Life at sea.

"The figurehead of the Herzogin Cecilie" from National Maritime Museum

Last year, I was honoured and excited to receive an invitation from Fiona Romeo, Head of Digital Media at the National Maritime Museum, to come to Greenwich and take part in a guest curation of the museum's photography archive. Of course, I leapt at the chance. I love exploring behind the scenes like that, and was conscious of the fact that I was just an average Joelene, by no means an expert in this context, but absolutely willing to try and see what I could see. What would I discover amongst the thousands of ship portraits and other curiosities held at the Brass Foundry in Woolwich?

I was driven to the archive by an "I belong to Glasgow" chirpy Scotsman. First things first. A cup of tea.

Then, I set to work. Given that I wasn't especially interested in photographs of historic merit (Gasp) I suggested to Gerry: 'I prefer photos of people and their lives... Do you have anything that depicts life at sea?' The answer is Yes.

Sailors climbing up to the halyard blocks
Rounding Cape Horn on the 'Parma'

As I left one night to catch the bus back to Greenwich, I realised had no cash. Tried it on with the driver, but no joy. Went back to the archive and borrowed two pounds from a poor starving archivist. In the pissing rain. (Paid it back.)

What struck me most was the hard work and knowledge held within everyone who worked at the Foundry. From my initial "please show me pictures of people" request and the team's response, to them being able to tell by sight whether the a ship was sailing into the wind or being carried by it, to the new world of maritime language, to overhearing staff talk on the phone to cold-calling enquirers, the whole experience reinforced for me how valuable experts are. There really is nothing like working with someone who knows an archive backwards. If only we could suck everything out of their brains somehow. Perhaps one is simply supposed to meet and talk with them.

Anyway, I selected about 70 photos if memory serves, photos that I found to be beautiful. From the Australian-born Alan Villiers, to Anne Stanley, who photographed in similar style and environments to Villiers, the National Maritime Museum has begun to publish my selection into The Commons on Flickr.

A guest curatorship of 2 days is very, very short. So many stories opened their covers for me in my brief time there that I was sad to leave. The exotic tales and locales reflected in Villiers' travel pictures from the Middle East in the 30s asked more questions than they answered. The lives of sailors were hard and maddening. Onboard rituals provided glimpses of celebration and ceremony, breaking the monotony of scrubbing decks and hoisting sails. I didn't even begin to explore the fantastic collection of charts and maps held there. Next time!

I did also discover one box of some remarkably garish documentary of buffets on board passenger liners in the 50s and 60s. Apparently, there used to be competitions to see who could make the most elaborate presentations. I saw one shot of a leg of lamb that looked like it was covered in icing, and then illustrated upon in marzipan (or something). Where to cut first? Sadly, it appeared that P&O (I think) is still holding tightly to the copyright of those particular gems, so no Commons for them.