Category Archives: museum reviews

Sicily comes to Blighty

As some readers of my travel journals may know, I visited Sicily in the spring of 2015 for an exhaustive study trip. Sicily is a ridiculously easy place to fall in love with despite her flaws. I’ve grown increasingly fascinated with the rich history of the island and I’ve been lapping up stories from her history since I returned. It’s a place of stark contrasts, irresistable food and dramatic landscapes. However, for my money the main draws are the archaeological sites. In particular, Greek colonists took their homegrown architecture and supersized it, everything seems bigger and ever so slightly flamboyant. A temple on Sicily is a Greek temple on steroids.

Come to Sicily for the temples, stay for the multi faceted history of the peoples who erected them.

Whether you have a penchant for military history, naval warfare, underwater archaeology or even (whisper it) a secret flirtation with medieval history, Sicily draws you in with a warm, lemon scented hug.

I was therefore very pleased to learn that two major museums on my home turf were to have Sicilian themed exhibitions this summer. The British Museum has an exhibition called Culture and Conquest running until August 14th and the Ashmolean has Storms, War and Shipwrecks: Treasures from the Sicilian Seas until September 25th.

I decided to visit both in two days with a lecture thrown in for good measure to fondly reminisce and hopefully see some of the pieces that I missed due to the Palermo museum closure. If only Maria Grammatico could also make the trip north my 48 hours would be complete!

And so to the British Museum (as if I ever need an excuse…) for a dose of wide eyed wonder and lots of contented sighs.

The larger exhibition space was taken up by Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds (which I’ll describe later,) and so the Sicily exhibition was rather restricted in scale.

Last year I was cursing the temporary closure of the Regional Archaeological Museum Antonio Salinas in Palermo. At every archaeological site on the western side of the island were signs declaring that the statue/frieze/metope from this temple/sanctuary/city could be found on display in Palermo. I was denied entry to an Aladdin’s cave. This London exhibition would be, I hoped, my chance to catch up on missed treasures.

Not so much…

The exhibition had large posters of Sicilian sites that made me long to return but was, for my insatiable appetite, a little light on actual exhibits. Call me greedy, but the sheer volume of artifacts in even the teeniest of provincial Sicilian museums can spoil a girl. What British museums do increasingly do well is signage. The BM had lots of large maps and info boards to give context to what was on show. Cohesion was sometimes lacking on my trip with some Italian museums preferring to group artifacts by type rather than giving a chronological narrative. I also don’t have to worry about my abysmal grasp of the Italian language…

I would have loved to take a few photos but they were forbidden. I find this policy a bit strange, there were no restrictions on the exact same pieces when they were displayed at their homes in Sicilian museums. For blogging purposes I’ll use my photos from last year.

I enjoyed seeing a few familiar friends like this marble statue of a warrior from Akragas (Agrigento.) The BM has beautifully lit this piece, (far better than Agrigento Archaeological Museum, if I’m honest…) so it was a shame not to be able to photograph him this time around, but for nostalgia purposes it was great to see him again.

Temple of Concord #valledeitempli #agrigento #sicily

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The exhibition is a perfect introduction ti Sicilian history so while I didn’t learn anything new at the BM this time around, I did get to see a few nice pieces that I hadn’t managed to get to last year. In particular there were some lovely exhibits from Gela.

This snake-headed bracelet (one of a pair) and gold ring were discovered on Sicily with hoards of gold and silver coins. All were deliberately buried by their owner, who intended to recover them but never returned. Around this time, about 330–300 BC, there was political unrest on the island and the added threat of attack from invading forces. For much of its history, Sicily was admired and envied for its wealth and fertility. In Greek Sicily, wealth was displayed through sumptuously decorated homes and gold jewellery like this. Learn more about the rise of Greek Sicily and its lasting impact in our #SicilyExhibition, until 14 August 2016. Gold bracelet and ring. Found at Avola, Sicily, about 330–300 BC. #jewellery #bracelet #Sicily #gold #ancientGreece

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These 2,000-year old terracotta figures depict the gods of #love. Scantily clad and casually poised, Aphrodite and winged Eros are typical of the terracotta and pottery workshops of the town of Centuripe in Greek Sicily. Terracotta modellers and potters in Centuripe favoured large, flamboyant, brilliantly coloured figures. Although sometimes found in graves, these may originally have been made to decorate the houses of the rich. Rivalling the most culturally dynamic Greek regions, Sicily became an arena for artists and intellectuals during this period. See these wonderful objects in our #SicilyExhibition, until 14 August 2016. Terracotta figures of the gods of love, painted after firing. Centuripe, #Sicily, about 200 BC. #Italy #history #ancientGreece

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The highlight of the day instead came from the accompanying lecture given by Dr Michael Scott. I had high expectations having been so impressed with his book about Delphi (as I reviewed here) that I eagerly devoured in the weeks running up to my trip to Delphi in May 2014 (insert shameless plug for my travel journal here…) Modern historians can so easily over simplify their subject to patronise their readers/viewers (mentioning no names of course!) or conversely wrap themselves up in a dense fug of academia in an arrogant attempt to repel the casual audience members. Dr Scott mercifully does neither in his books or broadcasts.

Dr Scott chose to talk about ancient Sicily not from what they left behind them at home, but abroad. As an expert on Delphi it was not a surprise that the sanctuary featured heavily along with Olympia. Personally I was thrilled to learn of the many ways my two favourite places in the ancient world were linked.

It’s important to remember that Delphi was the centre of the world for Greeks and if Sicilian cities wanted to make an impression on the world they needed to head to Delphi to do it. One could never set foot on Sicilian soil, but by visiting Delphi they would have been able to see Sicilian art and architecture, read of the exploits of Sicilians tyrants, watch Sicilian athletes, listen to Sicilian musicians and have a chat with any Sicilians also making a pilgrimage.

I visited Delphi 12 months before Sicily, otherwise I may have noticed just how many Sicilian connections are there.

For instance, I didn’t pay that much attention to this base before and I can’t recall reading a sign about it. Even if I had, Gelon was a name that had popped up in my reading but I probably wouldn’t become well acquainted with the tyrant of Gela and Syracuse for another year.

The base once supported a bronze column topped with a statue of Nike with a tripod above her. Gelon had erected this close to the temple of Apollo within a stone’s throw of the serpent column and tripod celebrating the Greek victory over the Persian invaders at Plataia in 479BC. Gelon’s structure was a celebration over his victory at Himera over the Carthaginians. Gelon was apparently very keen for the Greek world to know that his victory over a worthy foe was just as important and deserving of respect as a victory over Persians (which was a war that Gelon coincidentally refused to contribute to…)

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On the right, (which to my shame, I did not bother fitting in the frame) can be seen another base of another tripod dedicated by Gelon’s brother and successor, Hieron I. According to Dr Scott, Hieron made sure his monument was ever so slightly more impressive that of his brother, today only the slightly larger base leaves a clue.

Hieron left a greater impression on Delphi than his tripod, however. It seems a little strange that one of the highlights of the Delphi museum should be Sicilian.

Four years after defeating the Etruscans in naval combat at Cumae (initiating the decline of Etruscan dominance in Italy,) Hieron balanced his tyrant duties with being a top ranking athlete. He won the the chariot race in the Pythian Games at Delphi in 470BC, inspiring Pindar to write his 1st Pythian Ode. Hieron continued to compete at Delphi and Olympia picking up further prizes.

Hieron commissioned the bronze statue to commemorate his athletic prowess and installed it close to the temple of Apollo. It originally also featured four bronze horses along with slaves holding their reins, now sadly lost.

The lecture was fascinating and I am now pining to return to Sicily AND Delphi. I could write far more, instead I urge you to keep an eye on the Hellenic Society YouTube channel as everything was filmed.

Should anyone spot a lecture by Dr Scott, I urge you to grab a ticket. Watching anyone talk about a subject they so evidently love is always a joy to watch and Dr Scott is so effortlessly engaging it is impossible not to be swept up with him. I only wish I could persuade him to actually guide me around Sicily and Delphi instead of a lecture room in London.

Should you be brazen enough, Dr Scott was also gracious enough to chat with a few of us afterwards and was a delight to talk to. I left the museum with a spring in my step.

The following day it was the turn of the Ashmolean. I have a deep love of underwater archaeology as I find a certain romance to things being found where they were never meant to be. Little stirs my soul like a shipwreck does, so the Ashmolean exhibition called to me like a siren.

Again, no photography, again, no one in Sicily cared…

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Hercules has made the journey from Catania to Oxford for a holiday…

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This statue was brought up from the sea floor off the coast of Lilybaeum, now known as Marsala. It’s possible to tell which side of the statue was safely buried and which side was exposed to currents and sea life.

It was lovely to see part of the exhibition dedicated to the work of underwater archaeoligy pioneer Honor Frost. I’d had the pleasure of viewing the jewel of her maritime excavations when I went to Marsala to see the remains of a Carthaginian warship sunk off of the Egadi islands.

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The Ashmolean exhibition added to my excitement by including several bronze rams found on the seafloor. One Carthaginian ram displayed the dents made by bashing into a Roman ship, a Roman ram still had a chunk of Carthaginian ship wedged in. It’s strange to think that had they not fallen into the sea, these rams would have been carted off to Rome to adorn the rostrum in the Forum.

The Ashmolean puts on a good show, but so far I’ve yet to see anyone (including the Underwater Archaeology Museum in Bodrum!!!) put on a better exhibition about shipwrecks than the 2014 Antikythera show at the National Archaeology Museum in Athens. I fear I’ve been spoiled for life…

 

Statue from the Antikythera shipwreck

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Roman Silchester

Nestled away amongst the rolling farmland of my native Hampshire lies a hidden relic of the years England spent as a Roman province. An entire Roman town, in fact, lies inches beneath the grassy fields full of docile cows.

Silchester now is a tiny village clinging to the edges of the Roman town walls and doesn’t boast about its illustrious past.

From the first century BC, the british branch of a tribe called the Atrebates set up the town of Calleva as the main settlement of their territory.  They built earthenwork defences and lived in roundhouses. There’s evidence of trade with mediterranean regions and it seems the Atrebates lived in some luxury. When the Romans decided to pop over the Channel for a little invasion Calleva may well have been a stopping off point for a legion or two. The Romans then proceeded to modernise Calleva with an improved grid-style streetplan, temples, apartment blocks and a rather smart basilica. In the second half of the first century AD an amphitheatre was constructed just beyond the town walls that could hold over 5,000 bloodthirsty spectators. It is now held together by the roots of the trees that have grown from the seating areas.

The once prosperous site was completely abandoned after the Romans left Britain, and unlike many other towns the Anglo-Saxons never bothered to move in. This means that there is a wonderful layer of unsullied archaeology just beneath the surface. I was lucky enough to visit during the annual summer excavations conducted by Reading University. You can follow them on twitter (@silchexcavation) or ‘like’ their facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/Silchester

If you get a chance to watch them work, it is absolutely fascinating. The archaeologists are also wonderfully talkative and will happily spend hours explaining what they are doing and showing off their finds.

I managed to take some lovely photos of the amphitheatre, walls and archaeological dig. I miraculously managed to visit on the single day that the sun has been shining! I’ve popped them into an album on my facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.427309120644674.87243.426479007394352&type=1

The site is free to visit and is fabulous for an atmospheric picnic or dog walk. There are brilliantly informative signs dotted around the site complete with maps, diagrams and illustrations provided by English Heritage.

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Syon House – When Can I Move In?

When a friend asked me to cat-sit for a week, my immediate thought was “where is the nearest stately home?” That thought was closely followed by “how do I get cats to like me?” A quick google came up with a)Syon House and b)give them food.

Which brings me to today. After being woken up by a hungry cat jumping onto my bum at 6am, I charged up my camera and got myself ready for a morning of columns and cornices.

I’ve been wanting to visit Syon for a while as it has served as the backdrop for some major events in British history.

Henry V founded Syon Abbey in 1426 and it was a successful convent right up until Henry VIII decided to have a strop. Syon Abbey had been home to two people who had really got Henry in a tizz. Elizabeth Barton got right on the royal tits when she decided to publicly show her opposition to Henry dumping Catherine of Aragon so that he could bonk Anne Boleyn.

Barton, being a Catholic nun, was funnily enough in favour of keeping the Catholic Catherine as Queen. She frequently met with Sir Thomas More, another Catherine supporter, at Syon Abbey to bond over their opposition to the Reformation. Barton had become famous as the Holy Maid of Kent, spouting ‘prophecies’ that warned of dire consequences for anyone who did anything to annoy the Pope. As the Pope was apoplectic at the plans to give Catherine the boot, Barton dutifully fired off one of her famous prophecies. She loudly proclaimed that if Henry married Anne Boleyn he’d be dead soon after the wedding.

As furious as Henry was, he couldn’t arrest her for mere talking, yet. So instead he started a whisper campaign that Barton was bonkers and frequently had rampant sex with priests. He then made it legal to prosecute people for past actions even if those actions had been within the law at the time. Barton was arrested on charges of treason and hanged at Tyburn without trial in 1534. She also has the dubious honour of being the only woman whose head was mounted on a spike on London Bridge.

Another Syon resident and friend of More and Barton was a monk named Richard Reynolds. With his bezzie mate Thomas More in the Royal doghouse for snubbing the coronation ceremony of Anne Boleyn, Reynolds decided to also take a stand. He refused to take the oath that proclaimed Henry as head of the Church in England. Henry, by now, was losing his patience and acted swiftly. Reynolds was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, where Barton had been executed little over a year previously. He’s now a Catholic saint.

By now Henry was not the biggest fan of Syon Abbey and it’s inhabitants. They were evicted and fled to the continent. Henry then seized the property for the Crown, as was his habit.

By the time he was on wifey number 5, Catherine Howard, Henry was even grumpier and even more vindictive. The marriage was doomed. Surprisingly, the very young, very flirtatious Catherine found young men her own age rather more attractive than her morbidly obese, ageing, permanently cantankerous hubby. Upon the discovery that his ‘rose without a thorn’ was actually a bit of a tart, Henry decided that perhaps he didn’t want to be married to a brazen little hussy any more and that perhaps he should get rid of her. Cue the famous story of Catherine screaming Hampton Court Palace down after being charged with treason.

After being stripped of her queenship Henry imprisoned Catherine at Syon Abbey, making sure that two rooms were “furnished moderately as her life and condition hath deserved.” Having become rather used to piles of jewellery and fabulous interior decor, Catherine found the drab rooms rather depressing. They didn’t even have tapestries. Despite this, apparently Catherine spent her time at Syon behaving as imperiously as she ever did as Queen. Eventually the time came for Catherine to be taken to the Tower for execution. She had to be dragged, screaming, into the boat at Syon Abbey that would take her to her death.

The Abbey would have  revenge on Henry for bringing such misery and tragedy to its doors. When he died in 1547 his funeral procession stopped off at Syon overnight on the trip to Windsor. By this time he’d been dead a while, and Tudor morticians weren’t exactly wonderfully talented. The hugely corpulent King had begun to decompose. Whilst at Syon Abbey the coffin began to leak the putrefied King all over the floor, where the resident dogs gleefully started feasting on it. A very undignified end for one who had caused undignified ends for so many others.

Soon afterwards the Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset moved in. His sister Jane had been wifey number three to old Henry and had died soon after giving birth to the long awaited male heir, also named Edward. Still a sprog when daddy died, Edward VI had Uncle Eddie working as Lord Protector until he was old enough to rule alone. Uncle Eddie needed a London pad close to court to suit his new rank and proceeded to build a grand Renaissance house on the old Abbey foundations. Unfortunately, Uncle Eddie got a bit too big for his boots, and so like so many Syon residents before him, Seymour was executed in 1552 for supposedly plotting against his nephew.

Edward VI, meanwhile, was growing up to be a sickly youth who nevertheless had strong views about the future of his nation. The last thing he wanted was for his sister Mary to become Queen as she had a massive chip on her shoulder about the whole Reformation thing. So Edward went with an early version of his dad’s will, one that didn’t include his sisters inheriting. Henry had annulled his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, so essentially that made Mary illegitimate. And Henry had thoughtfully annulled his marriage to Anne Boleyn before lopping off her head, so that made Elizabeth a bastard too. Although there’s been much debate over which version of the will was the legal one, Edward decided to stick with the version that named his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, as the heir to the throne.

I have to admit I rather like Jane. She was a geeky bookworm who spoke in more languages than some of the male politicians of her time and was more widely read even as a teenager. I often wonder what our country would be like now if she’d have been given a chance to reign. All accounts of her paint her as a very wise, level headed young lady. Jane was staying at Syon when she received the news that  the fifteen year old Edward had passed away and that she was therefore Queen. Although apparently reluctant, even in the nine days she spent shoring up her throne at the Tower she proved herself to be a worthy monarch. For instance, she refused to proclaim her useless husband Guilford king as she knew that he was a feather brained lump. However, we all know what happened next. The curse of Syon struck again and Jane was beheaded.

As Queen, Mary tried to restore the Abbey to its former glory. After all, they had been loud and staunch supporters of her mum. However as soon as Mary kicked the Royal bucket her firmly Protestant sister Elizabeth promptly evicted everyone again and they fled to the continent again. The nuns did return to England, but not until Victoria was on the throne a few of centuries later.

The house, meanwhile, was snapped up by Henry Percy, the 9th Earl of Northumberland and Elizabethan courtier. When Lizzie bit the big one, stuttering Percy found that relatives can be a pain in the backside. His cousin Thomas was one of the Gunpowder Plotters, and in the days that followed the failed assassination Henry became implicated in the plot and consequently spent the next 15 years of his life incarcerated in the Tower. Given the fates of previous residents of the Syon estate, he must have been thanking his lucky stars, especially as by all accounts he spent his time at the Tower in some style. Mercifully for the Percys their estates weren’t confiscated and Syon House has been the London residence of the Earls of Northumberland ever since.

During that time the house has been shot at (during the Battle of Brentford) and hosted a royal birth (although Prince George, son of Queen Anne, died within hours of his birth.)

If a history with more angst and tragedy than an episode of Eastenders isn’t enough to convince you to visit, the architecture should.

I am a classicist at heart, and anything Neo-Classical gets my heart skipping a beat. That meant that within minutes of entering Syon House I was constantly on the verge of needing a defibrillator.

By the 1760s the house needed a bit of TLC and John Adam was drafted in to give the place a makeover. A lover of all things ancient, Adam started to turn Syon into a love letter to classical architecture and interior design. If, like me, you’ve worked in stately homes you may have suffered from an overdose of gilt, but here I didn’t get that feeling of being slapped in the face by a designer with a passion for gold leaf, despite it being used a lot on the ground floor. Adam filled the house with elegant scagliola columns and antique statues. Although John Adam only finished a portion of the ground floor, what he did create is visually stunning. The rest of the house is filled to the rafters with beautiful portraits of famous past inhabitants and guests. I’m a Lely fan myself, but you can’t go wrong with Van Dyck.

Other highlights are the grounds which were landscaped by Capability Brown, crowned with a beautiful conservatory that Horrible Histories fans will immediately recognise as a stand in for the Crystal Palace.

On a professional level I was pleased to note that nearly all of the wardens initiated conversation. Hallelujah! No hesitating to engage here! Only one, (male, tellingly) steadfastly refused to talk to me. Perhaps it was because I was wearing trainers and not a twin set and pearls, because he was more than happy to follow some well heeled middle aged ladies around for ten minutes talking at them. Just because I am in my twenties and I wear jeans does not mean I do not appreciate a nice Sevres vase, Mr Warden. Tut tut. Go and de-fluff your ill fitting tweed jacket and contemplate on your behaviour! However, the less stuffy ladies more than made up for his snobbery and I chatted with every single one of them for quite some time. I’ve always maintained that this makes the difference between a good and a great visitor experience. Bravo, ladies of Syon!

In short, or actually, quite lengthy, you should visit Syon House. You definitely won’t regret it, and the ticket price in comparison to similar stately homes is practically a steal. Also, top marks for a very well written and presented guidebook, which is full of lovely photos and has that lovely, luxurious feel to the touch.

If you haven’t already started planning a day trip to Brentford, then what is keeping you!? In the meantime do peruse the Syon Park website for visitor information: http://www.syonpark.co.uk/index.asp

5 out of 5 stars and a huge, enthusiastic thumbs up!

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SeaCity Museum, Southampton – Review

Attraction: SeaCity Museum

Location: Southampton, UK

Website: http://www.seacitymuseum.co.uk/

Date of Visit: 25th May 2012

SeaCity Museum is located at the back of Southampton Guildhall. My reason for visiting was to mark the centennial year of the sinking of the Titanic by visiting the museum’s Titanic exhibition. SeaCity does have an entire gallery dedicated to the history of the city going right back to prehistory named “Gateway to the World,” which is temporarily diverting but fails to capture the imagination. Nope, the real star of this museum is the two Titanic galleries. SeaCity knows that 99% of their visitors come to the museum with the Titanic in mind and, rather admirably, don’t try to deny it.

The ground floor houses the special exhibition space which is currently devoted to the Titanic. This particular gallery is an added bonus for those with an interest in the ship, and it will close at the end of summer 2013. I urge you to catch it before it goes.

The special exhibition focusses on “Titanic: The Legend” and is a good example of imaginative use of gallery space combined with thoughtful displays. The first eye catching attraction is a bank of television screens showing repeated loops of Titanic as portrayed on film, including the notorious Nazi propaganda movie that shows Titanic as the British Gomorrah, and the catastrophe itself as a just reckoning for the appalling lack of morals in Allied nations.

Moving on, there is a two storey high wall displaying various Titanic memorabilia. Bravo to SeaCity for having the balls to display items that many would regard as misguided at best and deeply offensive at worst. DVDs, books and commemorative crockery are on show alongside a Titanic Barbie and ‘Gin and Titonic’ icecube trays in the shapes of the liner and the iceburg that sank her. Whilst the story of the ship and the souls on board are endlessly fascinating, some of the products created by money grabbing opportunists willing to dance on a few graves for a dollar are a psychological marvel.

Next up is ther adjoining wall, on which stick figures representing every passanger aboard are divided into groups by class of ticket. If the stick man has been coloured in, the person represented survived. If left a rather sombre grey, the person was lost. If you had nervously laughed at the tacky souvenirs you’ve just seen, then this wall does a pretty efficient job of reminding the visitor of the scale of the tragedy that inspired them. It is indeed a sobering sight, but even more poignant are the portable stickmen arranged below with little lifeboats with slots waiting to be filled. Each of the figures is painted with the ticket class colour code of the diagram above and has a name and brief biography printed on the chest. The visitor must decide who to place in a lifeboat and who must stay onboard the liner to await their fate. This is sure to provoke debate amongst the families and groups of friends visiting, as it should. 100 years later, would you stick to the women and children first stance of that night or would you instead judge each case by personal merit? Would you choose for the more ‘useful’ members of society to survive and sacrifice the housewives? I absolutely applaud the willingness of SeaCity to provoke the debate. It’s a thought that will remain with you long after you arrive back home.

One of the stars of the exhibition is one of the actual ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicle) that dived the wreck to bring us back the incredibly footage that is played on loop on a screen beside it.

Moving upstairs, we reach the permanent Titanic exhibition space, “Southampton’s Titanic Story.” As a Portsmouth native, I’m ashamed to say that I was ignorant as to just how integral my neighbouring city was to the Titanic Story. Most of us know (if only from the 1997 film) that Titanic sailed from Southampton, but it was only thanks to the recent barrage of anniversary documentaries (particularly Len Goodman’s, funnily enough) that I realised just how tied together they were. SeaCity does an excellent job of remembering and displaying those ties.

First thing first, the visitor is faced with a wall literally filled with playing card sized rectangles, each representing a member of the Titanic’s crew. Each name and profession is recorded, and if a photo survives it is included. On a wall of grey, each crew member who actually lived in Southampton is highlighted in bright orange. The vast swathes of orange that indicate that circa 75% of the crew were local to Southampton are so stunning that I was taken aback. Next up, we are introduced to six local crew members in a bit more detail, including Captain Smith, Second Officer Lightoller, coal trimmer Walter Fredericks, First Class stewardess Mabel Bennett, Third Class steward Sidney Sedunary and look out Archie Jewell. We’ll be following these characters throughout the exhibition finding out more of their life on board, not knowing their fate untilt he final room.

Following on, we take a stroll through the streets on Southampton complete with black and white photos blown up to life size and audio loops of Edwardian Southampton residents discussing the ship’s imminent launch.

Reaching a larger space we learn more about the preparations involved for a transatlantic voyage on the world’s largest moving object. Items needed aboard are listed in mind boggling quantities. For a week long voyage, for instance, Titanic was armed with 45,000 napkins.

A diagram showing the size of Titanic in comparison with the museum itself drew a few gasps from fellow visitors whilst I was there, but the piece de resistance of the room is the 1:25 scale diagram of the ship’s layout, complete with touch screens that play actual contemporary footage filmed aboard Olympic, Titanic’s sister ship. And don’t forget our 6 crew members, this diagram will show you exactly where they worked.

Next up is a room that children will go nuts for. Mercifully, as a weekday, kids were nowhere to be seen and I was able to indulge my inner child. A simulator tests your ability to safely steer the ship with increasingly levels of difficulty. You have a proper ship’s wheel and you determien the speed at which the ship sails. Apparently I was a ‘natural’ and the digital captain was convinced I’d sailed before. (I have, but only a dinghy. Still, must be my Naval blood coming to the fore.) And if that wasn’t enough, kids big and small can also sovel coal into glowing boilers. Careful you don’t shovel to slowly or too enthusiastically, or alarms will ring warning you of dangerous pressure levels.

After the fun of participation, SeaCity once more makes sure you remain appropriately sombre by plunging you into a dark cinema area. Audio recordings of survivors recounting the experience (recorded about 20 years ago) play and their accounts are subtitled on screen against a watery backdrop. The memories of the survivors are ten times more emotive than anything Julian Fellowes came up with in that atrocious dramatisation. Thank Heaven’s the lights were kept dim as we listened, because more than one of us, myself included, had tears rolling down our cheeks as we heard Edith Haisman, Eva Hart and Sidney Daniels tell us what it was really like to witness a tragedy on such an enormous scale.

Sidney Sedunary, one of the crewmembers that we are following, is remembered in this room. His pocket watch is displayed, and long after the hands have rusted away, their shadows still point to 1.50am, 15th April 1912. It is an emotional punch when you realise that the clock stopped working when Sidney finally hit the water. Out of everything in this exhibition, this for me was the most important, a tangible witness to a catastrophe. I therefore question why it is placed at the back of the room, opposite the screen that draws the attention. More than half of the visitors completely missed it whilst I was there. The accompanying sign is tiny. It is such a shame that so many visitors blithely walk past this amazing piece of history because of poorly conceived layout. It was a rare misstep for SeaCity.

Moving back into well lit rooms, the next area is just as tearjerking. Southampton is mapped out in black on the white plastic floor. A red dot the size of a 10 pence piece marks the site of a Southampton house that lost a family member on board the Titanic. There are red dots everywhere. No neighbourhood was left untouched by the disaster. In one school, half of the pupils were left fatherless overnight. The walls of the room are devoted to newspaper articles reporting the disaster, with sometimes dramatically conflicting information.

The final room is one of the most imaginative museum galleries I’ve yet seen. A full size courtroom is recreated complete with jury stalls and dock. Visitors sit in the place of judges and listen to actors recreating the enquiry that followed the sinking. Photos of the men speaking are shown on screens. It is fascinating listening to actual witness statements from such people as Officer Lightoller, the surviving look out and marconi operator, and the notorious J Bruce Ismay. The questions asked, and the replies given, are sure to shock. One of my favourite features of this room is one that I didn’t use. Whilst grown ups listen in sombre silence to incriminating evidence, children who would have struggled to sit still and quietly for long enough for the loop to finish have been provided with an activity that will keep them happily busy. An ingenious (and mercifully silent) device is placed just in front of the judge’s seat. Either sharing the task with a parent or sibling, or taking one handle in each hand, a child can attempt to lower a lifeboat from the boatdeck to the water. If the handles aren’t turned evenly, the boat will tilt precariously and a red light will announce that you’ve failed. However, with a bit of team work, you can successfully lower a boat without any casualties and earn a friendly green light. As well as a welcome distraction, surrounding adults can also see how difficult it must have been to launch those boats successfully under such circumstances.

Finally, we learn the fates of the six crewmembers that have popped up regularly along the route, and the board of playing card crew biographies with Southampton residents highlighted in orange is repeated, only this time the words LOST AT SEA are emblazoned on over three quarters of the crew members pictures.

Overall, the museum is clean (well, it is new!) well lit, spacious and thoughtfully designed. The information is displayed in imaginative ways that remain poignant without ever descending into cloying sentimentality.

I have only a few gripes. If there was any air conditioning, it wasn’t switched on. SeaCity has no windows and my visit coincided with a heatwave. It was unpleasantly distracting having to contend with the odour of stale sweat as the temperatures inside the exhibition steadily rose. There wasn’t even a small fan to attempt to get the hot, heavy air circulating. There is no excuse for such an oversight in a brand new, modern museum. I visited towards the end of day, so even if the air conditioning had packed up, there had been time to try and rectify the situation.

As mentioned before, for a museum blessed with such a draw as the pocket watch, it baffles me as to why a curator would choose to hide it at the back of a darkened room.

The gift shop is small and sparse. Given time I hope that SeaCity can expand their range is souvenirs with more variety and suiting all budgets. After paying £8.50 entrance I’m less inclined to spend £20+ on the least expensive book or £5 on a pack of 10 postcards of newspaper articles.

And lastly, the bit I’m most qualified to talk about, the gallery staff.

I was pleased to note that when we entered the special exhibition, the young guy manning the area did bother to say hello. However it looked less than impressive that he was slumped on a bench reading a book. Granted, it was off-peak and quiet, but posture costs nothing. He was so engrossed in the book (that was intended for visitors, ie me and not him, to peruse) that he wouldn’t have noticed if I’d danced nude around the gallery.

Worse, the entire permanent exhibition route took at least an hour to see. I only saw one girl the entire time. She had even brought her own book with her. I first found her hiding in the cinema, and then she quietly snuck into courtroom. At no point did she talk to a visitor, or even initiate eye contact. She looked bored and she didn’t smile. I have high standards in my own work and I expect my peers to have them too. I make it a point to initiate eye contact with visitors, if only so that they know I’m around to help or answer questions. Hiding in a shadowy corner is lazy and unprofessional.

That said, I did really enjoy the museum as did my family. I give SeaCity a solid 4.5/5 and congratulate them on a museum well executed.

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