by Don Grant
Royal Museums Greenwich
This well-known and last-surviving tea and wool clipper has now been re-opened by H M The Queen after several years, and a £50m makeover, mainly funded by the Lottery.
Nicholas Grimshaw is the architect responsible for glazing over the dry dock, which puts one in mind of Foster and Partners’ Great Court at the British Museum, but the ship does not sit easily on this glasshouse, as its elegant and beautiful lines are lost in a sea of glass, although it does sit well in it. It is only when one goes down to the bottom of the graving dock and sees the stunning spectacle of the craft supported some 10ft off the ground by a dozen outriggers, one appreciates the sheer scale and bulk of the vessel as well as the shape and construction of the canopy.
Visitors can look up at the whole 280ft length of the keel and copper-clad hull, which is a unique sight. Once inside the boat, visitors are assaulted at almost every turn by interactive displays, monitors and animatronic figures, which seems to be the common currency in current museum design, rather than letting the objects speak for themselves.
They certainly missed a trick when talking at us about tea, the clipper‘s original cargo from China - there were a few tea-chests stacked up, but no smell of tea. How easy would it have been to introduce an evocative olfactory element, which would have said more than a dozen interactives?
One mystifying ‘interactive’ display ressembled a coffin-sized box which was rocking itself back and forwards; it transpired that, if one was to sit on it, this would simulate the rocking of a boat! Please!
The surrounding area of copper-bronze-clad buildings and restaurants on the pier are all pretty tawdry, particularly in this, a World Heritage Site in the recently declared Royal Borough of Greenwich. However, it is trying to attract a massive audience from the countless thousands here in London for the Olympics, and taste takes to the lifeboats when the lowest common denominator hits rock bottom; this is underpinned by a major thrust on the events and corporate market, with parties and wedding receptions being targeted.
The figurehead collection, the largest in the world, were all acquired by a Victorian maritime collector, Sydney Cumbers, who housed them in The Lookout, his home in Gravesend, and kindly donated them to the Cutty Sark trust in 1953. The only one he did not purchase was that of Nannie, the original figurehead from the Cutty Sark itself, which dominates the display, raked at the prow end of the dry dock.
This would have been a most impressive array, were it not for the fact that they have been vandalised by conservators through over-restoration and over-painting, clumsily covering up any signs of patination. Their gaudy appearance belong more in a fairground than in this museological setting, and indeed, when wood carvers lost one avenue of work with the advent of iron-clad steam-ships, they did turn to carving figures and animals for travelling fairs. However, rather than simply slapping on coat upon coat of paint, they should have taken the trouble to take layer upon layer of paint off to reveal something of the original polychrome finish underneath. A case of less is more, methinks.