Ship shape | Preserving our seafaring heritage - Museums Association

Ship shape | Preserving our seafaring heritage

Maritime vessels are expensive to maintain and difficult to fund, but there are still lots of success stories, finds Chris Mugan
Conservation maritime
Chris Mugan
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RSS Discovery was built for scientific research in 1901 and is synonymous with Antarctic exploration © JOHN POW

In August 2019, when the former deep-sea trawler Arctic Corsair was towed from its location beside Hull’s Streetlife Museum of Transport to a temporary berth nearby, thousands of people thronged the waterfront to bid it a temporary farewell.

The vessel, which had been open to the public since 1999, was being moved for the first time in more than 20 years to allow flood protection works to take place on the river.

Interest was due partly to its status as a much-appreciated local landmark, but also to the fact that everyone knew that this sturdy craft would remain hidden from public view for some time as its refurbishment at a nearby shipyard continued.

Arctic Corsair will reopen in early 2025 as part of a wider £30m project to develop Hull as a major maritime heritage attraction, and the vessel provides an ongoing lesson in the amount of time, effort and resources needed to ensure such craft are kept structurally sound, safe and also accessible.

A view of the Arctic Corsair in berth
The historic sidewinder trawler Arctic Corsair in dry dock
Salvage work

All around the UK, a wide array of vessels receive varying amounts of care and support. Some are looked after by small teams of dedicated volunteers, while others are large-scale operations run by national institutions.

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They range from mighty warships, such as London’s HMS Belfast, which is operated by Imperial War Museums, to smaller vessels such as those featured at the Scottish Maritime Museum’s sites in Irvine and Dumbarton.

At the other end of the scale are those craft that are degrading fast and are in desperate need of repair, such as the North Carr Lightship in Dundee.

The vessel is in imminent danger of sinking and Taymara, the water-based activities charity that owns the lightship, recently announced that it was planning to deconstruct the National Historic Fleet vessel, unless an alternative solution is put forward.

Whatever the overall state of the vessels that form part of the UK’s maritime heritage, those involved in the sector firmly believe that it is an important topic that deserves support.

Dominic Tweddle recently stepped down as director general of the National Museum of the Royal Navy

Dominic Tweddle, who left his post as the director general of the National Museum of the Royal Navy in November last year, argues that maritime heritage is relevant to all our lives today. After all, as well as the importance of the subject in the history of the UK, 85% of what we consume here still comes via shipping.

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“We are so used in the modern world to things just happening, arriving, travelling by air, that we forget that most of what we need comes by sea,” Tweddle says. “And if you can’t visit a ship, you can’t understand that sense of history.”

Tweddle says that for many years there was little enthusiasm to maintain historic ships, partly because of the huge costs.

“What remains is a random collection of things that have managed to survive,” he says.

“Do they necessarily represent a cross-section of our history? No, they don’t. The presumption seems to have been that ships are difficult, which is true, and they’re expensive, which is also true. So when people are confronted with the problems of trying to save them, it’s often felt that it’s best to run very fast in the opposite direction.”

Berth rights
Matthew Bellhouse Moran (left) and Ray MacFarlane standing next to HMS Unicorn UPS

HMS Unicorn is berthed in Dundee near the North Carr Lightship. It is cared for by the Unicorn Preservation Society, which struggles
to raise funds to maintain reputedly the world’s third oldest – and Scotland’s oldest – floating vessel.

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Its director, Matthew Bellhouse Moran, points out that even military vessels were not built to last and there is often a lack of economic impetus to preserve ships compared with other heritage sites, such as historic buildings.

“No ship I can think of in the past three centuries has ever been designed with a lifespan in mind of more than 30 years, because they’re always built to match a very particular set of circumstances and needs,” Moran says.

“They’re not the high-prestige, high-investment, built-to-last heritage of, say, a Robert Adam country pile.”

Another key challenge is maintaining the skills needed to look after what are often unique vessels with specific restoration and preservation challenges. Wooden craft require specialist talents to restore their hulls and rigging, for example. Moran warns that shipwrighting is a vanishing skill in the UK and beyond.

DUNDEE

As the largest city on the river Tay, Dundee has a rich maritime heritage that is reflected in its museums today.

Dundee Heritage Trust operates Discovery Point, which is the home of RRS Discovery. There is also a museum that tells the story of the vessel, which was built for scientific research and launched in 1901.
lts initial mission was the British National Antarctic Expedition, which carried Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton on their first journey to the Antarctic.

Not far from RRS Discovery is HMS Unicorn, which was launched in 1824 following its construction as a 46-gun frigate at Chatham Royal Dockyard. The vessel arrived in Dundee in 1873 as a training ship for the Royal Naval Reserves – a role that it carried out until the 1960s. HMS Unicorn is now a museum and heritage attraction and is moored at Victoria Dock.

Moored in the same dock is the North Carr Lightship, which is deteriorating rapidly and is in danger of sinking. Its owner, Taymara, a water-based activities charity, recently announced plans to deconstruct it.

“There are ships clamouring for people who know how to care for them,” he says. “And because it’s a limited market and these companies are small, the costs are absolutely eye-watering.”

High costs and a lack of restoration skills, combined with the difficulties in raising funds, make maintaining historic vessels extremely challenging.

“There is no statutory legal protection and if your ship is floating you fall down all sorts of legal grey areas,” Moran says. “There are lots of funds you are not eligible for because you are not built heritage.”

In HMS Unicorn’s case, this is in spite of the fact that it has been in roughly the same spot for 150 years, unable to leave as it is too fragile and the dock has been blocked off from open water.

“One reason funders are unwilling to invest in transport heritage is because you could move that object from the context for which the funding was granted,” Moran says.

“And also, funders quite rightly don’t want you to become reliant on them, so they are uncomfortable if something is not self-sustaining, where you’ll just come back in 10 years asking for the same thing again.”

There are lots of funds you are not eligible for because you are not built heritage

Matthew Bellhouse Moran

With virtually no shoreside facilities, less than a third of the frigate’s operational funding derives from visitors, the rest coming from non-recurring grants. To create a more stable operational and financial structure, Moran recently unveiled Project Safe Haven.

This £26m scheme will see HMS Unicorn moved to East Graving Dock, becoming the centrepiece of the new Dundee Maritime Heritage Centre. The vessel would lie in dry dock in its new location, which will reduce preservation costs, while also allowing the trust to increase visitor income.

“It is absolutely key that we completely redevelop our business model,” says Moran. “A static ship exhibit with no facilities and no ability to diversify revenue streams is always going to be a struggle to conserve and keep open.”

About half of the redevelopment costs are expected to come from the Heritage Fund, which leaves around £13m still to raise.

“Investment in longer-term ideas is key and this is where funders like the National Lottery Heritage Fund really shine – they emphasise continuous financial sustainability as being key to consideration,” Moran says.

“The Heritage Fund is incredibly supportive and is aware of the increasing needs of maritime history in the UK. It has supported HMS Unicorn through pre-development phase of the proposed project.”

HMS Unicorn’s initiative follows a similar strategy pursued by Dundee Heritage Trust, the organisation that preserves much of this city’s industrial past. This includes Discovery, the UK’s first Royal Research Ship.

Built in Dundee in 1901, this vessel has become synonymous with Antarctic research, and is linked to famous explorers such as Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton.

A view of RSS Discovery
RRS Discoverys initial mission was the British National Antarctic Expedition, which carried Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton on their first journey to the Antarctic © JOHN POW

The ship is based in dry dock on Dundee’s waterfront at Discovery Point, a complex that includes recently opened features to attract more visitors.

In October 2022, Dundee Heritage Trust unveiled a £1m redevelopment including Discovery Dome, a 360-degree panorama of the city with a projection of the historic docks narrated by actor Alan Cumming.

It is a vital development, as 98% of the trust’s turnover comes from self-generated income. Other measures to become more sustainable include installing energy-efficient lighting, resulting in a 40% reduction in energy consumption.

“Core-funding support continues to be a key aim to create a sustainable future for the ship,” says Emma Halford-Forbes, the heritage and exhibitions director at Dundee Heritage Trust. “Visitor figures have not recovered to pre-Covid levels, while energy bills and other overheads have risen.”

Funding maritime programmes

Hull is another UK city that has been investing heavily in its maritime heritage. Hull Culture and Leisure (HCL), which operates parks, libraries and cultural venues for the city council, has been refurbishing and preserving five historic maritime sites and two historic ships – the Arctic Corsair and the Spurn Lightship.

HULL

Hull Culture and Leisure’s Spurn Lightship was built in 1927 and its official name is Light Vessel No 12 Spurn. It was acquired by Hull City Council in 1983 and she has been a landmark in the marina ever since.

Spurn is double-hulled for extra protection and benefits from thick metal plates. Its location in the marina has protected it from tides and the effects of saltwater. The vessel, which will remain in the marina, has been fully restored with new interpretation and displays that will tell the full story. It will reopen to the public later this year.

Hull Culture and Leisure’s other vessel, the Arctic Corsair, was built in Beverley, Yorkshire, in 1960 and saw action during the cod wars of the 1970s.

The vessel is also being restored and reinterpreted, including improved access for visitors. Because the Arctic Corsair is particularly susceptible to corrosion, it has been moved to dry berth. Keeping the ship out of the water means maintenance will also be more economical.

With the vessel out of the water, visitors will be better able to appreciate its size, as much of the craft usually lies under the waterline, including its massive fish-hold. A lift is being cut into the hold alongside the deck to allow many more visitors to view the interior.

The area has long enjoyed links to sea trade and fishing, though little attention was paid to these associations when Hull was awarded UK City of Culture in 2017. But the success of that year encouraged the council to support HCL’s ambitious Hull Maritime programme.

Fundraising has been helped by having a strong relationship with the Heritage Fund, explains Simon Green, HCL’s director of cultural services.

“We’d been in conversation with the Heritage Fund for a while, saying our maritime heritage is the bit that needs investment. It was on board with that, but the momentum of City of Culture, and the enormous visitor numbers, helped with the bidding.”

Hull Maritime’s budget is £30m, with about 54% coming from the council and 38% from the Heritage Fund. Of this, £6m is being spent on restoration of the ships.

A small grant has come from National Highways, due to major works on the A63 that runs through the city. And Hull Maritime has accessed about £1m from a pot of money set aside to offset impacts on residents and businesses.

So, while fortunes for historic ships remain mixed, some working in the sector believe there are reasons to be optimistic about their future.

The Spurn Lightship being towed in Hull
A fair forecast

The National Museum of the Royal Navy, which has museums and ships in Portsmouth, Hartlepool and Belfast, has invested heavily in its estate in recent years.

This includes a £45m revamp of HMS Victory at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. The ship, which led the decisive triumph over the Franco-Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 was first brought into dry dock at the dockyard in 1922.

PORTSMOUTH

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is a key site for martime heritage in the UK, offering visitors a range of historic ships to visit.

These include the Mary Rose, which was launched in 1511 and discovered by a team of divers in 1971. The vessel was recovered and returned to the surface in 1982. It was then transported to its final home in the dockyard where it is the centrepiece of a large museum run by the Mary Rose Trust.

The National Museum of the Royal Navy at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard manages Nelson’s warship, HMS Victory; the pride of Queen Victoria’s fleet, HMS Warrior; and HMS M.33, one of only three surviving British warships from world war one.

Finally there is HMS Alliance, Britain’s only remaining world war two submarine, managed by the Royal Navy Submarine Museum. Portsmouth also offers a number of other maritime attractions, including the Explosion Museum of Naval Firepower.

Former director general Tweddle says that over the past 15 years what he believes is the world’s largest collection of historic warships has become the central focus of the organisation.

“We moved from being a set of museums with the odd ship to a collection of ships with supporting museums,” he says. “These vessels have done what we thought they would – with their masts towering above, you can’t miss them. They grip people’s attention and they tell a story almost by themselves.”

An aerial view of the HMS Victory Live experience at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

Maritime vessels are never going to be cheap to restore, maintain and operate, but with seafaring playing such a key role in the history of the UK, including empire, migration, war and commerce, investing in them should pay dividends for those who do take the plunge.

Chris Mugan is a freelance journalist

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