Whistle While You Work: Music of Maritime Life

An Onboard Expedition!

On 16th May, HMS Unicorn launched its latest exhibition. ‘Whistle While You Work: Music of Maritime Life’ will immerse visitors in soundscapes and bring Unicorn to life through song. This exhibition is the work of two postgraduate Museum and Gallery Studies students at the University of St Andrews: Eilidh Lawrence and S.M Parker.

As part of the course, students are offered the opportunity to undertake a project specified by a local host organisation, to get hands-on experience in the museum sector. The project remits offered to us were extremely wide and varied, but both Parker and I jumped at the chance to curate an exhibition based on sea shanties on Unicorn.

From the beginning, we had a grand vision for what we hoped the exhibition would be. We were both in agreement that Unicorn herself had to be the star of the show, with music as an aid to illustrate life on a British warship. We also wanted the exhibition to be held throughout the ship so that it moved along with the visitor.

I was tasked with the research for the exhibition. It soon became clear that it would be difficult to find any shanties that were suitable for airing on Unicorn, as the overwhelming majority are explicit! We decided that it would be best to open the remit up to ‘songs of the sea’ more generally, in order that visitors could hear the stories of broadside ballads, and songs written by those on the shore.

Once I had selected a song to highlight star locations on the ship, Parker set about writing scripts to introduce our characters. I wrote up interpretation for the panels to accompany the songs, and we set about recruiting the perfect singers to bring Unicorn to life.

Our highlight of the process was undoubtedly our day spent in Studio 2000 with Sheena Wellington and the Wighton Singers. The Singers truly captured the essence of the songs, from the camaraderie on board to maudlin verses detailing the loss of a loved one.

Lady Franklin’s Lament & the Franklin Expedition

One such maudlin tune is that of Lady Franklin’s Lament, a story told by a sailor having a dream. Jane Franklin is heard describing the loss of her husband, the explorer John Franklin. His ship was lost in Baffin Bay, Greenland, when he was searching for the Northwest Passage. Carved into one of the beams at the bottom of the ship are the initials ‘J.W’. These probably belong to John Weekes, an Assistant to the Master Shipwright, and would have been carved to show that Unicorn’s timber had been approved by his superior. By some coincidence his son, also called John Weekes, was the Carpenter on one of Franklin’s lost ships, HMS Erebus. On the 19th May 1845, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror left Greenhithe to find the Northwest Passage, marking the beginning of Franklin’s lost expedition.

Here, you can listen to Sheena Wellington’s haunting rendition of the lament – a devastating account of Lady Franklin’s attempts to find her husband, and reconcile herself with his fate.

Whistle While You Work – Onboard Expedition – Find Out More

Eilidh Lawrence and S.M. Parker, Unicorn Volunteers and MLitt Museum and Gallery Studies, University of St Andrews students.