Reflections on the De Wadden schooner disposal - Museums Association

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Reflections on the De Wadden schooner disposal

Taniah Simpson and Michelle Walsh on lessons learned from National Museums Liverpool's deaccessioning of the Dutch vessel
Disposal
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Taniah Simpson
Former collections service manager at National Museums Liverpool, now head of collections at Culture Coventry Trust
Michelle Walsh
Curator of maritime history and technology at National Museums Liverpool

In December 2022, National Museums Liverpool (NML) director Laura Pye and executive director of museums and participation Janet Dugdale updated the sector on the disposal of De Wadden, the 20th century three-masted schooner from the Maritime Museum’s collection.

A year on, the project has moved on significantly. In May 2023 we announced that, following a programme of recording of the vessel, De Wadden would be deconstructed.

The process is far from over, but as we have moved into a new chapter, we felt it was a good time to reflect on how we got here and share some of the lessons we’ve learned along the way. 

1. Firstly, we recognised how important it was to have a robust structure that underpinned our actions and collective decisions.

The system we set out and followed has anchored us (no pun intended), kept us objective and helped provide us with confidence in our decisions. It also provided a road map for clear decision-making points as we moved forward.

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Disposal on this scale requires considerable work from the start, even before you know what the outcome may be.

From research into the vessel’s documentation and legal status, to feasibility studies, stakeholder and community engagement, and fielding expressions of interest in the vessel, it was essential that we had a framework which allowed for time and flexibility to deliver each stage with adequate care.

The process we followed included the following elements: 

  • Museums Association’s Disposal Toolkit
  • NML’s Deaccessioning and Disposal Procedure
  • Collections review
  • Research into the legal status of the collection items
  • National Historic Ships’ guidelines
  • Community engagement and public consultation

A collections review is not always a precursor to disposal; instead, it is often used to inform collecting policies, identify gaps in research, storage requirements or opportunities for community engagement.

The collections review created statements of significance for each of our largest vessels and developed up to date information around them.

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It was also invaluable to work in tandem with National Historic Ships’ guidelines on deconstructing historic vessels.

Our intention is to implement these guidelines to the highest standard possible and we hope that our experience in doing so will potentially benefit other organisations in a similar situation.

2. The project team had representatives from Maritime Museum Curatorial Department, Collections Care Department (including Conservation, Collections Management, and Shipkeeping and Engineering), Leadership Team, PR and Communications, Major Projects and NML’s Board of Trustees.

Along the way, there were disagreements and sensitive conversations. It was crucial that we all, at our different levels and experience, felt empowered to speak openly.

De Wadden is a 20th century three-masted schooner from the Netherlands – National Museums Liverpool

3. Going through De Wadden’s records, it was interesting to connect with previous colleagues who had been involved in the vessel’s acquisition and to understand their ideas for its future.

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Looking at the wider context of Liverpool: wartime destruction, postwar decline, and the social deprivation at the time of purchase (1980s), the regeneration of the Albert Dock and the subsequent launch of the Merseyside Maritime Museum (as we were then known) represented a brighter future.

We felt it was important to understand and respect that historical context letting it inform, but not necessarily influence, our decision, taking place some 40 years later. It is all part of De Wadden’s story and, as we continue to record its history, this forms part of it too.

4. Another key element for us was a freedom to express our own personal disappointment. Disposing of an object that is meaningful to people is hard and we would not be working in museums if we did not care about this.

While it is important to be objective when considering information, being honest about how it made us feel opened us up to more meaningful conversations around the responsibility for our recommendations.

It also helped make the eventual decision feel much more manageable for us as individuals. We all care about the collections and what we do, and it was important to be able to express this.

5. De Wadden is dry-docked in a popular and busy location on Liverpool’s waterfront. We knew any discussion about a potential disposal of this ship was going to be a sensitive subject and all of us felt the responsibility to get it right; to engage openly, be transparent and be ready to respect those opinions we might not agree with.   

As a team we support each other but it can still be hard to read some of the comments left by some followers who feel passionately that we are taking the wrong approach.

It’s so important not to take criticism personally, however difficult that may be when it comes through social media channels where those voices can feel very forceful.

We read it all, engage when appropriate, and appreciate that all of it, both negative and positive, represents the love for Liverpool’s remarkable maritime heritage that we all share. 

Next steps: working with colleagues from Windermere Jetty Museum, we have begun the digital rendering of De Wadden. 

Our ambition is to create a digital twin, capturing as much data as possible to produce a comprehensive record of the ship, suitable for contemporary museum interpretation and research as well as the production of a scale model if needed in the future.

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