Timekeeper to the World

By Andrew Brown / January / February 2000
October 24th, 2007

The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England, is a wonderful place from which to contemplate the transitory nature of empires. It stands, you might say, right across the track of time, since it includes in its grounds the Royal Observatory, where the Greenwich meridian was first established, and where, by an international treaty signed in Washington, D.C., in 1884, every day on earth officially begins. But within its rare architectural splendor the museum also holds much of the history of the British Empire, from the reign of Charles II in the late seventeenth century - when Greenwich was chosen as a safe haven from marauding Dutch fleets - to the present day, when the Empire and the naval power upholding it are simply a confusing memory, of no relevance at all.

This transition from empire to irrelevance has taken place within living memory, which makes the job of a museum's director both subtle and important. Richard Ormond '61 has been director of the National Maritime Museum (and, by extension, the Royal Observatory) since 1986, but even his time on College Hill came about partly because of England's loss of empire. Facing a year's compulsory military service between secondary school and Oxford, he became the beneficiary of the news that, with the fading Empire requiring fewer soldiers, the draft was unexpectedly abolished for undergraduates that year. With a year to fill, Ormond wound up at Brown.

The shock of being welcomed still delights him thirty years later: "I will always remember going in to Oxford at the back door and not talking to anyone," he says. "At Brown we had a week of orientation just for us. There was much more team spirit and much more camaraderie. Being an Englishman - 'a goddamn limey' - one sort of stood out a bit. One was able to do more than one would normally be able to do. I did acting - I took the part of Richard II - and the debating clubs; it was a very exhilarating experience." Ormond even joined a fraternity, though he can't remember which one.

At the end of his year on campus, he hitchhiked across America, an adventure that he says was "tremendously enlivening." He recalls: "I have never forgotten the people I met. From an English perspective, it was comic but a very rich experience." Later he traveled around India for eight months. "I was a sort of pre-hippie traveler. I got into all the mystical bit, which is heady stuff when you are young; I went south to Sri Lanka, seeing all the monuments and the fantastic temples." That country and the United States, he says, could scarcely have been more different, but he found the same hospitality in both. No one could make those journeys now and find themselves safely welcomed everywhere; in that sense Ormond's travels immersed him in a world that, like the Empire, has vanished.

After his travels in the early 1960s, Ormond set off for Oxford to train as a historian. Even then his interest was in museums. He first job was in Birmingham, which despite its location in the grimy Midlands, was the home of a great collection of pre-Raphaelite art. "In those days," he recalls, "there was nowhere that taught art history. So I cut my teeth and learned my trade in Birmingham." It was not, however, a terribly well-rewarded trade. His starting salary was $750 a year. Museums then were organized for the benefit of scholars, and the staff's main task was to work on scholarly catalogues. The public, Ormond says, came second, if it mattered at all.

A great nephew of the American painter John Singer Sargent, Ormond put together his first Sargent exhibition at Birmingham. His fascination for his great relative has continued every since. His John Singer Sargent: Paintings, Drawings, Watercolours was published in 1970, and in his spare time he has long been working on Sargent's catalogue raisonné. (He has published one volume and has five to go.) Last year he organized an exhibition that traveled to Washington, D.C., after hanging for a time at the Tate Gallery in London.

After Birmingham, at a time when traditional certainties were breaking up everywhere, Ormond went to a place that would change the very definition of a museum. Under the flamboyant Roy Strong, London's National Portrait Gallery in the 1960s was the most exciting museum in England. "Strong was a great impresario," Ormond says, "and could be fun as well as scholarly." Strong had the gift of getting a museum talked about, not as a repository of ancient things but as a fountain of novelties. Serving under him, Ormond rose to deputy director before moving to the Greenwich museum in 1983 to look after the royal pictures and timepieces.

The National Maritime Museum is a complex of several buildings and collections uniting various aspects of Britain's sea life. The tea clipper Cutty Sark is moored there. From it, a gentle rise of parkland leads to the Royal Observatory, which was founded by Charles II for purely practical purposes. Charles was interested in the stars only for their utility in helping sailors find their way on earth, and so the Observatory was founded for the Improvement of Navigation.

In the seventeenth century, this was a matter of crucial importance in Britain's early rivalry with Holland: the two countries fought to determine who would be the preeminent Protestant naval and trading nation. It was to the top of the hill behind Greenwich that Samuel Pepys rode to hear the cannon fire when the Dutch fleet attacked the Medway. It was a frightening moment in English history; no navy since has come as close to taking Britain's naval bases. "Frightfully unsporting" says Ormond, hamming it up: "The coat of arms from the stern gallery of the Royal James is on display in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. We're not used to seeing our trophies in other people's museums. Very poor form."

This is the kind of historical detail that winning empires suppress. The National Maritime Museum was to a large extent a place that took for granted the pre-eminence it celebrated. If it told a story about history, it was one in which the rise of the British Empire was natural, and its fall, well, something that happened off-stage and was not in the least bit interesting. This may have involved considerable feats of denial: the museum itself only dates from 1934 - but then considerable parts of British public life have been expended in such denial ever since 1945.

How the past was cared for, and even how it was seen, underwent a change just about the time Ormond was "rather unexpectedly" made the museum's director in 1985. During Margaret Thatcher's 1980s, museum funding had collapsed. Museums suddenly had to pay for themselves, and this meant seriously considering for the first time what the public might want rather than giving it what it might need. The most shocking and pressing change at the time was the introduction of admission charges, which contradicted the idea that a country's museum artifacts were public goods that a proud country could well afford to support.

Ormond was up to the challenge. "It has been

a fantastic opportunity to shape the organization at a time of tremendous change," he says. Ormond talks with extraordinary fluency: you can see the practiced fund-raiser in the neat organization of points and subheadings as he lectures a journalist. "When I look back at the old museum and see the bubbling institutions that we have today - the difference is chalk and cheese," he explains, making large, precise gestures with open hands, suggesting on the one hand chalk, and on the other, cheese.

"I had to turn what was essentially a hierarchical and not efficient and not particularly well-managed quasi-civil service institution into a modern, entrepreneurial, and dynamic one," he continues. "We had to learn to put on exhibitions while thinking about the public. I was turning [the museum] into an outward-looking place without losing those core scholarly values."

Museums have been forced increasingly to become businesses with diverse sources of funding, Ormond observes. "There are commercial activities, admission fees, sponsorship, grants, and so on," he says. "All this has required a great change of culture. Curators are not naturally good with people. They choose the job because they're good with objects. I had a different mind-set, and that is reflected in the things the museum has achieved." Among Ormond's achievements has been to exploit the magnificent setting of the museum. Scattered about are some of the most beautiful buildings in Britain, perhaps in the world. The museum's frontage provides an extraordinary sense of space and splendor. The Queen's House, designed by Inigo Jones for Henrietta Maria, the Queen of Charles I, was refurbished and reopened under Ormond.

But much of what Ormond has done has been controversial. He has been accused of political correctness and of dumbing down exhibits to appeal to a wider public. Ormond readily admits that his succession of dazzling exhibitions have been chosen with an eye to popularity; exhibitions on pirates, for example, and on the Armada, which enabled Britain's navy to preserve her independence. Ormond is already planning a blockbuster for 2003, which marks the 400th anniversary of the death of Queen Elizabeth I. Between now and then will be an exhibition celebrating the heroic age of polar exploration and featuring the expeditions of Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott. Such exhibitions subtly challenge the way in which the story of empire is told. Colorful exhibits about pirates are tame stuff in a country that believes that it could fight another Falklands War any time it wanted to.

"We're not just uncritically showing the great naval battles," Ormond says, explaining that the museum now focuses on subjects as well as objects. "We deal with the future of the sea and how mankind is going to treat its resources. This grows more and more necessary as the knowledge of the sea contracts. The fishing industry is declining, the shipping industry is contracting. One of our roles is to remind people that these areas are vital."

Now, however, Ormond's focus is preparing for the millennium. As longitude 0, Greenwich is where the millennium officially begins: the meridian runs right through the Observatory grounds. On New Year's Eve the museum hosted a spectacular party for 15,000 of its closest friends. The London Symphony Orchestra entertained, as did the Eurythmics. It was a party in keeping with an observatory that bills itself as "the centre of time and space."

Of course, the party was also magnificent publicity, "a tremendous opportunity," in Ormond's words, "for us and the Observatory to get global exposure. The great dome is here solely because the Observatory is here. The Observatory will be a great place of pilgrimage in the coming year." An exhibition on the story of time will be at the museum all year; it attempts to tell the whole story of how people from different civilizations have experienced and mapped time. "It's not just mechanical time," Ormond says. "There are seasons, calendars, and stories of the creation of time; of death and the end of time."

This strange and glittering world of significance and stories, this world in which a museum becomes a kind of stage for the stories people tell about themselves and their place in the world, seems increasingly far away from that old world where museums were places for preserving the gritty and ineradicable strangeness of artifacts from a past that might otherwise get lost. Ormond is keenly aware of what's at stake. He will be opening a secondary museum in Cornwall for boats, and Ormond is increasingly focusing on how all the museum's artifacts are stored. The sheer quantity of these artifacts is overwhelming. Among them, for example, are 750,000 naval photographs and more than one million drawings of boats, including the plans for almost every ship that was ever built in England. There are uniforms, flags, and figureheads, along with the Admiralty's models of all the ships it owned. "I can claim to look after about three million things," Ormond boasts.

These objects must not only be properly stored, Ormond says, they must be organized in such a way that they are accessible both to scholars and schoolchildren. In the new millennium, the museum is expanding onto the Internet, which, with its ability to collapse time and space, makes England's history of empire and naval superiority recede ever more quaintly into the distant past. The Internet will even have a role in controlling the $3 million telescope the Observatory is having built in Hawaii; the goal is to allow British children to direct the telescope at least part of the time from their own desktop computers: the ultimate hands-on, practical science exhibit. "That would be a center for modern astronomy, and all the amazing discoveries that are being made now," Ormond says. Part of a new millennium, perhaps, but also part of the continuity of time.

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January / February 2000