One theme or several?

One of the things that struck me about the group’s first session was the wide range of ideas that were floated. As I worked my way through many hundreds of images I found myself thinking: “This would work quite well for the cold winters theme. Or that’s a different photo of an animal at sea.” But as my long list grew ever lengthier I gave up trying to bookmark everything and decided to focus on two areas: shipbuilding and local people.

I knew there had once been a dockyard at Deptford but I was surprised to discover just how much industry there was up and down the river. I suppose it’s obvious if you stop and think about it, but if it was a revelation to somebody who’s lived in the area for two decades then I suspect that quite a few more people might also be interested.

And I’ve always found elements of social history fascinating as well. The photo of one works manager and his wife suggested they weren’t living in a hovel. But what of the men under him? The annual trip to Brighton by charabanc was probably a treat that was anticipated weeks if not months in advance. And organised sports seemed popular too. It may not have been the utopias of Saltaire and Rowntree, but it might not have been all dark satanic mills either.

I liked the way they were separate strands, yet related. So far, so good you might think. And so did I initially. I had an idea that perhaps we’d settle on four or five topics from all of our ideas, with the best one or two images from each in the large frames. Then the smaller digital displays could be used to show further examples of those themes.

But then I tried to picture myself walking into the room, not knowing how the exhibition had been put together. Imagine a picture of heavy industry next to one of a cat, followed by one of a frosty foreshore continuing on to a coconut shell. Wouldn’t it all look rather random? Would I stop to try to see if there was a connection? Perhaps. Would I explore more if the links between the items seemed far-fetched or non-existent? Probably not.

And if people walk away thinking “I don’t get it” then I don’t think we’ve achieved much. So although several themes might be good, having one over-arching title to tie everything together might be even better. I’ve got a fear that in the rush to select photos first we might be doing the nautical equivalent of putting the cart before the horse.

I’m mindful of what Jane said about how you assemble and exhibition. I made the following notes at the time:
What’s the big idea? What are the key messages? How should it be organised?

This might be a slightly contrived, but it might also give us something to think about. When I was asking myself how I’d tie my choices together, and how images that I’d liked just failed to make the cut might be part of the smaller digital displays I came up with: “Home and away, at work and play”.

Home and away:
Not only did London receive ships from near and far (coals from Newcastle, tea and spice from the east) it also produced ships that went to all points. Some of which returned to be used as prison or smallpox hulks, or be broken up only a few miles from where they had been launched, having sailed countless miles in between.

Work and play:
Cricket, football and rowing were the obvious pastimes at home. But if you were away, then the ship’s pet or dressing up in drag in a concert party might be the only diversions you had for a year.

See where this might lead? My choice of a rowing picture and somebody else liking a cricket or cat image could be more related or connected than we first thought. As I said, my “working title” is slightly contrived in that it started out as a way of rationalising my choices. But take that idea, play with it and adapt it, and we could come up with the best of both worlds, one theme that encompasses several.

I think we need to look at the big picture first, then concentrate on the individual images after.


  1. Mary Smith said:

    I like your ideas Steve, wish I coud be with you on Saturday and Sunday. Looking forward to hearing all about it.

  2. Hi Steve…

    Personally, I’m still not sure about the best way in which we can satisfy the remit for the RMG, so I’m looking forward to the coming weekend sessions to pull the project together. I am rather at odds with a contrived ‘big picture’ as this seems to be round pegs into a square hole. The big picture for me is one that celebrates the diversity of our eighteen or so ‘reasoned choices’ within a maritime & personal narrative framework… I do feel that clear labelling could easily accommodate this approach.

    However, I am certain that if a specific theme is decided upon by the group, I would have no problem selecting an image (or series of images) to contribute.

  3. Mary Smith said:

    Having now watched the Olympic opening ceremony I think it’s a shame we didn’t use our opportunity to post photographs following the history of the Maritime Museum and how it evolved from uses of the site. There were ample pictures to choose from.

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