison
  • 1992 Richard Ollard
  • 1993 Gerard L. E. Turner
  • 1994 Glyndwr Williams
  • 1995 Margaret Rule
  • 1996 John de Courcy Ireland
  • 1997 Felipe Fernández-Armesto
  • 1998 Elly Dekker
  • 1999 Elisabeth Mann-Borgese
  • 2000 John Hattendorf
  • 2002 Robert Ballard
  • 2004 Sir David Attenborough
  • 2005 Paul Kennedy
  • 2006 David Armitage
  • 2007 Martin Rees, Baron Rees of Ludlow
  • 2010 Willem F. J. Mörzer Bruyns
  • 2011 Daniel A. Baugh

Other British maritime museums

The National Maritime Museum Cornwall is a fully independent museum, a development of the original FIMI (Falmouth International Maritime Initiative) partnership created in 1992 and the result of collaboration between the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich and the former Cornwall Maritime Museum in Falmouth.

Heritage and Conservation

Nathaniel Lichfield and Partners have advised on planning related issues relating to development at and the conservation of the National Maritime Museum.

Transport connections

Service Station/stop Lines/routes served Distance from
National Maritime Museum
London Buses National Maritime Museum 129, 177, 180, 188, 286, 386
Docklands Light Railway Cutty Sark 0.2 mi walk
National Rail Greenwich Southeastern 0.5 mi walk
Maze Hill 0.4 mi walk
London River Services Greenwich Pier Commuter Service
Westminster to Greenwich Express Service
0.2 mi walk

See also

  • Greenwich Visitor Centre
  • List of London museums
  • National Maritime Museums (list of similarly named museums)
  • National Waterways Museum—the UK's national museum of inland waterway transport
  • Nederlands Scheepvaart Museum (Netherlands Maritime Museum)
  • National Historic Fleet, Core Collection


External links