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A sea change!

Updated: Feb 16, 2022

Last weekend we opened our fifth - yes, our fifth! - new gallery in less than 18 months. How have we managed that, I hear you all cry? We don't really know! And we've been WAAYYYY too tired to think about it...

We do know, of course. We've managed to achieve it thanks to a huge amount of hard work from everyone in #TeamNESM, staff AND volunteers; the amazing support we've had from visitors, partners, suppliers, and the local community; a vital grant from the Culture Recovery Fund; and more months closed than we care to remember! It is astonishing to all of us that after such a difficult - and at times downright scary - two years we have emerged a much better museum than we were before the pandemic.

Exhibition number five (which really sounds like it should be a perfume brand) is 'Guarding the Coast'. This gallery reveals the often hidden history of HM Coastguard and celebrates the men and women who have dedicated themselves to saving lives at sea over the last two centuries. It's been developed in partnership with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency - which funded the project - and the National Maritime Museum, Cornwall, which will run the exhibition concurrently at its museum in Falmouth.

When you think of the emergency services, it's probably not the Coastguard that springs first to mind. Certainly not for those of us in landlocked South Yorkshire! Yet it is the oldest of the major emergency services and this year celebrates its 200th birthday. Our new exhibition has been created to celebrate this milestone and it’s another really exciting addition to our museum, as we aim to to celebrate all our emergency services

The exhibition charts the beginnings of the Coastguard as an anti-smuggling force in the early 19th century through to its role attending shipwrecks and safeguarding vessels, and into its work across two world wars and its modern responsibilities in maritime safety and search and rescue.

This history is brought to life through a host of original and rare objects from the collection of HM Coastguard, currently in the care of our museum. We had a great time working through some amazing items in the collection, and deciding which ones we should feature in the exhibition was not an easy task. Many of them have never been on public display at the museum before, and they tell a fascinating story about the development of lifesaving at sea and the changing technology employed in maritime rescue over the last 200 years.

These include an original ‘breeches buoy’; a device which resembles a large pair of canvas shorts attached to a life ring which could be used like a zip wire to evacuate crew and passengers, or send a rescuer across to the vessel. The breeches buoy would have been sent to a ship via a line fired by a device like the Schermuly pistol rocket, which will also be on display. Similar to a large firework it was launched from a tripod and was an easily portable method of sending a rescue line to or from a ship.

Other objects on display include original uniforms, documents, letters, equipment and even a can of self-heating soup!

As well as looking at the changing technology of saving lives at sea, the exhibition also highlights some extraordinary stories of courage and heroism across 200 years of coastguard history. These include the stories of Harry Cowling, who swam out to a ship in distress during a terrible storm to deliver a vital rescue line and Henry Edwards Ellis, who with his colleagues created a 'human chain' to haul the survivors of a shipwreck in Cornwall over a cliff to safety.

All these objects and stories are being showcased in a new gallery that has been created by the museum team, which also includes a host of interactive and hands-on activities for all ages. Visitors can jump aboard a rowing boat and try on a cork lifejacket in a mocked-up boathouse, try their hand at tying knots in the dark, lead a coastal rescue and hunt for smuggled goods. (The latter was my little project; I had a bit too much fun 'Blue Petering' the items that our visitors are asked to search for!)

HM Coastguard has been officially recognised as a ‘999’ service since 1968 and yet its work and its history are not that well known. We hope this exhibition will help to change that and showcase those working with the Coastguard, who help to save hundreds of lives every year at sea and on the land. This new exhibition celebrates the contribution of the service both past and present, and will hopefully give our visitors a real insight into the work of one of our lesser known emergency services.

You can find the 'Guarding the Coast' exhibition on our top floor. We're open 10am-4pm, Wednesday to Sunday. Come and explore it all for yourself; if you haven't been to us for a while you won't recognise the place!

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