Skip to main content

Fleeting visitors

Christina Zaba splashes out at a maritime museum

Small boats are shaped by the lives of those who make and use them," says the display at the entrance to the new National Maritime Museum of Cornwall.

On this grey morning, daylight spills into the spectacular glass-and-wood building, while just beyond the windows lie the waters of Falmouth harbour.

In the three-storey central concourse of the museum are boats - Victorian canoes and catamarans, 1930s power boats and local working craft, round-the-world yachts and 1960s dinghies, all suspended in the air. It's an arresting welcome.

Most of the 120-strong fleet was collected over many years by the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and it's now the most important small boat collection in the country. Jill Robinson, the museum's education manager, says: "We're a resource for learning, not just for schools but for everyone."

The museum aims to become a nationally recognised facility, providing a specialist library and expertise, advice and support for learners and teachers. With interactive and audio-visual areas and displays on meteorology, navigation and boat-handling, as well as the seafaring history of Cornwall and the influence of the sea on its people, this museum has something for everyone - including a learning centre with a beautiful harbour view.

As well as gallery trails, activities for school and family groups, lecture programmes, drop-in demonstrations and teacher in-service training days, the museum offers two workshops for visiting school groups supported by teachers' packs for pre and post-visit activities.

"Ships and Parcels", for key stages 2 and 3, tells the story of the development of Falmouth, one of only three large natural deep-water harbours in the world (the other two are Sydney and Rio de Janeiro). But today's workshop for KS3 and 4, "Taking to the Water", is more technical.

Jill Robinson explains: "It's about the design of modern boats and the range of materials used in their construction," as she welcomes a group of HND furniture design students from Cornwall College, and begins discussing materials, purposes and design.

Soon they're investigating Flotilla, the main exhibition in the concourse, and examining the materials used in the boatbuilding gallery, next to the workshop where Bernie (shipwright and boatbuilder since 1939 and now a museum volunteer) is restoring an 1890 fishing boat.

Adam, one of the students, says: "It's surprising how many different kinds of materials they use in boatbuilding," as he considers some wire mesh set in cement. "It's like furniture-making that way. On our course we've been using a lot of plastics and recyclable stuff, even cardboard. I hadn't thought about using cement, but it might be good. It's light and cheap, and it seems quite bendy."

And Matt adds: "And it's strong. I'd make garden furniture out of this stuff."

In the Flotilla gallery, Guy is looking at the three stages of building a Cornish pilot gig. "I don't feel safe with the sea," he admits, "but this is interesting. Boatbuilders have to be designers as well as craftsmen."

Back in the learning centre, the students discuss hypothetical boats for different purposes. "For the round-the-world race with two people we've chosen a trimaran, made of duralin flax fibre and powered by sails," they report.

The workshop over, the students disperse for a quick trip to the windows below the water line, the coffee shop and bookshop, the film area and the Cornwall galleries. One morning isn't enough to see it all, but they're going to try.


National Maritime Museum Cornwall opens daily from 10am. Group rates: pound;5.30 adults, pound;3.30 children and students. Adults supervising groups of under-16s free. Preliminary teacher visit free. Workshops cost pound;25 a session. Contact the Education Manager, National Maritime Museum Cornwall, Discovery Quay, Falmouth, Cornwall TR11 3QY. Tel: 01326 313388 Email:

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you