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  • Miles Hedley


The world-famous collection of Royal Museums Greenwich runs to 2.5million items, from a 4,000-year-old Egyptian model boat to one of the most iconic ships ever built – Cutty Sark. But the National Maritime Museum and the Queen’s House aren’t big enough to display more than a handful of such a vast hoard, which means hundreds of thousands of wonderful artefacts are stored away from the public gaze. Until now.

That’s all changing because museum chiefs are determined to engage with the community more than ever before and it is now possible to tour RMG’s huge storage and conservation facility in Kidbrooke called the Prince Philip Maritime Collection Centre.

On a two-hour walkround with conservation experts Helen Robertson and Mat Cahill, I saw room after room packed with machinery, tools, weapons, electronics, chandlery, clothing, papers and artworks. There were items of almost every conceivable shape and size, some of them old, some obvious, some baffling, many of them beautiful and all of them fascinating.

Here are just a few of the highlights on the tour I took: a working floral-tiled fireplace from one of Victoria and Albert’s royal yachts, a one-ton cast iron try-pot used aboard whaling ships to render blubber, a harpoon gun that looked like an oversized .303 rifle and an original invitation to Lord Nelson’s funeral.

There was also an astonishing 15th century map of Europe on vellum, a unique celestial globe, a perfectly scaled-down model of Brunel’s pioneering steamer Great Eastern, a spectacularly detailed representation of the moon by 18th century artist John Russell and a huge naval painting done 100 years earlier by Willem van de Velde.

And for lovers of Titanic relics, the collection also includes a movingly simple cardboard tag from the drowned body of passenger Jacob Birnbaum and a pair of shoes worn on board by survivor Edith Rosenbaum Russell, who entertained children in one of the lifeboats with a pig-shaped music box – which is also at Kidbrooke.

I can’t emphasise too much what a treat is in store on these visits, so please go. And check out the centre’s first ever community day on 21 September.

For further information about all the visiting options, go to

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