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Lighthouses: Life on the Rocks

6 October 2010 — 6 February 2011

From 6 February 2010 National Maritime Museum Cornwall is shining a light on the world of lighthouses and their keepers.

Location: The Hold

From 6 February 2010 National Maritime Museum Cornwall is shining a light on the world of lighthouses and their keepers.

From the massive scale of these triumphs of engineering to the tall tales of the lighthouse keepers themselves, Lighthouses: Life on the Rocks aims to illuminate these incredible stories before they slip out of living memory.  The UK's last manned lighthouse was converted to automatic operation in November 1998, and this evocative exhibition explores the lives of the last of the lighthouse keepers.

For centuries these iconic beacons of light have protected our seas and this major exhibition features an incredible array of objects, both large and small.  A massive four tonne optic, with its dazzling array of prisms and lenses, forms a sculptural centre piece to the exhibition.  Life on the Rocks is being supported by Trinity House, the General Lighthouse Authority, who are generously lending a large number of artefacts to the exhibition.  The exhibition is seen as complementary to their own heritage centre at the Lizard Lighthouse and visitors to the Maritime Museum will receive 10% off admission to the Lizard Lighthouse Heritage Centre, where they can take a tour of a working lighthouse.

The exhibition is also part funded by a £30,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Visitors also have the opportunity to step inside the world of the lighthouse keeper, with a reconstruction of a lighthouse’s living quarters, featuring original curved furniture from Godrevy Lighthouse and objects which reflect the life of a lighthouse keeper.  Theirs was a life of strict routine and relative isolation and to fill their time, when not tending to the light, these men would write poetry, craft ships in light bulbs or come up with ingenious ways of supplementing their limited supplies, such as kite fishing!

The construction of lighthouses miles out to sea, on rocky outcrops, exposed to the full force of the ocean are rightly considered to be some of the greatest engineering achievements of the Industrial Age.  The Bishop Rock Lighthouse, for instance, stands on a rock ledge just 16 metres wide, four miles off the Isles of Scilly.  Part of the exhibition features the solid bronze doors from Bishop Rock which, despite being situated 40ft above sea level and weighing over 100kg each, were smashed open by monstrous waves during a storm in 1994, clearly demonstrating the ferocity of our seas.

Life on the Rocks also reveals the little told story of lightvessels and their crews.  Lightvessels were ships which acted as lighthouses in places where it was impossible to build one.  Spending weeks at a time imprisoned on the constantly churning ocean, out at sea but going nowhere, without an engine for propulsion, life on board a lightvessel was perhaps the most gruelling of all.  The exhibition features original lights from the lightvessels and intricately crafted models of these unique ships.

Jenny Wittamore, Assistant Curator at the Maritime Museum says: “From the power of the ocean to powerful emotions, feats of engineering to feats of daring, as an island nation, lighthouses have played a significant role in all our lives.  You might think you know about lighthouses, but this exhibition, with interactive displays and hands-on exhibits, shows that there is more to their story than you ever imagined.”


Gibson's & Tim Stevens