Detail from Englands Famous Discoverers (PAD3722)
Earlier this year the Museum hosted a conference on Richard Hakluyt, the Elizabethan writer who published The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation between 1598 and 1600. Hakluyt was an unashamed propagandist for England’s maritime expansion and the huge number of stories that he brought together and published make terrific reading to this day: shipwrecks, privations, discoveries, encounters with different peoples across the globe, imprisonments, escapes – these are the staples that drive the stories along. In many ways, Hakluyt was the founder of the popular travel writing genre, the heirs of which today are travellers and writers like Michael Palin, Bruce Chatwin and Jonathan Raban. What’s firmly missing from Hakluyt is the ‘here there be dragons’ school of writing, which many people today expect to see in such early maritime adventures, for the Elizabethan mariners were largely practical people engaged on commercial ventures and recording as honestly as they could (with due allowance for exaggeration and wonder) extraordinary sights and experiences. Hakluyt left a unique record of a hugely important period in the history of England and later of Britain. His accounts are still regarded as important scholarly sources.
One of the things that became clear at the conference was that while there had been a lot of work on Hakluyt, there had never been a scholarly edition of The Principal Navigations – in fact, the last complete publication was over eighty years ago, although Penguin published edited highlights in the 1990s. Therefore it was decided that the time was ripe for a new, complete edition and the National Maritime Museum was delighted to be invited to help take the project forward, together with the Hakluyt Society, Dr Daniel Carey (National University of Ireland), Professor Andrew Hadfield (University of Sussex) and Professor Claire Jowitt (Nottingham Trent University). As Head of Research and Curatorial Group, I am representing the NMM on the project. A project of this size will take some years to complete, probably as many as ten years, but the British Academy and Nottingham Trent University have already generously sponsored the appointment of a research assistant and we’re all very confident that this important edition will be produced.
From the terraces of the Getty Research Institute high up in the Santa Monica Mountains, elevated above all traffic noise, you can – on a clear day – take in breathtaking views of the whole panorama of Los Angeles towards the Pacific coast and San Pedro Bay.
In fact, if you were a scientifically minded nineteenth-century traveller, this would probably be the point where you would want to get out your camera obscura to appreciate the scene in all its clarity. You may, also, have your pocket sextant to hand, as well as your watch and telescope, your pencil and paper; all the equipment that would enable you to call yourself a topographer, serving the great goal of mapping the world. But for a split second, though, the surrounding landscape and the lavish travertine of the Getty buildings may dazzle you into thinking you were somewhere else, somewhere in the Mediterranean, ripe with classical antiquity and poetic associations for the European artist. And the proximity of the Getty Villa, a building inspired by the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum and famously filled to the brim with antiquities, may further your confusion.
A topographical view of Varigotta, a small village in the province of Genoa, by Edward William Cooke, 1845. This drawing was made during Cooke’s first Mediterranean tour of 1845-46.
At the beginning of October 2008, I was invited to the Getty Research Institute to represent the National Maritime Museum’s Centre for the Study of Art and Travel (CART) by giving a paper at a symposium on Sir William Gell, topographer and artist, who helped pioneer travel and antiquarianism in the Greek part of the Ottoman Empire in the early years of the nineteenth century. The seminar was held on the occasion of an exhibition on the Society of Dilettanti, a group famously obsessed with travel in the Mediterranean and all things ancient.
What an appropriate place for an academic event like this, fascinating in its unexpectedly surreal merger of science and art, past and present.
‘HMS Assistance in the ice (1850-51)’ by Thomas Sewell Robins (BHC4239)
This July the Museum held a conference with the Royal Society and the Department of History and Philosophy of Science in Cambridge on the theme of ‘Scientific Voyaging: Histories and Comparisons’. Apart from the first evening, with a keynote address by Joyce Chaplain of Harvard University on Science, Circumnavigation and Modernity in the NMM lecture theatre and a reception in the Queen’s House, the conference was held at the Royal Society in central London.
Largely drawing on events of the 18th and 19th centuries, the papers mainly looked at the relationship between maritime exploration and scientific inquiry. Speakers had been encouraged to move beyond the well-known accounts of Captain Cook, Alexander von Humboldt or the voyage of HMS Challenger, and so they turned to topics such as the importance of visual imagery in communicating knowledge over a distance and the relationship between field workers and the individuals, societies and governments who collated their efforts. The list of speakers’ institutional affiliations was impressively international, and allowed for discussions that drew on knowledge of British, South American, North American, Australian, French and Spanish contexts.
‘HMS Erebus and Terror with native craft in New Zealand (August 1841)’ by John Wilson Carmichael (BHC1214)
The thanks of the Museum and the Royal Society must go to Simon Schaffer of the University of Cambridge for steering the intellectual content of the conference and for gathering together a diverse and stimulating range of speakers. It seemed particularly appropriate to hear these papers in the surroundings of an institution that was the impetus for many past scientific voyages. It also gave participants the chance to see the Society’s temporary exhibition, ‘Is seeing believing? The art of science’, which linked very well to the conference’s focus on scientific imagery.
Dip circle, relic of Sir John Franklin’s last expedition 1845-6 (AAA2223)
You can get more information on the NMM’s conference and seminar programme, at: www.nmm.ac.uk/conferences.