Inside Life on Board, Liverpool’s new gallery dedicated to cruises

Emilee Geist

The Life on Board gallery is made up of more than 250 exhibits
The Life on Board gallery is made up of more than 250 exhibits

A new gallery dedicated to the history of cruise travel is welcoming visitors from today as part of the reopening of National Museums Liverpool following lockdown.

Life on Board, finding a permanent berth at the Merseyside Maritime Museum, will open alongside the International Slavery Museum and Museum of Liverpool with pre-booked timed entry, mandatory face coverings and social distancing measures.

Having come to Liverpool’s Albert Dock for a preview of the new gallery, I soon find myself standing in front of a little piece of maritime history. With its miniature sun loungers, palm trees and mini-me figures taking a dip in the pool, the 3.5m replica model of the Arandora Star had been in storage for years after wartime bomb damage. But the 1936 exhibition model of the Blue Star passenger liner has been lovingly restored and it now takes centre stage in Life on Board, which was originally due to open just before lockdown.

The gallery charts the history of seafaring from the 18th century, navigates the interwar heyday of ocean liners as floating palaces, and docks in the current day. Liverpool has a rich seafaring tradition and served as a hub for transatlantic crossings at the turn of the 20th century. The numerous shipping companies once operating out of port city included White Star Line (later merged with Cunard Line).

“Our cruise story as a city is rooted in our heritage but it also remains an integral part of our living history,” said Michelle Walsh, the museum’s curator of maritime history and technology.

A snapshot of the past: passengers relax on the deck of QE2 (now converted into a floating hotel in Dubai) - getty
A snapshot of the past: passengers relax on the deck of QE2 (now converted into a floating hotel in Dubai) – getty

“This gallery explores the modern revival of cruising by setting it in the heritage context of Liverpool as a world cruise port.”

Life on Board’s approach to exploring Liverpool’s maritime heritage is through case studies, putting human stories at the forefront of the interpretation with text and audio testimonies to illustrate. Of the 250-odd exhibits, some have been brought out of storage, while a small number are new acquisitions for the opening. The gallery also incorporates the museum’s Archives Centre, featuring National Museums Liverpool’s vast collection of maritime and slavery records.

“Liverpool has always been a very outward-looking city, gazing out to the horizon,” said Michelle, who spent her own honeymoon on an Alaska cruise with Norwegian Cruise Line. “I believe this outward mentality is a reflection of our maritime heritage as a city.”

The gallery is arranged thematically, as opposed to in chronological order, starting with stories of the Merchant Navy before moving onto the Lines and Leisure section, which shines a spotlight on the golden age of cruise of leisure travel. It was during the 1920s, I learn, that the introduction of Tourist Third Cabin Class opened up cruise travel to a wider audience, making the experience of life aboard an integral part of the overall journey. It was a time when the major shipping companies employed leading architects and artists of the day to remodel the liners with Art Deco stylings.

Key exhibits in the gallery include a series of on-board outfits worn by the local passenger Gertrude Walker, left to the museum by surviving family on Merseyside, to reflect the experience of women travelling by sea in the early 20th century. Gertrude’s diary recorded the daily routine of first-class travel on the transatlantic ships. Meanwhile, a set of decorative glass panels from the Mauretania II, marked with signs of the zodiac, highlight the Art Deco influence on design.

One of Michelle’s favourite exhibits, however, is an architectural design model of the lime-green mid-ship lobby, or the rotunda, aboard the QE2, which illustrates how ship design evolved with the fashion trends of the Swinging Sixties. Built on the Clyde, the QE2 made her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York on May 2, 1969.

Life on Board has found a permanent berth at the Merseyside Maritime Museum - TOMAS ADAM
Life on Board has found a permanent berth at the Merseyside Maritime Museum – TOMAS ADAM

“With so many items in storage, including over 2,000 ship models, it has been very hard to make the final selection,” she said as we admire a 1917 events programme from the RMS Orduna, which lists on-board activities, such as a potato race for ladies and cock fighting for men.

“Once you start delving, there are just so many stories to tell,” she adds.

Liverpool’s Unesco World Heritage-listed waterfront had seen an increase in the number of cruise ships docking before Covid-19, and is investing for the future with its new cruise terminal building. Due to open in 2023, it will be able to handle up to 3,600 passengers per ship visit.

The curators acknowledge the challenges facing the cruise industry post Covid-19 and have started collating online content in response. They are planning to introduce additional content to the gallery over time to reflect new insights and perspectives from the people affected. Michelle hopes for now, however, to celebrate the way local music, language and art have been shaped by Liverpool’s seafaring connections through history.

“As a teenager in Eighties Liverpool, the dock was all silted up and the cruise traffic had long since drifted away to Southampton,” she said.

“But the return of the big ships has rekindled a huge sense of pride in our cruise history. Large numbers of people now flock to the quayside to welcome visiting ships in port. The curators are always there, too. Basically, we’re all just massive ship geeks.”

All National Museums Liverpool galleries open Weds to Sun, 10am–5pm with free entry. Pre-booking required for timed slots and charges for special exhibitions (liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/lifeonboard)

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