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Large Watercraft In Museum Collections

Nick Burningham


I want to discuss some of the problems and questions posed by large watercraft constructed of traditional materials-principally timber-in the collections of maritime museums.

In many maritime museums the conservation and restoration of watercraft is not undertaken by the museum's conservation department, indeed they do not even play a consultative role. Similarly, curators who might be most careful about the documentation, storage, research and interpretation of smaller artefacts will tend to cede those roles to shipwrights and enthusiast-volunteers in dealing with their watercraft. Is this approach justified by the size and complexity of the vessels? Do museum professionals tend to regard large vessels primarily as huge bloody nuisances? Do museums with large collections of watercraft, or a very large watercraft, need specialist curators and conservators of watercraft?

If maritime museums are curated by people who take little interest in actual watercraft and associated marine skills and technology, there is a risk that we will end up with maritime museums that are least satisfying to the people who might be characterised as boat buffs and who are potentially a maritime museum's most ardent supporters and frequent visitors.

Watercraft are acquired by museums for a wide variety of reasons, and in some cases large watercraft are the genesis of museums or are museums in themselves.

Large watercraft are impressive, evocative and monumental. It has been observed that when it is necessary to imbue a major event, such as a national bicentenary, with the semblance of real history and pageant, then the tall ships race is called in. Watercraft in museum collections can be characterised in a variety of ways: for example as historical icons (eg. HM Bark Endeavour, USS Constitution; and there are Wasa and Mary Rose which to museologists are icons of the history of conservation ), industrial archaeology (Great Britain), symbols of past heroism (HMS Victory, James Caird), ethnographic artefacts (eg. Sekar Aman in the collection of the ANMM and the large collection of Southeast Asian watercraft in the Darwin Museum of Arts and Sciences), or as symbols of final and glorious development of sailing ships (James Craig, Cutty Sark), and there are watercraft that are collected as examples of types such as steam yachts, pilot launches, 18ft skiffs, etc, etc. These catagories are obviously not exclusive and one could go on inventing at some length.

There is also the view that large watercraft are all essentially "monuments to masculine technological achievement" (Anderson 1990) or "big toys for big boys". And as such they are criticised for consuming a disproportionately large share of the funds which government divvies out to museums. A similar amount spent on the collection, interpretation and display of artefacts that could be used to interpret women's lives-nappies were an example suggested by Margaret Anderson- a similar amount spent on the collection of nappies and such-like would virtually corner the market in such artefacts.

Watercraft that are larger than day-sailer yachts are, for most museums, expensive to maintain and difficult or impossible to house. These big and expensive toys are perhaps resented, and often ignored by curators and conservators. At best, their conservation and curation is seen as being akin to the conservation and curation of architectural heritage or monuments rather than museum artefacts. And this view has a lot to recommend it. The philosophical questions addressed in the conservation of architectural heritage are often appropriate to the conservation of large watercraft.

Modern museology is more formulated to deal with collections of relatively small objects. But this limitation is not widely acknowledged. David Grattan published a paper entitled "Conservation of an Ethnographic Object Too Big to Contemplate without a Large Whiskey", but that paper (which appeared in Recent Setbacks in Conservation) was not only inconclusive but actually published unfinished.

I don't want to suggest that watercraft shouldn't be in maritime museums' collections, or that even less funds should be directed to them. I am passionately interested in traditional watercraft. Apart from my personal and emotional concern to see watercraft in museum's collections, I think it is possible to construct reasoned argument in their favour.

I think it can be argued that museums face a future in which the presentation of such large and evocative artefacts or monuments will be increasingly important. Interactive electronic wizardry and the "information super highway" pose a very serious challenge to museums in terms of what they can offer to visitors. (Both visitor who actually visit the museum and those who make "virtual" visits on the internet). Most museums will find it financially very difficult to offer inter-active electronics as a major attraction to "actual" visitors-this is probably the realm of a small number of well financed technology museums. I have observed that the insufficient provision of inter-active electronics causes bottlenecks in the flow of visitors and is perhaps the greatest contributor to visitor dissatisfaction and irritation on busy sunday afternoons, even in some very well funded modern museums. In the future, the internet will presumably allow virtual visitors to use museum inter-actives using their own hardware at home.

CD-ROM encyclopaedie will increasingly compete with museums and art galleries in the future: it can be persuasively argued that seeing a Turner painting, for example, on the video monitor is no substitute for experiencing the real object or art work, but since so many people now wander around museums and art galleries with a cam-corder pressed to their face, it seems that a large segment of the public does not agree.

So, if museums want to continue to attract real, as opposed to virtual visitors-and I think the tourism lobby will insist that they do-then the authentic artefact that can convey a real and powerful experience of cultural heritage; that is too big to be effectively digitalised into a cam-corder; and available not just to touch, but ideally open to walk the decks of, should be one of the principal attractions that maritime museums can offer to the "actual" visitor. Large watercraft are solidly tangible and evocative things. And to an extent, they are big enough to advertise themselves.

Museums have not always been very successful in looking after watercraft. Rather than point the finger of blame I will indulge in a mea culpa: I worked for about ten years at the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Darwin, northern Australia, during which time the Museum built up a fine collection of Southeast Asian watercraft and also acquired a pearling lugger. Several of the vessels were already seriously damaged by rot in the moist tropical conditions when I joined the museum and I was never able to halt the rot, or even slow it to a non-alarming pace, even by application of horribly toxic chemicals, until the collection was housed. There have been plenty of other examples of watercraft decaying and even disintegrating in museum's collections.

Watercraft, like most other things, will decay far less rapidly if they are housed inside a weather-proof building. In Darwin, our Director Colin Jack-Hinton, was able to persuade the government to build for the museum a large maritime gallery with enough height to permit the vessels to be displayed with their masts and sails rigged. The brightly coloured, and exotically shaped sails of the Indonesia vessels make for a visually very effective display gallery. It is not perfect. Such a large gallery could not be economically air conditioned in Darwin's climate, so the gallery can be rather hot at times. There are still problems with build-up of dust on the boats and some deterioration will no doubt continue-entropy is after all a universal condition. But the collection has, for the foreseeable future, been saved: whereas it would not have lasted another decade out of doors in the monsoon climate.

The Darwin collection of watercraft have become unequivocally museum artefacts in that they are displayed as objects in a museum gallery. They are completely removed from their original context. Only a few hundred miles away in Eastern Indonesia traditional maritime cultures are changing but they are still very much alive. Some traditional sailing vessels are still built, as well as a larger number of timber hulled motor vessels. To me, the maritime traditions of Indonesia are fascinating. Over the last twenty years I have made some effort to record aspects of those traditions and I have been particularly attracted to the small, barren and remote islands where the populations rely primarily on fishing and on maritime trade for their survival. Indonesia is very exotic from the western perspective, but in many ways small Indonesian maritime communities offer a reflection of the life of similar sized remote maritime communities that existed on the coast of Australia and Europe a century ago.

The traditional skills and technologies of boat and ship building, rigging, sail making, caulking, etc. are only a part of the life of such communities (and with the exception of rope making, they tend to male dominated). They are parts of the cultural heritage that can be usefully maintained, promoted or revived by maritime museums, particularly maritime museums that have in their collections watercraft that are kept afloat.

As many of you know, only too well, watercraft that are kept afloat require a great deal of maintenance, although vessels that are kept afloat in salt water probably deteriorate less rapidly than vessels kept out of the water but exposed to the elements. It seems that it is inevitable that any vessel that is kept afloat will need major structural repair and replacement of a considerable part of its fabric within a few decades. (HMS Victory, which is I believe the oldest vessel in existance that is out of doors and has been constantly maintained, is fairly precisely analogous to the axe which has had two new blades and five new handles. Much of the famous English oak in her construction was replaced by Indian teak more than one hundred years ago and much of that has been replaced.) The fact that vessels cannot be effectively preserved out of doors remains true and requires some comment. Looking at it from a slightly facetious point of view, it is a curious paradox that the heavy metal pollutants from anti-fouling paint are cumulative in effect and lethally toxic to virtually all organisms except the ones that eat wooden boats or grow in long tendrils from their bottoms. And more seriously it is sad that a reliable and practical treatment that can be applied to prevent rot in existing wooden vessels has not yet been devised. I wonder whether the effort and expertise that conservation scientists have applied to problems such as the treatment of waterlogged wood could provide real improvements in the conservation of watercraft if it were applied in that direction?

Whether the inevitable loss and replacement of much of the fabric of a vessel is acceptable, when the alternative of displaying inside a building is a practicable alternative, is debatable and needs to be critically assessed in each individual case. If the vessels are actively used and made available, or at least attractively visible, to the public by keeping them afloat and in use, then it is probably defensible. But if these aims are not met, then it is difficult to see the value of keeping a vessel afloat and out of doors-if one assesses it in the light of the current western philosophy of conservation.

Maritime Museums do not have a uniformly good record when it comes to keeping vessels in the water. I believe that Mystic Seaport in the USA has been genuinely successful in keeping the majority of their floating collection in good condition. But other less well-funded organisations have fought a losing battle against decay. And in some cases collapsed under the strain.

On a stopover in London a few years ago (1994) I went to look at the topsail schooner Kathleen and May which is kept in a small dock in Southwark. I had previously visited her in 1990 when she was looking quite smart, attracting a reasonable through-flow of paying visitors, and her conservation was faced with apparent optimism. Slow release borax suppositories had been inserted into her bottom and topsides, and it was hoped that these would keep her sound. In September of this year she was looking very sad: her masts have been taken out, she is roofed over with plastic tarpaulins and closed to the public; and there is a real threat that she will be condemned or left to disintegrate in some muddy creak (probably in Milton Creek along with the decaying Thames Barges that are owned by the Maritime Trust of Great Britain) unless a very large sum of money is made available for a rebuild. The ANZ Bank, whose London offices are nearby, was considering financing the rebuild but no decision had been made.

From Southwark I went to St Katherine Dock where I intended to take the new light railway down to Greenwich. But I got no further than the dock. There were nearly a dozen Thames sailing barges crowding St Katherine Dock. A wonderful sight. All but two of them were in sea-going condition and in survey. They were all looking like working vessels-clean and brightly painted but robust, slightly battle scarred, and tarry at the same time. The majority of them were commercially operated. Some are owned by large companies such as P & O Line who use them for management and executive team bonding exercises, as floating boardrooms, and as venues for meetings and social functions. I spent the day talking to Peter Cariss, the owner of the barge Wyvenhoe . Wyvenhoe is used as a charter sailing vessel and for sailing or static social functions (such as staff Christmas parties and wedding receptions); Peter runs management team bulding courses which are carried out with the sailing of the barge as an essential and major part of the course. Wyvenhoe has also been used very successfully as the venue for exhibitions of paintings with river and maritime themes, and in a number of other ingenious roles which Peter told me about over a bottle of wine and which I have forgotten.

There are now more than thirty Thames Sailing Barges in sea-going condition, considerably more than there when the last barge carried a cargo about thirty years ago. The traditional rigging, maintenance and sail making for the barges have enjoyed a revival as a small industry in the ports of southeastern England, principaly Pin Mill in Essex. Some barges have been rebuilt so that scarcely an original timber remains and it is not impossible that new ones will be built in the future. In fact, I was told that two new barges have been built, but I was not able to confirm this. Of course none of them earn their living in the way they were originally intended to: by regular drudging up and down the coast with cargoes of bricks, sand, clay, manure, etc. But a great deal of the tradition of the Thames sailing barge is retained; and although it is a self-conscious attempt to preserve a fragment of maritime heritage, it is a particularly lively and thriving tradition. The barges are frequently under sail and are worked on virtually every day. They can be based at St Catherine dock one month, on the Essex or Kent coast the next month. It is difficult to see them as either monuments or museum artefacts.

Obviously not all types of watercraft are as well suited to this kind of entrepreneurial use as Thames Barges, but the sailing barges are not unique. Similar industries are growing in parts of France and Germany, while in the Netherlands, traditional watercraft are everywhere. There are also replica ships. And there are sail training ships in many countries, including Leeuwin based here in Fremantle, that are operated as vigorous non-profit making businesses. As I write, Leeuwin is undergoing her annual refit: if you go to Victoria Quay, where the WA Maritime Museum Historic Boats Museum is located, you will find men and women, both volunteers and paid crew, practicing the traditional skills of the rigger.

The survival of the training ships and the Thames Barges remains tenuous. They must pay their way and, as we know, maintenance costs are high. Perhaps it would be appropriate in some cases for major maritime museums to host and even subsidise such operations as an effective way of preserving certain types of watercraft along with the skills and traditions that are an important part of their context. The hosting of Wooden Boat Works at the Historic Boats Museum in Fremantle is a step in the same general direction.

The challenge is to integrate more completely with the commercial and non-commercial traditional boating and shipping community: to support and then to curate-to record, interpret and display with minimal impact on operations.

Anderson, M., 1990. Women's History and Material Culture in Australian Museums. Museums Australia Journal: special issue.
Grattan, D. W., 1986 Conservation of an ethnographic object to large to contemplate without a large whiskey. Recent Setbacks in Conservation 2.

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