Samuel Pepys: Plague Fire and Revolution. Excellent objects, Excellent access, standard storyline.
I hopped on the DLR to Greenwich last week to have a gander at the National Maritime Museum’s new temporary exhibition last week. The exhibition focuses on Stuart London, using Pepys’ diary as a lens to explore a turbulent century that saw civil war, the Plague and the Great Fire of London that devastated the city.
Pepys was a colourful character. He not only witnessed all these famous events but recorded them in detail in his famous diary. The exhibition boasts over 200 paintings and objects from museums, galleries and private collections across Britain and beyond.
I had high hopes. I’ve loved several shows at NMM before and the Astronomy Photographer of the Year at the Royal Observatory is one of my favourites. I also know that the Royal Museums Greenwich have some wonderful collections from that time period. Overall, I wasn’t disappointed. It was a very thorough and competent walkthrough of the time period, and the viewpoint of the diarist gave it a lovely personal touch.
Despite being mostly a traditional approach to an exhibition – a chronological timeline and design evoking the time period, there were a couple of lovely moments. A simple opening monologue, for instance, illustrated by a painting loaned in from the National Portrait Gallery, “The Execution of Charles I, unknown” set the scene in a dramatic and instantly enthralling way. As the narrator talked through the day of the execution, the relevant parts of the image lit up to show the crowds or the executioner or the King’s severed head. Definitely brought the events to life and served as an excellent introduction to the show and Pepys, who as a teenager stood in the crowd and watched the King’s head roll.
I was particularly impressed by the objects on display, and just how many of them were loaned in (dread to think of the paperwork). Highlights for me were King Charles’ blood on a scrap and portraits of the King’s mistresses – the accompanying text gave just the right insight and information to titillate and intrigue.
There were quite a few attempts to make the exhibition interactive. Touchscreens throughout displayed scans of relevant sections of Pepys’ diary. A touchscreen activated a modern day text of the page as you scrolled over it. This was a really lovely idea and a great way to get people to engage directly with Pepys’ words. Sadly, as is so often the case with digital interactives I really struggled to get it to work. Nice idea though. Also, several of the panels and caption already seemed to be wearing – I wonder if all the effort on loans meant costs were skimped on production? Those cursed museum budgets again!
I was also impressed by how much thought had gone in to making it accessible. All videos were accompanied by a sign-language display, there were large print guides and a lot of thought clearly went into font size and colour. This is a trend you can see more and more in Museums and it’s slowly becoming a part of normal practice, rather than an add-on if funds allow.
I really enjoyed the exhibition in all. Learned some interesting nuggets, got to see some fascinating objects and it really piqued my curiosity about Pepys.
Location: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
Date and time: 20 November 2015 to 28 March 2016, 10.00–17.00
Price: £12 adults | £6 children | £10 concessions | £31.50 family