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Museums now places of action
The statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson on top of Nelson's Column, Trafalgar Square, London. Picture: photolibrary.com

The world's great museums are no longer static cathedrals to human accomplishment.

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Displays of power and inventiveness make way for more ordinary pursuits and the whole gamut of human activities and emotions is explored. And that's great because our foibles, failures and passions can be just as interesting.

Emotions on display in Britain's National Maritime Museum


The star of this show is national hero Admiral Horatio Nelson known for victories against the French and an imposing memorial column in Trafalgar Square. Britain's hallowed National Maritime Museum in London portrays the human side of Nelson and the men and women who went to sea.

Stand-alone drawcards include Nelson's bullet-pierced coat from the Battle of Trafalgar while the Voyagers: Britons and the Sea collection orders its objects into groups representing six different emotions. For example, Anticipation reflects the excitement and anxiety of voyages into the unknown with exhibits such as Matthew Flinders' Observations on the Coast of Van Diemen's Land (1801).

National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Picture: Margaret Turton

Love reflects the passion of all loved ones separated by the sea. One example is a letter from Nelson to his mistress, Emma Hamilton. Sadness expresses mourning through commemorative tokens while Aggression illustrates conflict and control through weapons.

The sword of William Bligh, captain of the Bounty is a highlight. A portrait of John Harrison, the working class mechanical genius who solved the challenge of longitude is featured in the section called Pride. Finally, Joy is expressed through mementoes of holiday cruises, leisure and water sports. This includes a bedraggled teddy bear mascot retrieved from the bilge pump of the racing-yacht Maiden after the all-women crew's performance in the 1989-1990 Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race.

·National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. rmg.co.uk/national-maritime-museum or visitbritain.com

Face to face with men and women from the sunken Vasa


Much has been made of the salvage and display of Stockholm's number-one tourist attraction, the top-heavy warship Vasa, which took on water through open gun ports and sank in Stockholm Harbour in 1628.

It lay on the seabed until Anders Franzen, an amateur marine archaeologist located it in 1956. The reassembled vessel is on show at the Vasamuseet and, based on skeletons retrieved when the Vasa was raised, reconstructed faces of some who were on board can be seen in The People from Vasa exhibition.

Crew had permission to take their families along on a trial run when the warship was completed for the Swedish Navy. And so men, women and children went down with the Vasa. Researchers gave names to these anonymous individuals and their likenesses are being recreated based on scientific study of the skeletal remains.

"Gustav's" skeleton was almost intact. He was in his 40s and 160cm tall. His spine shows signs of hard work or illness. "Filip" was about 30, short and slightly build. His teeth did not meet properly, giving his jaw an irregular appearance. "Beata" was about 25 and undernourished, which accounts for her drawn facial appearance. "Yiva" was initially thought to be a boy but continued research proved she was a teenage girl, who was also in poor health on that catastrophic day.

·Vasamuseet, Djurgarden, Stockholm. www.vasamuseet.se

On the waterfront in Wales


Copper plates cast in Swansea sheathed the hulls of the British fleet. They made Lord Nelson's ships faster than his opponents. Guns and cannonballs were cast in Cyfarthfa, which was the largest ironworks in the world at that time. Coal helped make Wales the world's first industrial powerhouse, a position facilitated by access to the sea and its ports.

These and other stories of achievement are told at the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea but, unlike old-style maritime and industrial museums, here the impact of industrialisation on ordinary citizens is exposed in very clear terms.

Historic photographs are on display at the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea. Supplied picture

By the 1850s more people were employed in industry than working on the land. By the 1890s, Welsh workers produced most of the world's tin plate. Wales succeeded in making Britain prosperous but suffered the consequences of becoming one of the most heavily industrialised places in the world.

And so, along with exhibits such as the steel rolling mill and the forge tilt hammer, visitors can learn how shifts in demand and supply affected communities and lives. There's no shortage of rugby, brass bands and male voice choirs but social upheaval, grime, pollution and poverty are also explored.

·National Waterfront Museum, Maritime Quarter, Swansea. www.museumwales.ac.uk or visitwales.com

Port tales and Singaporean obsessions


One of the exhibits at the National Museum of Singapore is a letter written by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1823 in which he marvels at the island's huge potential for trade.

Singapore's key location near the Straits of Malacca, the main route for India-China sea trade, attracted Malay, Chinese, Indian and Arab traders, and their goods.

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Sniff the aromas and admire the botanical prints at the National Museum of Singapore. Picture: Margaret Turton

This diverse range of ethnic groups and their commodities, namely spices, were the springboard for the Singaporean food we all love to eat today. Such is its importance to the modern city that the National Museum of Singapore opened a gallery that specifically focuses on food.

Also called the Gallery of a Singaporean Obsession, the Food Gallery tells how 10 iconic dishes - laksa, nasi lemak, chicken rice and char kway teow among them - reflect the old trade port's cross- cultural exchanges.

Along with displays of food-related artefacts, a section is given over to the spices found in favourite local dishes. There are smells, too.

Visitors are invited to sniff the aromas and admire the botanical prints and drawings stylishly incorporated into the display.

The originals, commissioned by a contemporary of Raffles, William Farquhar, First Resident and Commandant of Singapore, can also be viewed in this Museum.

·National Museum of Singapore, Stamford Road, Singapore. nationalmuseum.sg or www.visitsingapore.com

Clear waters in Beijing


An old Chinese saying goes: "Water can carry a boat and it can also capsize a boat." So, to underscore the view that the Qing Dynasty was solid as a rock and would never fall, Emperor Qianlong built a boat of stone.

Since 1755, this has stood on the edge of Kunming Lake, a shallow stretch of water within the Summer Palace complex in Beijing.

Clear and Peaceful Boat, Summer Palace, Beijing. Picture: Margaret Turton

With pavilions, pagodas and temples, the complex is an open-air museum and everyone who goes there marvels at the boat. Often called the Marble Boat but originally named the Clear and Peaceful Boat, it is 36m-long with a hull made of massive stone slabs. A wooden superstructure was damaged in the Opium War and again in the Boxer Rebellion, and both times rebuilt with funds diverted from the Chinese Imperial Navy.

Was it all a folly?

By 1911 the Qing Dynasty had crumbled. China became a republic and the Summer Palace was opened to the general public. Still, the Clear and Peaceful Boat stands steady as a rock.

·Summer Palace, Haidian District, Beijing. summerpalace-china.com or helenwongstours.com