Sometimes when I walk into an exhibition or gallery my excitement is complemented by a sense of calm; I know instantly that I am going to enjoy the experience and be enriched by it. It happened as I entered "Nelson, Navy, Nation". The first thing I saw was a fantastic lion figurehead, from the prow of a ship, from the early 18th century. He is a glorious beast looming overhead with his teeth bared, resplendent with his crown. Apparently lions were a common choice for smaller warships but very few figureheads survive, so this one is a rare treat. 

The second thing to catch my eye was a painting depicting the launch of the "Cambridge" (1755). It is one of those paintings that is packed full of detail: ships are being provisioned by men rowing boats full of barrels; high-ranking guests are on their way to launch while people on dry land peer out of windows to get a good view of the occasion. It gives a good sense of the importance of the navy in mid-18th-century Britain.

Nearby are two models of a 74-gun ship built at Chatham docks, one of the six royal dockyards in operation during the period. It is fascinating to peer at the "Bellona" and imagine life on board. How men became sailors is the first question to be tackled by the exhibition. In my mind the awful spectre of the Press Gang loomed large, with men being tricked and forced into service. But, the majority of sailors were volunteers; the Press was only used during wartime when men were desperately needed. A recruitment poster from the end of the century emphasises the patriotic aspects of joining up, but also states the rates of pay. For many, the navy was a route out of poverty. The Marine Charity was founded mid-century and helped orphaned and unemployed boys into the navy, providing them with a set of clothes. 

In general, however, sailors provided their own clothes. There is a wonderful pair of trousers on display that are so distinctive that they could have come straight from a Hollywood set. The high-waisted blue striped style complete with horn buttons is iconic. Further on in the gallery, some very fine officers' clothing is on display. One of the things that the exhibition does well is to draw out the status distinctions between the ordinary sailors and their superiors. Whilst the sailors lived in cramped conditions, the higher-ranking officers had their own cabins, which they furnished to their own tastes. All sailors ate better than is usually believed though – another myth exploded in the gallery. Fresh provisions were bought whenever the ship docked at port, although the big round Ship's Biscuit was a constant part of daily provisions. I was thrilled to see one of these on display; it looks like a huge cookie, although certainly not as tasty.

The gallery also looks at how the ordinary sailor was perceived at home. "Jack Tar" was a patriotic, honourable and loyal – but also troubling – figure, commemorated in a variety of ways such as prints and figurines. The museum has a great selection on display that draws out how his image developed and altered, depending on whether he was at sea or on land. Commemoration is one of the major themes of the exhibition as it explores how seamen became celebrities. This brings me to Nelson, perhaps the most famous sailor of all. He was not the first officer to find public fame, but his star shone brightest. During his lifetime he was revered, and the museum has an amazing collection of gifts given to him after his various victories in battle, and of souvenir items made for the public. After his death there was an explosion of commemorative items produced, from mugs and fans to tobacco tins and patch boxes. The Nelson objects are wonderful, but none more so than the uniform he was wearing aboard the "Victory" during the Battle of Trafalgar. His coat bears the scar of the musket-ball and his breeches have been cut apart by the surgeon who tried to save the great man. 

The new gallery tells its story brilliantly. There are some interactive features that will make it more accessible to younger visitors, but it is the objects themselves and how they are curated that make it such a fulfilling experience.

Nelson, Navy, Nation 1688-1815, at National Maritime MuseumSarah Watkins' review of Nelson, Navy, Nation at the National Maritime Museum.4