Throughout history people all over the world have made three-dimensional, small-scale models of their own and others’ material culture. The miniature format can seem easily comprehensible, yet as selective interpretations of reality, models hide complex choices of design and ideology. This article traces the history of the non-European ship model collection in the care of the National Maritime Museum, London. It finds in a single collection of miniature watercraft a nexus for many narratives, highlighting the values and multiple significances that have been invested in these models and others like them, both at the point of their production and during their ‘lives’ in Western collections. In doing so, it investigates the role that non-European models have played in an institution dedicated to ‘British’ national identity and, more broadly, considers the functions, effects and limitations of modelling, both in terms of cross-cultural design practice and museum display.