“Against Captain’s Orders” at National Maritime Museum

The ShipIndex team is traveling through Europe for a few weeks. I had initially planned to post one little maritime thing each day, but that has, alas fallen by the wayside. It’s certainly not for a lack of maritime-related items I’ve seen, but more a lack of time sitting at the computer, rather than exploring exploring exploring.

So, now that I’m on a two-hour train ride in France, perhaps I can write some entries of particular maritime relevance.

About a week ago (ten days? four days? Who knows when you’re traveling) my wife and I took my son (11 years old) and nephew (12) to the Royal Museums at Greenwich, home of the National Maritime Museum, the Royal Observatory, the Cutty Sark, and the Queen’s House.

As an aside, we started the day with a visit to the Sky Garden, the viewing platform at the top of the Fenchurch Street building known as the “walkie-talkie building”. This a new place to visit in London, and it’s not super-easy to do, because you need to make reservations in advance if you want to go up there for free. I think you can also go up if you agree to buy some food at the cafe, and I was surprised to see that the prices are quite reasonable, so that could also be a good option. The views from here are great – and maritime, too, if you consider the views of the Thames, and of HMS Belfast, and Tower Bridge, and more on the river.


But then we went on to Greenwich, where we visited the Cutty Sark and saw the production of “Against Captain’s Orders” at the National Maritime Museum.

I love what the folks at Cutty Sark have done with the ship in its recent renovation. I have read long-time ship enthusiasts express dismay at the work, but I honestly don’t know why. The glass around the ship shows where the waterline was – something that isn’t easily done when a ship is permanently out of water. The new event space under the ship, at the bottom of the drydock, is really impressive. The ability to see what the ship is like from underneath is just great. You get an idea of the size of the thing, and you can see what sort of work went into creating this ship long ago. And the idea of creating such a remarkable and unique event space is also great – any historic ship needs some way of generating revenue for any of the work it plans to do, so I see nothing wrong with this. Especially when it is such an amazing layout.

CuttySark   BelowCuttySark

We then went on to the 4pm performance of “Against Captain’s Orders”, a production by Punchdrunk Entertainment for the National Maritime Museum. I don’t know anything about who put this together, but they did a great, great thing. I’m also not going to tell you much of anything about the content of the production itself, since that would ruin the “Adventure”.

It’s a very active performance; you spend time running from room to room. You have to have a child (6-12 years old) to attend – so it was a good thing I had my son and nephew with me. I made it clear to them that they were simply my ticket to see the show, but they did enjoy it a great deal. It can be a bit scary for the youngest kids, though we saw one of the ‘curators’ give a young girl a small electric candle, and we wondered if they’d done that because they thought she might be a bit scared. The performance really does adapt to the audience.

The performance uses important pieces from the museum’s collections to encourage kids to think about the stories behind them, and how they might create their own Adventures (I’ll say we were on board HMS Adventure during the experience) from items of historic significance and historic value.

I honestly think every museum curator, especially at living history museums, should find a child to take to this show, before it closes. I think they’d all come away with crazy new ideas about how to engage kids with the unique or special items they have in their own collection. Even more so, theater groups should see what Punchdrunk is doing, and figure out how they could propose or create such productions for museums or other cultural institutions in their community. The level of detail that appeared here was pretty unreal; we didn’t have anywhere close to enough time to absorb all of it, or pick up all the in-jokes on the walls.

The entire show was about 45-50 minutes long; the only change I would have liked to see would have been some better conclusion, where we could applaud or somehow recognize the two ‘curators’ (really actors) – they sort of left and we didn’t realize that they weren’t coming back. So I’d say to them here, if I could reach them, that the performance really was great, and they did a fantastic job of making it so.

All in all, it was a great experience and I hope its model can be used in many other locations in the future.

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