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Theme Conveners: C. Hamilton Ellis and Nigel Clayton ◦ Display Designers: Austin Frazer and Ellis Miles

The memorial to British discovery by sea is the chart of the globe. Straits, bays, seas, islands, headlands, rivers, and even whole countries – all the world over they mirror back names from Britain.

Britain was the first sea-discovery of our forebears. For some races this island, in itself, might then have brought an end to voyaging; but for us it has been a harbour, rather, from which we have continued to launch ourselves out into the world. Of all the arenas where the destinies of nations are decided we still prefer to face our difficulties at sea.

Four hundred years ago the nation was in a pass from which the only escape was by new foreign markets for our goods, and the establishment of trade with countries overseas. It was in seeking them out in the uncharted world that British sailors made greater contributions to sea discovery than those of any other nation. They had the enterprise and leadership, they built the ships that would keep the seas and, besides these, they had an ingrained curiosity and skill which laid the foundation of scientific navigation.

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James Cook

In this small gallery of the Dome we cannot pay tribute to all the names renowned for discovery at sea; we have, instead, singled out the greatest of them all – James Cook – for special mention. His life is summarised by the names of his exploring ships – Endeavour, Resolution, Adventure, Discovery. He was a great seaman, but unique in his time for the attention he gave to the welfare of the men who worked his ships. He was a great navigator, but his genius as a surveyor made each voyage classical, each another foundation stone for modern geography. He was a very great explorer and a man of science, but his humanity and understanding were such that no extermination or slavery followed his discovery of a new race or people.

In six years Cook systematically eliminated a landmass – the Great Southern Continent – the existence of which had been firmly imagined by geographers for twenty-five centuries. His worth as a hydrographer cannot be overestimated.


It was the British who first set about a systematic charting of’ the whole world and for many years it was British charts, which we did not keep to ourselves, that the ships of all nations relied on. Modern methods in hydrographic survey, as well as the many uses for which charts are now produced, are illustrated on this gallery, together with other aids to navigation and tide prediction.

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Research ships

But exploration by sea has not stopped at charting the surface waters. The cloak of Drake and Cook has now fallen on the men of science who by physical, chemical and biological techniques are adding to our knowledge of all its aspects. This phase began with the sailing of H.M.S. Challenger in 1872 – the first ship to be fully engaged on oceanographic research. Her modern counterpart is the Research Ship Discovery II, famous particularly for her work in Southern waters.

Science of the sea

In the second part of this gallery the displays show some of the things that science can tell us about the sea – its composition, its physical behaviour, the nature of the ocean beds and the living creatures that inhabit it. British research has been particularly active in studying the animals and minute plants that live near the surface – the plankton. They play a vital part in the cycle of life in the sea – not only for fish but even for many whales which feed almost entirely upon these diminutive animals.