09 July 2014

Caird Library and the National Maritime Museum

View from the boat

As a special treat today, our class got to ride one of the Thames Clipper boats to Greenwich. Traveling by boat has been my favorite way to see the city so far because it's more scenic than the bus and a lot less stressful than the Tube. Plus, being from the coast I feel like anything on the water is the same as being at home. The scenery definitely changed from old world to new world as you moved eastwards down the Thames.

Lord Nelson's letter
Our class visit in Greenwich was to the Caird Library and archives at the National Maritime Museum. The museum is an interesting mixture of classic and contemporary because the exterior is straight out of the 18th century while the interior is sleek, modern, and boasts state-of-the-art technology. Our guide for the morning was archivist Mike Bevan, who was wonderfully accommodating and showed us some of their world class collections of rare books and correspondence. One of the highlights was one of Lord Nelson's letters that was extremely well-preserved and still had the wax seal affixed to the page. It was suspended in a cardstock frame so we could lift it and examine the "GR" and crown watermark on the paper.

Another fascinating set of items were the travel journals of various sailors and explorers. One had such beautiful watercolor paintings of what the person had seen that it's a shame they could not be framed and put on exhibit. I particularly enjoyed flipping through these visual representations of the journey, and really wished I had time to read all of the stories behind the pictures.

One of the stunning watercolors

The most innovative part of the library itself was an interactive display that allowed the user to look up ships' plans and view or manipulate the images on screen. This would be an invaluable tool for researchers, and also is a fun way to view documents without placing stress on the originals. Another amazing aspect of the library's services is their phenomenal digitization and its presentation on their web site. Many of the letters and handwritten documents we viewed on our tour are available in almost better-than-life quality on the collections web site. This is another way to give access to thousands of people without harming the priceless original documents.

Elizabeth's song
My favorite part of our time in the museum was after our official visit was over. Mike took a few of the students through a "secret" door in the wall of the museum, which gave our whole side trip a decidedly Narnian feel. From there, we went into a part of the archives where they keep the story boxes, or ready-made collections of smaller items that are used for events. Although the box sitting on the shelf for "Lord Nelson's Women" looked intriguing, we were on a mission to see the contents of the "Spanish Armada" and "Pirates" collections. In the Armada box there was a celebration song written by Queen Elizabeth I to commemorate the Armada's defeat. I was so excited to see and touch (through the coverings, of course) something personally written by one of my idols! There was also correspondence to the queen in the Pirates box signed by her chief adviser William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley and her secretary/spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham. Being able to see and touch these documents was absolutely amazing, and I also was able to cultivate a topic for my paper from this last-minute excursion.