In June this year, National Museums Liverpool (NML) announced that it was working on a feasibility study on the future of De Wadden, a 20th-century three-masted schooner from our maritime history collection.
De Wadden was purchased by the Merseyside Maritime Museum in 1984 and by 1987 it was drydocked to allow for a programme of conservation and restoration. In the early 1990s the museum briefly ran some tours of the deck and education sessions, before this was withdrawn to allow further conservation work to take place. Since then, conservation has been ongoing to stabilise the vessel, which has remained drydocked.
Museum disposal can be a difficult and emotive subject, so we began this process with an understanding that it was important to gather as much knowledge and experience as we could, working with transparency and openness.
We consulted with colleagues at National Historic Ships, International Congress of Maritime Museums (ICMM), Museums Association (MA) and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, among others. We also met with members of Liverpool’s maritime community who were generous with their passion, knowledge and support.
We learned more about De Wadden, the condition the ship was in when it was purchased by the museum in the 1980s, and the original intentions behind the acquisition.
In September, we attended and spoke about De Wadden at the ICMM conference in Halifax, Canada. Among the representatives from maritime museums from across the world, there was a clear consensus that these venues need to be able to rationalise their collections and prioritise their resources, now more than ever. There were also some illuminating ideas on the best way to tell our stories and record vessels that are of real benefit to visitors and not are necessarily about keeping the object in its original state.
Adhering to NML's own disposal policy and the MA’s Code of Ethics, De Wadden was listed on the MA website in June as being available for transfer. For almost six months it has remained listed on the site while our feasibility study has continued.
In October, we presented a report to our board of trustees, who formally agreed to the deaccession of De Wadden. The option to relocate the vessel within NML's own waterfront estate was discounted, following a study into the significant costs it would incur which would also be ongoing, leaving us with following remaining options – deaccession and disposal by deconstruction or deaccession and disposal by transfer to another organisation.
From this month, the declaration of intent to deconstruct will be listed on National Historic Ships’ website. We will continue to work with the small number of expressions of interest we have had already, as well as any new ones that come between now and midday on 6 February 2023 before we take the final recommendation to our board in March 2023.
In parallel to this we are starting to explore how we preserve De Wadden’s legacy in Liverpool’s maritime history, because whichever disposal route we take, we know this is a fundamental part of the process.
From a 3D video model rendering of the ship to, in the event of deconstruction, elements of De Wadden that could be saved, we are looking into a variety of options and hope this will be an opportunity to bring more voices into the conversation.
It was important to dedicate time and resources to this. A dedicated working group has met regularly with trustees over the past few months, which has proven to be invaluable. It has helped us check ourselves through the whole process, enabled us to think differently and helped us order our priorities.
Since our announcement in June, colleagues from other museums and local authorities have reached out to us to learn more about the work we are undertaking. The reality is that these larger objects do pose significant challenges.
It has been important to talk openly. It can only be a good thing that, as a sector, we are framing these questions around sustainability and the potential to think quite differently about our collections.
We have learned about the importance of being brave in our conversations, truly listening and reaching out for help. As a result, we feel confident in our working, that we know what is needed for our collections, but also hugely appreciative that people will support us through complex decisions.
There have been some positive and unexpected outcomes of this work. We have renewed relationships, which we hope will bring exciting collaborative opportunities as the Maritime Museum and Canning Dock redevelopment continues.
The work has also supported our statements of significance around the other vessels in our collection. An example is the new clarity of thinking around Edmund Gardner, a 1950s pilot cutter, which tells a much bigger story around Liverpool and the river Mersey.
Follow the progress of De Wadden here