For generations, pirates have been portrayed in film, fiction, and fashion as symbols of freedom and adventure. The exhibition explores how popular culture has shaped our view of pirates from the past and what real pirates' lives were like.

Pirates begins with an immersive digital experience based on the video game Sea of Thieves, the most contemporary iteration of pirates and pirate culture. It then tracks back in time to the origin of the fictional pirate, Treasure Island. The story of pirates in theatre, literature, film, and TV is told using a variety of techniques, including digital and physical interactives, graphics, and object displays.

At the centre of the exhibition, visitors literally walk through a giant book, Captain Johnsons, A General History of the Pyrates, the most reliable source of information about real pirates from the 17th and 18th centuries. The book acts as the threshold between the world of fictional pirates and that of real pirates. Objects in this section include an 18th-century cutlass displayed alongside an AK47 to illustrate the 'tools of the trade' of historical and contemporary pirates.

The exhibition culminates with the display of an actual gibbet cage, still containing a fragment of a human skull, to represent the violent end that came to many of the pirates who lived very violent lives.

Via a range of voices, differing perspectives of pirates and piracy are explored, and our attitudes to contemporary piracy are examined. 

The client team developed the content to include stories of female and black pirates and commissioned artist, Ica Niemz to create a pirate figure representing queer pirates, whose stories may never be known. Designmap developed a crew of non-binary and mixed-ability pirate characters as collaged figures for the exhibition.

Pirates opened at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall in March 2023. It transfers to Royal Museums Greenwich in January 2025 for an 18-month run.

‘Nothing hooks us quite like a pirate’ 

4 star review by Orlando Bird, Daily Telegraph