Pirates! On the quest for the ‘true story’ of Captain Kidd

Pirates! On the quest for the ‘true story’ of Captain Kidd

The Museum of London Docklands’ Pirates: The Captain Kidd Story exhibition has all the essential ingredients of a good museum experience: calling in the services of an engaging character and narrative, providing opportunities for visitors to experience past lives, linking history to contemporary popular culture, letting visitors leave their mark on the exhibition and posing a closing dilemma or question. In addition, visitors are set a starting quest, the interpretation is clear, unfussy and effective and there’s plenty of interesting pirate ‘facts’.

Meet an engaging character

The content is structured around the story of Captain Kidd, privateer, buccaneer and sometime pirate, ultimately hung at nearby Wapping in 1701 (Image below from NMM).

Experience the life

You can sit in a ropey old ships galley, dress up as a pirate and hear and smell the sounds of 17th century ships and taverns.

Link to pop culture

Find a Vivienne Westwood pirate outfit, shelves of pirate books and clips of many a pirate film – including Maureen O Hara in Against All Flags and a cheesy Captain Kidd-themed Cheerios ad.

Against All Flags promo image:

Cheerios ad:

Leave your mark

Why not draw your own pirate flag and clip it to the rigging? Here’s mine:

Answer a question

Finally, the exhibition poses a closing question and asks visitors to answer it: was Captain Kidd guilty as charged? I have to admit I think the evidence was rather stacked to support one view – but the visitors’ responses (on view for everyone to see) didn’t seem to match up to it.

The starting quest

At the very start, visitors encounter a Hollywood style scene-setting trailer, complete with rousing soundtrack and suitably gravel-voiced narration. The phrases are imperative and challenging. Who was the real Captain Kidd? Who did he sail with? Who did he sail for? Find the real evidence? Was he guilty? Trace his last steps… Hear his last words…


Throughout, the text is easy to read, and presented with the aplomb of a theatrical experience –  using titles like ‘A dubious scheme’ and ‘The Syndicate’ (Captain Kidd’s backers). For pirate novices, terms like ‘buccaneer’ and ‘plunder’ are defined at the foot of relevant captions, and this approach even extends to words like ‘investors’ and ‘myth’ – though I was surprised to see ‘censure’ presented without definition.

As well as this ongoing glossary, another neat trick helps you understand and interpret the captions effectively: near the start of the exhibition a wall-sized exhibit encourages you to find common pirate locations on an old chart of the world, while reading a little about each spot. When these locations crop up in later captions, those who had explored the map have a deeper understanding of the places and events later described.

Additional child-friendly pointers prompt you to find things in paintings, or consider how you would feel in certain situations. And a range of ‘what would you do’ tasks are scattered throughout, demonstrating some of the tough decisions pirates – and those who sought to catch them – faced.

Intriguing facts

Although a relatively object-light exhibition, there are still plenty of interesting facts and stories sneaked in. A rather bizarre exhibit lets you discover how much a pirate would have been paid for losing an eye, limb or other bodily function. As I type this with a fractured finger, I was delighted to discover I’d be due 800 pieces of eight from my shipmates for losing a digit (equivalent to around £3,200). This exhibit has a serious message though – that pirates operated in organised fashion and looked after each other rather than simply wreaking havoc on the high seas.

We also meet female pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read (though I would have liked to learn more about them) and find out plenty about Wapping and other London pirate haunts in the 17th century.

Mary Read (image from NMM):

Anne Bonny (image from NMM):

As a long-term Wapping-dweller, I know most of our local history, but hadn’t previously heard that, from the 1670s, some of the most important charts were made by a group of cartographers in wapping. This handsome piece was drawn by William Hack, son of an Innkeeper, who signed many of his maps ‘At the signe of Great Britain and Ireland near new stairs in Wapping’ (from NMM).

If you had any doubt that Wapping-dwellers are a different bred, then a 1776 quote from Sir John Fielding clears things up:”

When one goes into Rotherhithe and Wapping, which places are chiefly inhabited by sailors. but hat somewhat of the same language is spoken, a man would be apt to suspect himself in another country. Their manner of living, speaking, acting, dressing and behaving are so peculiar to themselves.

The verdict

So is the exhibition guilty of delivering a fun experience? I’d certainly recommend it – for both kids and (big kid) adults. However, the initial quest feels like an add-on, shown in the exhibition without being linked to the actual visitor experience. Armed with all the imperative questions, I set off around the exhibition on a quest to answer them. Yes, the answers are all provided, but I – like, I expect, most visitors – wanted some confirmation at the end of the experience that I had successfully completed the quest.

I was also – as I usually am at the Docklands outpost of the Museum of London – disappointed by the shop. I’d like to have had the oppo