It’s about time someone came up with a better word than ‘museum’ for this place. It’s not a big room filled with things you can look at but not touch; it’s more like a giant indoor play park for anyone who’s got an inkling of interest in the sea.
There are displays, of course, but they’re arranged on an imaginative multi-level construction and they’re often a sensory explosion of sound and moving images. The programme changes regularly, so you’ll see different things every time you go. The exhibits in the ‘Survival Zone’ that tell the tales of epic, near-disastrous exploits at sea always seem to draw the biggest crowds – some of them make you intensely glad to be standing on dry land.
The National Maritime Museum stands on the edge of the quay in Falmouth and the views from every window out over the harbour blur the edges between the museum itself and the genuine, working boats just outside. Below the ground floor is the tidal zone; separated only by glass, you can watch the tide rise above your head as shoals of wild fish swim by and try to avoid the cormorants planning to make them into lunch. It’s a rare chance to see wildlife at such close quarters, but you’ll need patience – it’s not an aquarium stocked for viewers’ pleasure!
It seems that all the state-of-the-art high-tech exhibitions have to work hard to compete with the ‘Waterfront’ – a big, shallow pool containing a small flotilla of radio-controlled boats. Fans blow across the water and mimic sea winds, creating a sailing challenge as you try to navigate your boat around the course. While it might appear that this is aimed at kids (who can’t get enough of it), it seems that it also inspires a healthy sense of competition in almost everyone who wanders over for a look.
Facilities for families at the museum are impressive, with specific spaces to store prams, a ‘baby care’ room, milk and food warming services in the café and information and exhibits at child-friendly height. Wheelchair users will find it just as welcoming.
The National Maritime Museum Cornwall
Discovery Quay, Falmouth, Cornwall, TR11 3QY, Tel. 01326 313388