Diving Deep; HMS Invincible 1744 – Designing an Exhibition During a Pandemic

Above: HMS invicible, image credit: J. Broomhead

I was working away on an exhibition design in the usual manner: in my office, attending many, many face-to-face meetings with the design company and so on… then the pandemic happened, and everything became very strange.

The story so far

Diving Deep; HMS Invincible 1744 will be a travelling exhibition about the archaeological excavation of a shipwreck, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

HMS Invincible was special. She was a 74-gun ship built by the French in 1744, and her innovative design made her fast and more manoeuvrable than most naval war ships at the time. After the British Royal Navy captured her in 1747, the Royal Navy built many more - in fact, of Nelson’s 27 ships during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, 16 had 74-guns based on her design.

Invincible herself was lost in the Solent in 1758, after running aground on a sand bank… her sinking was a bit like crashing your favourite Ferrari sports car.

Challenges upon challenges

In creating this exhibition, the initial challenge I faced was how to bring an excavation on the seabed to a gallery in the National Museum of the Royal Navy. Now the challenge has changed; how do we do all this during a pandemic?

How it was done before

Archaeology in museums is often interpreted by putting amazing archaeological find into glass cases with text that explains the object and its cultural context. Think: the display of the Sutton Hoo treasures in the British Museum. However, there is often very little information about how the objects were actually found and the archaeological context from which they came.

Archaeologists have all sorts of scientific tools and techniques at their fingertips to help them understand archaeological sites. But, like historians, they are interpreting what they see. It might be a very good interpretation based on lots of evidence, but the public does not necessarily understand that this is still an interpretation.

Interpretation myth busting

A great example from the wreck of the Invincible is two scraps of fine red woollen clothing. The anaerobic (low oxygen) environment of the wreck site means that organic material like these small pieces of cloth have not rotted away. In fact they are so well preserved that even their colour is as bright as the day the ship sank.

Two scraps of fine red woollen clothing preserved by the low oxygen environment
PHOTOGRAPH BY The National Museum of the Royal Navy

Here’s where it gets interesting…

The records show that the only people on board Invincible wearing red uniforms were the Marines. Since the 18th century, the nickname for the Marines has been ‘redcoats’ and we have often depicted them in bright red coats. However, the archaeology shows us that red in the 18th century was not the same as red in the 21st century. Bright ‘fire engine red’ is not a natural dye, it’s a synthetic colour invented by chemists during the Industrial Revolution. In the 18th century, only natural red dyes were available, and these produced a dark softer red, which we might describe today as ‘maroon’. In this exhibition, I want to show how an anaerobic archaeological site can change how we can re-interpret established ideas.

A touchy, feely exhibition

As a museum we feel it’s important to appeal to a wide range of audiences, to encourage them in to see our historic collections. Otherwise what is the point of a museum?

This is more complicated than you might imagine. A simple way of explaining it is to imagine a grandfather and his 5 year old granddaughter in our shiny new Diving Deep exhibition. The grandfather has many years of experience, he might even have once been a diver. The granddaughter might have trouble reading the explanatory text on the walls. Each will have different learning modes, interests, and bring with them different prior knowledge and understanding. How do we engage them both at the same time?

To achieve this, we felt that the exhibition should appeal to all the senses; there should be things to read, touch, sniff and hear. We want our visitors to feel as though they are on an underwater archaeological excavation of an amazing wreck, just without getting wet.

A touchy, feely exhibition during a pandemic

Unfortunately, all this touching, feeling and sniffing is an excellent way of spreading diseases during a pandemic. How can we prevent this without losing the heart of the exhibition? And if we take out the touchy-feely bits, who will come to the exhibition - only the grandfather and people with similar interests and backgrounds.

Colourful and fun hand sanitiser display
PHOTOGRAPH BY Rocketbox Design

We thought about disinfecting the touchy bits regularly; but how do you disinfect an archaeologist’s dive suit? Or old rope over 260 years old? We realised that if we can’t disinfect the objects, we need to disinfect the people. I decided that using hand sanitiser regularly in the exhibition needed to be as fun as other interactive displays. This would calm nerves by looking less like a biohazard lab as well as increasing adherence, especially by children.

That’s how we came up with the concept of ‘which squirt are you?’ Each hand sanitiser dispenser would be linked to a character in the exhibition: the Conservators would tell you to clean your hands so as not to contaminate the historic objects, the Captain tells you to clean your hands or he will order 12 lashes, and Shipworm tells you to clean your hands or get its slime all over you, and so on. Visitors can then explore the exhibition hunting for their favourite character and the associated sanitiser dispensers.

Where are we now?

At the moment we are finalising the designs. Everything works on paper, but we have yet to prove all this works in the real world. The moment of truth will come in October 2020 and I’m very much looking forward to the realisation of all this hard work, planned and built by a team that have not met face to face for six months. Wish us luck.

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Eileen Clegg

Dr Eileen Clegg is the Community Archaeology Producer at the National Museum of the Royal Navy. She has a doctorate in Archaeology from the University of Liverpool and a teaching postgraduate degree from the University of Lancaster. She has worked in museum education and engagement for over 9 years.