THE ROLE OF THE CURATOR IN HISTORIC SHIP PRESERVATIONAldona Sendzikas, Museum Curator
USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park
Pearl Harbor, Hawaii
In the historic ship preservation community, as we attempt to clarify the meanings and applications of such terms as "conservation," "preservation," "restoration," there is also some confusion as to the roles and responsibilities undertaken by us--the caretakers of the historic ships. Perhaps the least understood of these roles is that of the curator. The position of curator, while a traditional one in museums, seems to be a new feature in the historic ships business, and consequently many of the others involved in the caretaking of the ship--from the director to the maintenance staff--seem to be at a loss as to where, exactly (and sometimes even why!), the curator fits in.
I am one of those mysterious curators, having worked in the museum field for eleven years--as military interpreter, as exhibit designer, but mostly, as a curator. In 1991 I entered the historic ships field, having been hired by a submarine museum that had in its care, and as its raison d'etre, a WWII submarine, USS Bowfin (SS-287). The museum background I came from was not entirely "traditional"--most of my previous museum experience had been at a War of 1812 fort which consisted of seven historic buildings and one reconstructed building. I was, therefore, quite accustomed to an unconventional museum environment, to working outdoors, to "living history," and to some of the problems unique to the care, preservation and interpretation of very large artifacts--i.e., historic buildings. We considered the fort a museum, and the buildings themselves as the largest artifacts in the museum collection.
In many ways, the world of historic ships is not all that different. Like an historic building, an historic vessel provides us with the opportunity to not just look at, but to actually walk through an artifact, creating a sort of "living history" experience. Unlike a conventional museum collection, which visitors can examine usually only through the barrier of a display case, an historic ship or building allows museum visitors to literally surround themselves with the history they have come to see, to experience it, at least in a limited way, and to view smaller artifacts in their natural context, within the compartments of a ship.
However, in my transition from historic buildings to historic ships, I discovered that in many ways, historic ships seem to be in a world all their own, distinct from other museums and historic sites. USS Bowfin--both the submarine, the grounds, and the entire organization, was, and still is, more often referred to as a "memorial" than a "museum." Beyond its role as a "memorial," Bowfin is also regarded simply as an "attraction," in competition with the other attractions offered by Hawaii--from other museums to shopping malls to Waikiki Beach. At first I did not see this as a problem of any sort, but simply a matter of terminology. As I became more familiar with the operations of historic ship organizations, however, I soon started to see a marked difference between historic ships and other types of museums. The word "museum," in fact, is not always used in relation to historic ships that are open to the public. And even when the word is used, many of these "museum ships" do not have professional museum staff, such as a curator, conservator, collections manager or registrar. Even when a ship does have a curator on staff, the rest of the employees often seem to be somewhat unsure of what, exactly, that person's job is. Consequently, the curators of historic ships often feel misunderstood and unwelcome. It seems to me that many historic ships, perhaps because they were saved and opened to the public for the specific purpose of being "memorials" or "attractions," are slower than other types of museums in adopting accepted curatorial and museological practices, and even sometimes reluctant to classify their ships and organizations as "museums."
An Historic Ship is a MuseumThe American Association of Museums (AAM) defines a museum as:
According to the International Council of Museums (ICOM), a museum is:
Basically, a museum is an organization that cares for a collection of material objects that are associated in some way: by time frame, or by association with a certain event, or with a ship. We all have a ship--which is, in itself, an artifact--as well as the objects on board. Even if an historic vessel is operated as a for-profit attraction, whose stated mission does not include research or education, and if attracting and entertaining visitors is the primary goal, rather than educating them, its operation still hinges on the fact that the vessel is "historic," and therefore, I would argue, it is still a museum. Even if visitors are not directly seeking education or a conventional "museum experience," they still think they are coming to see something historic, and you owe it to them not to mislead them. Alternately, if historic accuracy and the historic aspects of your ship are not important to you, then you should let the public know that that is exactly what you are providing: a false version of history. (Even P.T. Barnum and Walt Disney let their audiences know when they were being deceived!) To maintain the "historic" aspect of the ship, a professional staff is needed, and that's where the curator fits in.
A report on the field of Museum Studies, published in Museum News (October 1980) provided the following position description for "curator":
A little too academic-sounding for the realities of ship maintenance and preservation? Not necessarily. The curator's focus on research, interpretation and authentication can be a great asset, which the others involved in taking care of the ship should take advantage of.
What the Curator Can Do For You!In essence, the curator is the staff advocate for the collection; he or she functions as caretaker of, and as spokesman for, the artifacts (including the ship).
For the curator, "care" of the artifact means doing all we can to preserve it: making it last as long as possible, for the benefit of future generations. Our first rule is to "do no harm"; but beyond that, our goal is to think beyond our own lifetimes and to do what we can to preserve original artifacts for the future. We must remember that while an artifact like an historic ship is very useful to us today, it may have an even more important use twenty or fifty or two hundred years from now. For example, in terms of a WWII vessel like Bowfin, we have not only the submarine itself but the memories and accounts of Bowfin's crew and other WWII veterans. Twenty-five years from now, we will have not have all of these resources; we therefore need to make what is in our care last as long as possible.
Towards this end, there are accepted curatorial standards in place, as well as professional training programs to teach curatorial standards and skills. These skills can be put to use in historic ship preservation.
Using the Standards for Historic Vessel PreservationAs the U.S. Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Historic Vessel Preservation Projects1 state, keeping your historic ship afloat is your first and foremost priority. However, just keeping the ship afloat, intact, and well-maintained is not enough. We must keep the ship afloat, intact, and well-maintained, while at the same time taking care not to sacrifice its historic integrity. It is this historic integrity of the vessel that is its real value. The Preservation Standards very correctly point out that: "Preservation of historic vessels is more than 'ship saving'..." (p. 8). If your vessel has received a historic designation, such as National Historic Landmark status, you are obligated to ensure proper and accurate historic preservation and restoration. Even if your ship is not designated; even if you are the sole and outright owner of the ship, with no legal obligations as to how you choose to restore your vessel, you are still the caretaker of a vessel whose value lies in its historic aspects. You are relying upon those aspects to attract visitors to your ship; they, in turn, are relying on you to give them the experience of history that your ship can provide. Don't let them down. Whatever your purpose in acquiring an historic ship, acquisition should be regarded as a "firm commitment to responsible stewardship and good preservation practice" (p. 9).
The Secretary of the Interior's Preservation Standards were created to promote responsible preservation practice that recognizes the unique problems facing artifacts within a maritime context. They are museum-based rules, adapted to ships. Thus, while many of the factors affecting historic ships, particularly those afloat, are vastly different from those affecting smaller artifacts kept in climate-controlled buildings, the Preservation Standards for ships are in line with general curatorial standards, and not entirely different from standards that would be considered curatorially sound for the care of historic buildings. For example, the Standards state: "Restoration work shall be based upon verifiable historical, pictorial, or physical evidence, rather than upon conjecture" (p. 7). This agrees with accepted curatorial standards for restoration. Curators charged with creating a restoration plan for an historic house will first choose a focus date, in the same way that the Standards recommend picking a focus date for ship restoration (p. 7).
The Standards emphasize recognizing the historic significance of a ship, maintaining its historic integrity, and ensuring proper and thorough documentation of all work done on the ship. Not recommended is "Sacrificing historic significance to romanticism or popular appeal in making restoration decisions" (p. 79).
Any changes/additions/replacements must be substantiated, documented, and reversible. Anything removed from the ship should not be thrown out without first considering if it is worth saving on its own, if not for future use, then as part of the history of the vessel.
"Each vessel must be recognized as a physical record of its time, place and use" (p. 6). As historical record, even modern changes to the ship become part of its history. It is hard to think of what we are doing now as "history," but soon it will be. It is therefore crucial to document all restoration work.
There is one area where the Secretary of the Interior's Standards are not entirely in line with what the average curator would probably say. The Standards state that: "Interpretation is not an essential element in a historic vessel preservation project, but it is highly desirable" (p. 11). Interpretation is an essential part of the educational mission of a museum, and is a necessary feature in order for the general public to fully benefit from the historic ship experience. As with any artifact, the ship's value as an object that can teach history lies largely in the interpretation provided. The curator can act as the interpreter.
Interpretation is also a wonderfully useful tour in ship restoration, as it can be used to account for and explain inaccuracies or anachronisms in the restoration, whatever their cause.
Where Does the Curator Fit In?So how does the curator fit into the historic ship organization? The curator can be of great use to you if the rest of the ship's caretakers, particularly the director, make an effort to understand the curator's role, and our concerns, our motivations, and our professional standards. CURCOM, the Curators' Committee of the AAM, has pointed out that: "Directors create an environment in which curatorial work can thrive." Try to think of the many ways that you can use the curator: to document your work; to substantiate restoration efforts; to ensure accuracy; to interpret the ship and its restoration; and to help make the ship what it can, and should, be--not only a memorial and an attraction, but an historical record of a time in history, of a technology, of people, and of events.
Some historic ship organizations experience conflict between the maintenance staff--i.e. those who actually perform the restoration work--and the curator. Rather than seeing the curator as a source of interference, why not use the curator? The Secretary of the Interior's Standards repeatedly stress the need to document all restoration work. We curators love to document! Let us help, and lessen your workload.
The curator can also provide guidance and assistance in determining what sort of restoration materials and methods are historically accurate; help to locate sources of materials; and network with other historic ships and museums for information and assistance. The curator, as keeper of photographs, documents, manuals, and other historical materials, may lack hands-on ship maintenance experience, but has a good knowledge of the history of the ship, what it should look like in order to maintain its historic integrity, and what material is available, and should therefore be a key participant in preservation planning and decisions.
In essence, historic ship caretakers must try to understand each other: as museum, memorial, OR attraction, we are all working towards the same goals. We have chosen and committed to preserve an artifact--the ship--because of its historic value, and because we think that the existence of this historic vessel is of interest and benefit to the public. Curators are trained to think in terms of many years into the future. We therefore may be able to advise about certain procedures that may not cause visible damage, but are in fact harming the artifact and lessening its lifespan. Sometimes, this sort of reasoning can make our actions seem very puzzling to others.
Probably the best example I can think of is the polishing of metals. Common Navy practise aboard active naval vessels is to keep metalwork bright and shiny. This process, however, is actually harmful to metal. Each polishing removes not just tarnish, but also a thin layer of the metal itself. Some commercial polishes even contain a long-term tarnish promoter along with a short-term tarnish remover, in order to increase the frequency of polishing. Polishing brass is also a long-standing tradition aboard Bowfin. The compliment we get most often from visitors is "What a clean boat!" The caretakers of Bowfin believed (and many still do) that this cleanliness shows that the boat is well taken care of, and that the shiny brass appeals to visitors.
This is totally antithetical to what a curator or conservator would say. We are taught that because of the damaging effects of polishing, it is best to let metal develop a protective patina. The patina can be as attractive, in our eyes, as a bright shine!
And I believe that this is also the case with our visitors. To shine (and thus damage) brass in a belief that this appeals to, and will attract, visitors, is self-deceiving. There are many other things we could do to or install aboard our ships that would interest visitors--but we don't, because they are either (a) harmful to the vessel or (b) not historically accurate. In fact, much of the exposed brass aboard Bowfin would have been painted over during WWII, the period to which we are trying to restore the sub. I believe that the vast majority of visitors would be more intrigued and attracted by the chance to see "what it was really like" on board the sub in WWII. We have a great opportunity for living history here, to show, more clearly than any history textbook can, what it was like aboard these ships, and to counteract the false images that are all too often propagated by movies and television. After seeing a submarine movie, the viewer is all the more interested in seeing the "real thing," in learning the truth, in "getting a handle on" history. Historical accuracy can, and should, be our biggest selling point.
The CURCOM Code of Ethics for Curators (1996) states that:
If you think you do not have time to research and document the historical accuracy of your restoration work, use the curator for this! Painting a missile in bright and colorful display colors, or in an arbitrary color scheme, may be more attention-getting than the historically accurate colors. But, with a little interpretation--even just some well-worded signage--you can inform your visitors that these are the authentic colors for that missile, and they will appreciate the opportunity to see the "real thing."
In 1996, we found Bowfin's original ship's bell, which had been mysteriously missing since the submarine's decommissioning. The bell should have been turned over to the Naval Historical Center, along with other items of historic significance on board the boat as she was being mothballed, but the bell was not accounted for. Last year, the bell turned up in an antique sale in California, and the collectors who purchased it tracked us down and offered to sell it to us. Having confirmed that this was indeed the original bell, we ended up purchasing it and bringing it to Pearl Harbor. We were particularly pleased that this artifact would be at Bowfin Park in time for a reunion of Bowfin's WWII crew, scheduled for that fall.
However, much as the thought of returning the bell to its original location on Bowfin's deck was an enticing one, I chose instead to place the bell on exhibit in the museum. Not only would the story of the bell's disappearance and rediscovery make an interesting exhibit, but I strongly felt that this was an artifact that was simply too valuable to endanger by placing it on display aboard the boat. My decision was based on several factors. One was the exposure to the elements that the bell would be forced to endure outdoors, including rain and salt air. From a risk management perspective, security and damage from natural disasters were a greater danger outdoors. Also, on the submarine's deck, the bell would be exposed to other damaging forces, not from weather, but from human beings--both visitors and our own staff. These included human touch; constant attempts to ring the bell; and constant polishing. That these harmful factors were present was proven by the condition of the non-original bell currently on Bowfin's deck: not only was it polished on a regular basis, but it had been filled with cement to prevent visitors from ringing it! In short, we were not helping to preserve this bell, but had actually done damage to it. I wanted to protect Bowfin's bell, an original one-of-a-kind and irreplaceable artifact, from such damage. Until these sorts of damaging elements could be controlled, the bell, I felt, should stay in an indoor, climate-controlled, and secure environment. Such a valuable artifact must be protected as much as possible. While we would enjoy seeing it on the boat, we would in fact be damaging the artifact for the sake of our own enjoyment, and lessening its chances of survival for future generations. The bell was still historically significant, even when exhibited out of its natural context--in fact, its significance, in this case, dictated that it be exhibited away from its natural context. (This situation is not a unique one: for example, the bell of the battleship USS Arizona, as well as the Liberty Bell, are deemed so significant and worthy of preservation that they are not displayed in their original locations.) I sought recommendations from a professional conservator at Hawaii's state museum, as well as the advice of the curatorial staff at the Naval Historical Center in Washington, D.C. Both sources concurred with my decision that the best place for the bell, for the time being, was in the museum building, rather than on the boat.
However, despite these recommendations and a report several pages long outlining my decision, which included evidence of the damaging effects of polishing, salt air, etc., on metal, the non-curatorial staff would not accept this reasoning, and a special committee was even formed by the Board of Directors, which is still trying to get the bell installed on the deck of the boat.
In such cases, the curator's actions can be puzzling. People ask, "Why can't we continue to use the artifact as it was originally intended to be used?" The answer lies in the fact that the fabricators' intent was not to make something that would last forever. Unlike us, they had no long term expectations for that item. Now, however, in our care, that item has been deemed a historically significant artifact, and part of a museum. By designating it as such, we have changed our long-term expectations for it. We now expect it to last as long as possible. Therefore, whether it is an historic bell or an entire ship, we are obliged to give it the best possible chance for preservation, in order for it to last into the future, for future generations to see, learn from, and enjoy.
1U.S. Department of the Interior, The Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Historic Vessel Preservation Projects with Guidelines for Applying the Standards (Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, National Maritime Initiative, May 1990).
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