Historians know it’s better to have one eye on the past – and one on the future.
That was tough for Lord Nelson, though.
He lost his eye aged 35 in Corsica and an arm aged 40, both fighting the forces of Napoleon – another tactical genius with an eye for the ladies.
The rest of the country turned a blind eye, after his victories and sacrifices, when Horatio shacked up with a married woman, Lady Emma Hamilton, for four years in South Wimbledon.
History, though, has been less kind to his political views. In reference to the leader of the anti-slavery Clapham Sect, he said in 1805 that while he had a tongue, he would, “launch my voice against the damnable and cursed doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies”.
In this context, and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich – where Lord Nelson’s body lay in state for three days on his way to being buried in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral – is having a new look at its displays.
Its treasures include the hero admiral’s love letters to Emma and the coat he wore when he was killed, aged 47, during the Battle of Trafalgar, off the coast of Spain, in 1805.
Museum chief the Royal Museums Greenwich (RMG) has now agreed its displays will be guided by issues raised by BLM.
It already has a big collection on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and is now seeking to communicate the “often barbaric history of race, colonialism and representation in British maritime history.”
RMG has also just changed one of its galleries to bring a more current perspective, planned over a year ago, in its ‘Atlantic World’ gallery.
That looks like a response to a new reality. But it seems to have been something like a red Commie flag to some anti-woke commentators.
The Telegraph, with one headline Now the woke come for Lord Nelson, added: “This cultural slide has got to stop.”
The NMM’s website responded: “This weekend, a national newspaper ran a misleading story about the National Maritime Museum.
“This article was based on information and quotations taken from internal documents gained under the Freedom of Information Act.
“Responses to these claims were provided to the newspaper prior to its publication. These responses did not appear in the article.”
The museum has stressed it has no changes planned for its Nelson, Navy, Nation gallery or its commentary on the admiral. The statue protectors and Laurence Fox can sleep easy.
RMG director Paddy Rodgers, dubbing the row “a storm in a tea-clipper”, said: “Nelson is celebrated in two galleries dedicated to him at the museum.
“Nelson’s enduring appeal is his complexity as both vulnerable and heroic, weak and strong, clever and naive.
“We have no plans to change our presentation or interpretation of him at present, but inevitably will do so in the future, to ensure his continuing interest to future generations.”
It’s all good, armless fun. But the lessons of history have taught us that we need a rounded picture – a whole one is better than a half-Nelson.
Pictured top: Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square
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