'The v&a and the Science Museum are further from the centre of London than we are,' says Richard Ormond, 'but somehow people don't see it that way.' Ormond has been director of the National Maritime Museum (nmm) at Greenwich for 13 years. He came to the museum as curator of pictures from the National Portrait Gallery in 1983 and was elevated to the directorship three years later. The series of blockbuster exhibitions he has organised there ('Armada', 'Mutiny on the Bounty', 'Titanic', etc) have greatly boosted visitor numbers. With Inigo Jones's sublime Queen's House and the former Royal Observatory in its estate, the nmm clearly has a broad appeal. But it is only now that the museum is seriously in line for elevation to what Ormond calls 'the top league' of national museums. The completion of the Neptune Court project is a key asset in that process.
The nmm, never a naval museum but founded on the basis of private benefactions, opened shortly before the Second World War. It had few visitors before it closed for the duration. 'We were seen as an upstart,' says Ormond, recalling the nmm's struggle for recognition in the 1950s and 60s. The collections grew steadily, despite the hostility of other institutions, though the location was a problem. The nmm was a pioneer of the introduction of visitor charges in 1984 - 'coming here is seen as more of a day out, like visiting a country house, than a visit to the v&a or Tate', claims Ormond.
Next year, the spotlight will be on Greenwich, as the Millennium Festival opens a few miles away and the historic centre of the place is linked to central London by an extension of the Docklands Light Railway. Across the road from the nmm (which occupies the former Royal Hospital School premises) is the grandest complex of Baroque buildings in Britain, designed by Wren, Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh, and the heart of the Greenwich World Heritage Site.
Ormond welcomes the approach being pursued by the new caretaker foundation and the arrival of the University of Greenwich and Trinity College of Music on the site. 'At last, there'll be a co-ordinated approach to tourism,' he says, 'and we're very keen to be part of it. Information, catering and other vital issues will be addressed on that basis, for the first time.' He warms to the idea that Greenwich could become an 'Albertopolis of the south', and particularly likes the idea of having students to animate the scene.
'The big question for us,' says Ormond, 'is how to build on what should be a very successful year in 2000.' There will be more big exhibitions, but the nmm is also being fundamentally recast as a museum not just of ships but of the sea. Neptune Court is the centrepiece of this transformation, and Ormond, bypassing any disputes about authorship, feels that the nmm gets very good value from the 'happy collaboration' of bdp and Rick Mather, combining high technical expertise with exceptional design skills.
Getting the museum's buildings into good repair after a period of poor management by the late (and unlamented) Property Services Agency was one of Ormond's priorities following his appointment, along with a stronger emphasis on conservation standards and the development of research. Using the early nineteenth-century buildings effectively was part of his programme of efficient management.
'The museum had been criticised in professional circles for introducing charges,' he concedes. 'But, in a sense, charging people meant that we had to provide value for money, offer a good service, encourage people to return.' The buildings were not, of course, designed for museum use. They had the disadvantage of forming a processional route, one gallery after another without any central focus, inducing a version of tunnel vision in the visitor. Neptune Court 'opens up' the nmm and provides the space for large displays which reflect the enhanced vision of its role. These displays, says Ormond, 'will change - and quite often. The last thing we want is a static centre to the place.'
Ormond retires next year - 'not before time', he says. 'I'm not really in favour of people doing the same job for so many years.' In the past, the nmm has been out of the spotlight, with none of the media attention that has focused on, for example, the v&a. 'It's nice, in some ways, to be overlooked and allowed to get on with things,' says Ormond. 'But the idea that the nmm was worthy, but dull, was very galling.'
Instead of courting publicity with high-profile wheezes, Ormond has steadily built on the nmm's assets and is understandably pleased to bow out on a high. Neptune Court is spectacular, the nearest thing Britain has to Pei's interiors at the Louvre. But Ormond has also set the nmm on course to establish a strong regional presence. It has a large collection of boats in store. The logical place to show them is close to water. The nmm Cornwall, at Falmouth, will do exactly that. There will also be boat- building workshops contained within a new building designed by Long & Kentish. 'We are very keen on outreach,' says Ormond, whose gentle, donnish manner conceals a shrewd mind for business. 'We're in the leisure business. People seem increasingly unaware that the sea is still a vital part of the British economy, yet sailing and cruising are huge growth industries.' From being 'worthy, but dull', the nmm has become a pace-setter in the competitive museum world of the millennium.