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Paying Their Way

Raymond Ashley, Maritime Museum of San Diego


Certainly one of the most important factors impinging upon any discussion of how to preserve historic ships or their replicas is how to pay for it all. As we are often reminded, ships are typically the most complicated and expensive creations that any culture endeavors to produce. They are also among the shortest lived of durable objects. Throughout most of history, even when new and actively engaged in the mission for which it was specially conceived, the life of any ship is an endless war against material attrition, where benefit gained over cost of operation is but a narrow victory won by virtue of careful calculation, hard work, and luck. In the course of a normal ship's life the end is ordained: the ship ages to the point where the cost of continual repair exceeds the cost of replacement, or the circumstances which defined the original purpose change and no new adequate mission can be found, or some accident puts a sudden end to the contest. For thousands of years, this was the natural way of things, accepted as a feature of time and struggle that defined the lives of ships as it did the people who made and used them. Then, almost entirely within living memory, some basic rules of that ancient contest changed and today the world is possessed of a substantial inventory of historic and period replica vessels designed for missions that no longer exist.

What happened? Certainly the reasons for this phenomena are varied and complex, but they all seem to relate in some way or another to our present immersion in autonomous technological revolution. At roughly the point when technological revolution became self sustaining rather than intermittent, we began to see antiquated ships persist and ships from our past to reappear as cultural signatures. While we have embraced technological revolution as an ethos, it seems we have not done it without some deep-seated, almost visceral, reservations including unwillingness to part company with some of the great ships that have brought us so far and into such strange and sometimes frightening waters.

Viewed objectively, the cultural phenomena of historic ship preservation is strong testimony that man made objects encode understandings about the world in a way that no documents can. As utilitarian objects, successive ships once conveyed those understandings from one generation to the next through gradual evolutionary development in form as new replaced old. By its nature, however, our current self-sustaining technological revolution subordinates this function and imposes a new order of specialization. Now we have ships that convey cargoes or weapons and ships that convey culture. The challenge for us is to make culture profitable.

It is worth noting once more that keeping ships alive long past usefulness in "normal" activity, or building new incarnations of ship types that historical circumstance rendered extinct long ago is, on the scale we now experience it, unprecedented.1 Heretofore, we have kept the names of ships sacred to memory and narrative, we have preserved their images as works of art, we have kept fragments of them as souvenirs, war trophies and memorials, and we have buried them in tombs. But no culture we know of has gone to such heroic lengths to keep entire obsolete ships around and sometimes operable, to construct extensive and detailed period landscapes to place them in, or to seek them out on the seabed and, in some cases, to bring them back up. Where we can't get our hands on an actual ship, we frantically spawn replicas and dream up new versions of ancient voyages to send them on. In no other period or society could this kind of activity be made to pay its way.

As a result, we are faced with the necessity of preserving and maintaining our fleet of historic and replica vessels because of unique and deliberate intervention (an act of will focused, purposeful, and systematic) in natural processes. This intervention has cultural as well as technical components. Through evolving technique, we intervene physically to prevent our ships from going back to nature. We intervene culturally to sustain this activity in ways that make sense. The two complement one another: unending technological revolution and social change contribute both to the yearning for old ships and the arsenal of means to keep them going. It is well that we remember that ship preservation is always about intervention, profound and incessant. We have been reminded often enough and tragically enough that it is not sufficient to physically save a historic ship or to build a replica of an extinct ship type. In the long scheme of things these actions are historic aberrations that time will correct at first opportunity if we allow it to.

What methods of economic intervention have proven to be effective?

Here we might simply reappraisal all the different kinds jobs we have found for old ships: sail training, museum exhibits, charters, movie contracts, etc. but rather than stroll down that familiar path I would like to suggest a way of schematizing how we think about using them and how our thoughts have changed over time. In the following, I will occasionally draw upon our own experience with the San Diego Maritime Museum for anecdotal purposes; it is the example that I am most familiar with and its own history is long enough to span much of the recent history of the historic ship movement.

In the introduction to his 1982 anthology Material Culture Studies in America, the historian of technology, Thomas J. Schlereth, proposed that Americans have collected and considered the physical remains of their past in three ways, each corresponding to a chronological period in which history museums defined themselves according to mission and activity in particular modes. While Schlereth was talking about museums and material culture generally, his assessment might be usefully applied to the more specialized activity of saving, preserving, and replicating historic ships, in museums or otherwise. Historic ships after all face some of the same problems in justifying themselves and making ends meet that history museums in general do, and usually the economic problems of historic ships are more daunting.2 He called these phases respectively the Age of Collection (1876-1948), the Age of Description (1948-1965), and the Age of Interpretation (1965-). I would suggest that all museums and historic ship projects, however briefly, pass through each of these stages and most carry residual attributes of each stage into the present.

The Age of Collection

Schlereth's first phase began with the recognition of massive social change and breakup of cultural continuity caused by infusion of revolutionary technology and the interest this inspired for public efforts to collect examples of technology that might soon be obsolete. Though private collection of rare and exotic remains of foreign and ancient cultures had always been in vogue, the 1851 London Exhibition launched the collection and exhibition of technological products of our own culture on a grand scale, reproduced in this country by the American Centennial Celebration in Philadelphia. The latter, despite its emphasis on the present and the future, inspired the design style of Colonial Revival, which hearkened to an idealized past and is still in fashion more than a century later. Dedicated public large scale efforts to collect and preserve our past, where they occurred, focused on Presidents' homes and elite forms, culminating in J.D. Rockefeller's endowment of the foundation that would become Colonial Williamsburg in 1927, an approach consistent with a prevailing view of history as a record of the achievements of great men. By this time some historic ships, recognized for their fame, memorial nature, and association with great events, were being "saved" as national efforts. In 1922 HMS Victory entered Portsmouth's drydock number two for extensive restoration and perpetual enshrinement. In 1927, USS Constitution began her most comprehensive restoration to that date, the consequence of a pennies from schoolchildren campaign that culminated in a 22,000-mile national cruise. Even earlier, Chicago's 1893 exposition played host to three Columbus replica ships as well as a replica of the Viking Gokstad ship, sailed from Norway to Chicago by Captain Magnus Andersen.3 The 1909 Fulton-Hudson exposition saw the appearance of a Hudson Halve Maen replica, (which for want of a subsequent mission ended her life naturally: in decrepitude). Yet not every preservation effort concerned itself with great men or elite forms. In 1927 the Star of India, an archetypal working class artifact if there ever was one, appeared in San Diego as a project of the Zoological Society intended to house an aquarium as well as a maritime museum.

Though historians of the period disdained the notion, the above efforts were inspired by a belief that some essence of a vanished society was contained within its artifacts, and that this essence could be experienced through contact with those artifacts or reproductions of them, especially when encountered in dense environments like ships or outdoor museums. The value of this when great men or great events were concerned was considered self-evident. The role of the museum was to collect the very best examples, preserve (or conserve), and display them. When the artifact in question was an everyday vernacular item, the sell was more difficult. Though the original schemers who brought the Star of India to San Diego no doubt wanted to convey the essential and inherent nobility of deepwater sail before that subculture disappeared entirely, there was neither the understanding nor the wherewithal to make this feasible. For the next three decades, the Star of India languished decrepitly in San Diego, offered up to her audience as a maritime curiosity cabinet. As a "collected item," she was not so much paying her way as delaying an inevitable and natural end, barring some form of profound intervention.

The Age of Description

By the 1950's, the advent of the Annales school, social history, quantitative history, labor history, the history of technology, historical anthropology and the proliferation of history museums everywhere as sources of community identity had torn asunder the notion of history as a privileged perspective reflecting the actions of great men. Artifacts had gained some ground against the document in the minds of historians, but the curiosity value of an artifact or its association with the great and famous was no longer sufficient to satisfy an audience conditioned by radio and television to expect a coherent story. If simple contact with the artifact was no longer sufficient, neither was its message considered self-evident.

Outdoor museums and historical ships now possessed a new mission: to satisfy curiosity about the mysterious past of average people. Through the 1950's historic ships often appeared situated amongst rich period surroundings: Plymouth Plantation, the (first set of) discovery ships at Jamestown settlement and Mystic. Utilizing a variety of presentation techniques often lumped together as "living history," the everyday and the vernacular were emphasized through descriptive detail, offering access to extinct experience and presumably the value systems this experience represented. Historic and replica ships were not always created for static representation. Epic voyages of the Mayflower replica, Kon Tiki, and many which followed in the pages of National Geographic and other publications created a popular market for "experimental archeology" fusing demand for adventure stories with the imprimatur of historical research. Such ships paid their way, at least in their first occupation, through their ability to describe past experience to mass public audiences and subsequently, to museum visitors one by one.

Beginning in the late 1950's within a context that recognized both the disappearance and social history of deepwater sail, Star of India was "saved" as a massive community intervention, a process culminating with her sailing of July 4, 1976 eye witnessed by more than 300,000 spectators. Though this was her most conspicuous transformation, another more basic one lie beneath it. Obviously the museum's most important artifact, the Star of India was also seen as a means to house other artifacts and provide a place for their arrangement and description, offering visitors the physical components of a narrative that would encompass regional and general maritime history. When it became apparent that the Star of India did not have enough space to do this adequately, the Berkeley was added in 1973 and the same year, Medea began to increase the pace of public activity with monthly steamings. From a curbside perspective, three ships suggested a sense of place, however incongruous, that one ship alone could not. The product of an "age of collection" acquisition policy, there was no historical context for these ships; none had anything to do with San Diego or with each other during their working lives. They did, however, provide answers to questions about how other people lived, questions also answered by the surrounding public presence of an active tuna fleet. Together with the fishing fleet, these various elements formed an eclectic montage that seemed to work. San Diego's Embarcadero was in this sense a "real" rather than imaginary or reconstructed waterfront. It drew people, they visited the ships, and the ships paid their way. There lurked a danger, however: the working relationship between these various elements was complacently perceived as normal rather than intervention. Then, unfortunately, a harshly "normal" process occurred. It no longer became economically or politically viable to fish tuna in the Eastern Pacific or to can tuna in San Diego. The tuna fleet went away, and so did much of the ambient life that sustained the historic ships. Within a few months of the departure of the fishing fleet, visitation dropped from an average of 160,000 per year to 97,000.

The Age of Interpretation/Analysis

In Schlereth's schema, the artifact has emerged as a companion to the document (the latter now under intense attack by deconstructionists anyway) in the pursuit of history. Schlereth himself tended to focus on the way historians have interpreted material culture, but there was also a great change in the way that public audiences perceive it. To the historian of material culture that Schlereth addressed, artifacts have become texts. To the museum visitor, they have become experiences sought after as interventions into normal experience and normal perception. Often in museums this experience is stimulated by continuous change in technique and form of media available and museums everywhere are pursuing a spectrum of means to intensify the level of engagement they provide. First person interpretation, live theater, manipulative and interactive exhibits, deployment of new technologies such as computer driven animation, touch screens, and virtual reality will likely continue to rule our quest to replace the traditional museum label with something of more pizzazz.

In such an environment, historic ships hold natural advantages. In a world where so much reality is rapidly becoming theater or electronically vicarious, period ships can impose their own form of technically devastating intervention. The highest and purest forms of technology produced by their respective cultures, they still constitute the most complete and complex of all alternative worlds devised. Increasingly, there are opportunities for everyone to experience period ships that actually sail (and even to sail in them) and carry these experiences to those that no longer do. There has been a long running debate that pits the validity of the artifactual ship against the replica. In the age of interpretation, I would argue that they have become mutually supporting in a collective effort to sustain the market for cultural conveyance and elevate the image of the ship as a symbol of profound cultural significance.

Today the San Diego Maritime Museum is in the process of perfecting its own mechanisms of intervention, a process forced upon us by circumstance of events, geography, and past decisions. So far these mechanisms seem to be working and our economic prospects show improvement in most categories, an improvement we consider for our own well being an aberration that requires constant intervention to sustain. It is hardly normal practice to show swashbuckling epic films on the Star of India (films that no longer even make it to late night TV), to stage live theatrical performances of works of literature (including poems such as Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner) that many of us abhorred at book report time in grade school, or to conduct university graduate seminars in maritime history within easy and distracting earshot of a class of forth graders embarked on an imaginary voyage and getting upbraided by a hard case mate. To a significant degree these events engage people because they are so unlikely, and they provoke a receptive state of mind that encourages looking at the ships and exhibits they contain in a new light. Recently within the space of a few months we saw the sudden appearance in the bay of a late eighteenth century privateer replica, a tenth century Tahitian voyaging canoe, a sixteenth century caravel, and a Victory ship. All gloried in their incongruity as interventions into the normal appearance of our waterfront, all brought throngs of people seeking them out as things to experience. These interventions are focused, purposeful, and systematic acts of will that turn our waterfront and our museum outward to the community that sustains us. We encourage the proliferation these unlikely events and numerous others of the same ilk for the same reason that we recently upgraded the Star of India's galvanic protection system: to prevent the norma (and unthinkable) thing from happening. In this sense it is not, nor will it ever, be "normal" for our ships to physically survive on their own or be able to pay their way.

So we intervene.

1 Both the Romans and the French under Napoleon III built replica Greek triremes, as we also do. "Normal" is used here and afterward in the sense of adherence to a paradigm, as in the "normal science" of T.S. Kuhn.

2 Indeed, many of our finest maritime museums have drafted collection policy to expressly prohibit their acquisition of ships in the water because the financial burdens are so horrific.

3 Another replica ship built in Denmark for the 1904 St. Louis exposition traveled to San Francisco in 1915 and then to San Diego in 1926 as deck cargo on Star of India's voyage to her new home. This ship ended its life as a derelict in Balboa Park.

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