diamond geezer

 Saturday, July 16, 2011

It's all change at the National Maritime Museum this week with the opening of the Sammy Ofer wing. That's Sammy Ofer KBE the Israeli shipping magnate, one of the 100 wealthiest people in the world, who donated £20m to allow the museum to expand. Most kind, most welcomed, but alas Sammy died last month at the age of 89 so will never see the fruits of his dosh in operation. All we see of him at the museum is a bronze bust in the atrium, peering out through a none-too-fetching pair of thick-rimmed glasses. [photo]

It may be called the Sammy Ofer 'wing', but in truth it's a brand new entrance. The entire museum has reoriented itself, shutting off the previous gateway near the Old Naval College and forcing everyone to enter from what used to be the rear. This new two-storey addition faces Greenwich Park, but is sufficiently low-set not to wreck the fine architecture behind [photo]. Access is via a long ramp, complete with large and small stepped waterfalls, the latter ideal for a barefoot splash (youngsters only). The first thing you'll see is the cafe, which I think is a phrase I've used in the review of every new public building I've been to visit this year. This one has a sun terrace which should entice passing park users in for a cake and a cuppa, or will do when London 2012 finally get round to dismantling their equestrian test event arena opposite. Perfection postponed.

At first glance, on entering, the new wing appears to be mostly empty space. A circulatory atrium with seats to lounge in, plus a square hole leading down to the basement. At second glance you'll spot a cloakroom, cafe, brasserie and a side gallery, but the nagging feeling that this is mostly empty space never quite goes away. The single gallery is called Voyagers and purports to show true highlights from the museum's collection. It's a fairly brief gallery, mostly taken up with by a long low wavelike screen which displays almost-interesting graphics, while the true artefacts are lined up densely along the far wall. They're all arranged by character, not chronologically, so there's Nelson's handwritten letters in one part and a gold pocket watch rescued from the Titanic in another. A nice touch is a barcoded "Compass card" which you can scan at certain exhibits to save their story to read later. Or it would be a nice idea if it worked, but only one of my scans made it as far as the computer terminal in the adjacent lounge (so I may never hear the "Legends from Hull" that I was promised).

The museum's library/archive has relocated to the new wing, but that's not a space accessible to the casual visitor. Instead they'll be drawn to the shop nextdoor, filling a space which used to be a gallery, where now you can buy new stuff rather than looking at old stuff. I do like the museum's new logo, a crown-like splash of water, but I don't like it enough to buy a mug or any of the of the other stencilled goodies on sale. But what I did do, because I wanted to see the basement, is buy a ticket for the museum's newly-opened exhibition. A timed ticket, no less, although the non-existent queue on afternoon number two suggested that no chronological rationing was required. Six pounds to look inside one room in a basement... it had better be good.

High Arctic - National Maritime Museum (14 July 2011 - 13 January 2012)
It's not your usual museum fodder. No ancient objects with paper labels, nor touchscreen displays imparting historic fact. No, this is "an immersive installation", a sound and light show, something you'd more normally expect to find in a very-modern art gallery. The concept is this. A bunch of artists were packed off to the Arctic island of Svalbard, and toured around the place to see glaciers, wildlife and ice floes. Then they mulled over what they'd seen, in particular how global warming might wipe this fragile environment clean away, and generated works of art in response. Hence what we have here is a darkened room, into which are beamed visual effects and an all-enveloping soundscape, in the hope of conveying something of our polar future [video]. Visitors are given an ultraviolet torch on the way in, and the idea is to shine it on various surfaces inside the gallery to reveal hidden text. That text turns out to be the names of 1000 glaciers that might not survive the century, each name written on top of a separate grey column laid out geometrically across the floor. It's interesting picking out the names for the first couple of minutes, then I'm afraid loses its appeal somewhat through over-familiarity. Various stories and poems are broadcast across the room, although I found these perversely abstract and quite hard to follow. Then there are four electronic displays projected onto the floor, and these are by far the best feature. One, a map, seems fairly innocuous until you discover that pointing your torch at it makes more information appear. Another uses white squares to represent ice floes, and you can probably guess that shining a UV torch on these has a disturbingly warming effect. Best is the underfoot snowstorm, a most effective amalgam of pinpoints of white light, which occasionally swirl around your entire body like a blizzard. The entire experience is an intriguing concept, but somehow not quite evocative of a freezing threatened landscape. Indeed I found it hard to shake the feeling that I was merely walking around a large room filled with plastic blocks, cleverly illuminated, rather than the windswept wastes of the High Arctic. If you like a light show, and a damned clever interactive light show at that, it's worth a visit. But if electronic symbolism leaves you cold, best spend your six quid on a few ice creams in the cafe.

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