We have something to learn from marine archaeologists in doing more to engage people in our historic ships and boats – Henry Cleary, Deputy Chair, Maritime Heritage Trust
Marine archaeologists and heritage sailors tend to be wary of each other. A seaman’s chest, knives and coins raised from a Tudor warship can capture the imagination as a link through time with the flesh and blood of history; to the preservationist the rotting timbers in the marshes of a once famous vessel represent failure. The excitement around recovering even small items from an 18th century warship can overshadow heroic efforts to keep many an old tub afloat. To rub salt in the wound arts and cultural organisations, including Historic England, will fund archaeology but not ship preservation. Waiting for us to sink?
We can learn from each other. A wreck will lead with compelling human drama – why did it sink, what or who failed, what happened to the survivors? With recovered artefacts we are drawn into everyday life on board. Think also of popular Dutch and British marine painting where scenes of shipwreck often have a moral or spiritual dimension. Closer to home we have the Titanic. When Maritime Heritage Trust visited Belfast a few years ago to discuss a possible Conference there was a big desire to find a new maritime heritage theme for the city. But efforts to dislodge the global appeal of the 1912 disaster have so far been entirely unsuccessful. Even the remains of humble vessels can excite a response. See, thanks to a recent Facebook post by James Morgan, drone film of the remains of the Waterford steam dredger Port Lairge, a unique survivor of Irish steel shipbuilding and subject of unsuccessful preservation attempts on her withdrawal in 1983. Now this film is raising interest and a desire to do more.
By contrast the unique offering of preservationists is, if possible, to keep a vessel working and bring it to life. But not every project can operate and those who can often only sail on high days and holidays. So to enliven our vessels we also need to recreate some of the human drama and personal stories that archaeologists successfully conjure. Few visitors now can be expected to respond simply to technical history displays on board but they will engage with the trials, failures, ambition and personal stories of those involved – or in the bigger historical picture of which the vessel was part. We should let the spaces, appearance and atmosphere of the vessel support that imagination, sometimes unrestored – see for example the interiors of the WW1 Gallipoli Monitor M33 at National Museum of Royal Navy, Portsmouth. Another example bringing boat and artefact together is the exhibition centred on a new build replica of a Titanic Lifeboat at Falmouth.
Projects with preserved vessels can help archaeologists make sense of what they recover. Recovered relics help the human story closer. We need more joint projects and that will help give our vessels a longer life.
Main image: The wreck of the Hans Egede (1922, Danish 3 masted schooner) at Cliffe, Kent