MA response to a DCMS consultation on the protection of historic ships

Helen Wilkinson,
Over the summer, DCMS has been reviewing all the systems that are inplace to protect the historic environment, including the listing of buildings. As part of this, DCMS has proposed that there should be a new system to protect historic ships, which would include a new unit in the National Maritime Museum with responsibility for advising the government on historic ships across the UK...
1. Background

1.1 The Museums Association (MA) is an independent membership organisation representing museums and galleries in the UK and people who work for them. The Association has over 4,500 individual members and 600 institutional members.

These institutional members encompass around 1500 museums in the UK ranging from the largest government-funded national museums to small volunteer-run charitable trust museums. Formed in 1889, it is a registered charity, receiving no government funding, which seeks to inform, represent and develop museums and people who work for them in order that they may provide a better service to society and the public.

1.2 Museums have an interest in the proposals made by the review, although we recognise that its scope extends beyond issues relevant to museums. Our brief comments below focus on the impact of the proposals on museums.

1.3 The Museums Association welcomes the fact that the government is addressing the care and preservation of historic ships. However, we remain concerned that there is no consistent framework to protect the UK's underwater cultural heritage, in UK and international waters. We urge the government to explore options for providing better protection to the most important historic wrecks, as well as to the most important historic ships and to reconsider its decision not to ratify the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.

2. Comments on the government's proposals

2.1 The Review notes that alternatives to preserving historic ships should be explored, including recording and modelling, and that preservation is not always the best option. Museums clearly have a role to play in recording and interpreting elements of historic ships, as an alternative to preservation of the whole ship. We hope that the new framework will encourage owners of historic ships to work closely with local museums to develop appropriate strategies for recording, preservation and interpretation.

2.2 We welcome the proposal that there should be a unit to advise the government on policy and priorities with regard to historic ships, and to maintain oversight of the historic ships sector. The tasks that the Review envisages for the unit seem appropriate. However, although we agree that the unit should not become over-large and too expensive, we believe it needs to be able to operate across the UK and at a regional level for it to be effective.

More and more decisions are taken at a regional level in the heritage and cultural sectors: HLF, for example, takes all decisions on funding of less than £2m at a regional level. Other relevant agencies and funding bodies have also adopted a regional structure. The unit should have staff with clearly-defined responsibility for each region (although this need not necessarily mean one staff member per region.) The unit will be sponsored from England by DCMS, but it will be important that its policy has a UK-wide application.

Given the distribution of historic vessels across Scotland, Wales and North Ireland, the policy must cross borders. The new unit would need to make positive efforts to work with national representatives throughout the UK.

2.3 Placing the NHSU in the National Maritime Museum will mean that the unit is able to draw on the specialist knowledge within the museum. However, the unit should be constitutionally separate from the museum, so as to maintain its independence in policy terms. We are also concerned that the unit should be adequately resourced, with clearly ring-fenced funding so that the NMM is not placed under any financial strain by the arrangement.

The review cites the Portable Antiquities scheme as a possible model. But the British Museum has argued that it has taken on additional financial commitments through running the PAS, for which it has not been adequately compensated by additional funding. We do not want to see the NMM similarly stretched.

2.4 A small grants function would clearly be very helpful: experience in the museums sector has shown that there is a real demand for small grants for basic collection management needs which tend to fall outside the responsibilities of bodies such as HLF. However, we recognise that the government cannot begin to cover the preservation and maintenance costs of historic ships.

For this reason, we would caution the government to be careful to manage expectations in setting up the new unit and to target funding carefully to ensure greatest impact and sustainability. For example, small grants could be used for conservation assessments, which might in turn lead on to bids to HLF.

For further information, please contact

Helen Wilkinson
Policy Officer
Museums Association
24 Calvin Street
E1 6NW