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Satisfying The Paying Public:
The Effective Interpretation of Historic Ships and Boats

Matthew Tanner
Curator of Maritime Technology,
Merseyside Maritime Museum, Albert Dock, Liverpool, UK.


It is probably fair to say that every ship preservation project has one main aim to which everything else is subservient. That is to preserve or restore the ship to something like her former self. Such heroic efforts, often by poorly funded volunteer groups and charitable trusts have rewarded us with the majority of historic ships preserved. This is certainly true in the UK. Their task has frequently been seen as returning the ship or boat back to some "original" form - usually to an "as launched" perfection. I have described elsewhere1 why I believe this approach can be fundamentally flawed, not only because of the ensuing damage that may be wrought on the surviving fabric of a vessel, but also because of how often it seems that the drive to restore in this way leads to failure to address the second and allied function of preservation which is education and interpretation.

Almost every project claims an education benefit from their preservation/restoration activities, but the dissemination of the knowledge bound up in the ship is as fundamental as her preservation, and ought to proceed in parallel. The mission statement of the Merseyside Maritime Museum tries to reflect this by calling upon us equally to "...add to, care for, preserve, study, and exhibit the collections..."2 This paper tries to address some of our shortcomings in this area.

I can identify two factors which have been allowed to distort the way we exhibit our ships. The first is the strong desire to recapture a perceived romantic past. In fact this is frequently conservation of nostalgia - a bogus romanticism in which the sea is calm, the ship clean and happy, and all is full speed ahead. The result is an aestheticisation; a cleaning up of reality. Some big ship companies, such as Cunard, deliberately presented its ships in this manner through their advertising. Cunard posters of Carmania for example exaggerate the size and speed of the liner to the point where the scale is completely distorted. Similarly the advertised luxury of the White Star sisters Olympic and Titanic3 lives on in the popular imagination as close to some sort of perfection. However, the evidence shows that the reality was quite different. Leonard Peskett examined Olympic on behalf of Cunard, who were then involved in the design for Aquitania. His report4 describes the reality. He praises the decor, but we also learn of the failure of the ventilating system through which flows more foul language from the Third Class bar than fresh air. We learn too of the excessive vibration at speed, contrary to the publicity claims5, which led to resonant vibrations in the wire sprung bed bases and caused much discomfort to passengers. The First Class bed from Olympic now in the collection of Merseyside Maritime Museum6 shows evidence of the alterations which had to be made to each bed to reduce the effects of the this vibration. the reality was it was difficult to get to sleep on this shaky and stuffy ship.

So what is wrong with displaying reality? In my experience far from alienating the visitor by destroying a romantic myth a healthy dose of iconoclasm often increases the level of fascination. Surprise and counter-received-wisdom can be more exciting than merely fulfilling existing expectations.

This leads onto the second factor of potential weakness - a failure to identify clearly with our target audiences. How often do we develop a conscious strategy of raising questions in the mind of the visitor in a structured way? Our obsession with the accuracy of restoration is often symptomatic of this problem. An excellent example, although one among many, is HMS Warrior, currently displayed at Portsmouth. She has been restored and rebuilt to a high standard and is much admired as a visitor attraction. However, nowhere on board are there any people. The long gundeck is uninhabited. Accurate restoration cannot substitute for ambience, atmosphere, and people. Instead we have created a clinical perfection which can only really be appreciated and understood by our fellow curators and ship enthusiasts. For example, the beautifully recreated Issue Room on board Warrior does at least have a label identifying itself. But it must be asked how many visitors know what is an "Issue" room? The other label to be seen on board Warrior identifies the sounding pipe for the ship's well. I wonder how many visitors may feel this label refers to a musical instrument? Recent surveys7 have shown that the proportion of museum visitors who have some sort of motivation through special interest or knowledge is restricted to between 3% and 6%. While fully 60% of visitors have no prior knowledge at all, beyond the absolute basics. In the case of ships I believe this means literally not understanding which is the front end and which the back. By creating ship restorations which barely make any concessions at all to the majority of visitors we are really only satisfying ourselves and our peers; people who already know what is being said. This approach is curator-centric rather than visitor-centric8.

One common solution to this problem is used in many places with varying success. Providing guided tours of historic vessels can be extremely effective. For example, the guide on Ross Tiger, the sidewinder trawler at the National Fishing Heritage Centre in the U.K., is one of her former skippers. He provides a real insight into what it was actually like to sail and fish with her - the toil, hardship, cold, fatigue and all the other human effects are brought to life. Furthermore, not only can the visitor relate to him, but can interact with him. They can question him and express their reactions and feelings to what he describes. They can follow their own personal and emotional agenda in understanding the vessel. This emotional involvement and motivation can significantly enhance the visitor learning experience.

However, there is an obvious difficulty with this approach. The Tiger skipper is one of the last generation of sidewinder masters, and soon this direct human link with the life of the ship and her crew may be lost forever. This certainly applies to the tours provided on board HMS Victory at Portsmouth where the guides cannot of course relate personally to the true experience of battle on her gundecks. There are few ready solutions to this. The introduction of role-playing actors trained to act and interact with the public as interpreters can be successful. However, they require not only a considerable and on-going commitment of resources, they can sometimes also help to perpetuate a romantic approach to their subject which would probably be intolerable to a guide who was actually familiar with the reality. It is also frequently difficult to provide interpreting actors for every minute that visitors may need them.

Other cost effective means are required to provide the two essential ingredients for ship and boat interpretation. These have been acknowledged as providing access to the context of the ship in relation both to the sea and to people.9 The International Yachting Museum at Bordeaux has attempted to create an artificial sea on which to display their collection of trans-oceanic rowing craft. Unfortunately the visitor is made to walk on the water in order to view the boats, and many will simply not make the connection necessary to understand this interpretation method. Equally alienating, though more common, occurs where boats are restored in order to display them afloat. Such boats are frequently moored up for display at a distance from the visitor. In addition to this gap, the boat rarely moves, and even when it does it is often difficult to see effectively a small boat in operation from the shore anyway. Finally, it is obvious that while afloat only half a boat can be seen by the visitor at any time. The National Maritime Museum in London recognised the need to improve visitor access to a ship by displaying the side-lever paddle tug Reliant in their main hall. The visitor could view key parts of the vessel such as the engines in close proximity. But to provide access to these areas the relationship between the vessel and the sea was lost, not by bringing her inside, but by cutting open the vessel and raising the visitor walkways in such a manner as to lose any clear sense of how she might have floated or moved on the water.

It is easy to criticise ships such as Victory and Warrior for their uninhabited expanses of deck. The stokehold on HMS Warrior for example is so perfectly spotless as to make it virtually unintelligible. There is no coal, no dirt, no heat, and especially no stokers. There is not even a label attempting to show how it all worked and what its purpose was. There is nothing here for the visitor to relate to, nothing which they can understand in terms of their own experience, and thus the commonplace, that life at sea is an alien world, is maintained. The only life on board is a dummy sheep in a pen under the fo'c'sle, but how can we expect a visitor to gain from the experience of meeting a sheep apparently so out of context?

The lieutenant's cabin scene does come to life a little. The innocent visitor can relate to the clothing, the desk laid out, the bed and other recognisable personal items. This approach to display is fairly common, and was strongly advocated by Colin White in his paper at the Dundee version of this conference.10 He called it the “Star Trek” effect, where all the crew have been “beamed” ashore at shore notice, allowing the visitor to explore a snapshot of time in the sailor’s world at leisure. I prefer to call it the "Marie Celeste" effect, and I have been as guilty of it as anyone. It is particularly useful where funds are in short supply, and such displays are usually simple and easy to set up. Edmund Gardner, the pilot cutter preserved at Merseyside Maritime Museum, sports a number of such displays. For example, the engineer's cabin and the galley are set up in this way. But it is very easy to fall into meaningless clich*s. For example the wardroom table on HMS Warrior sets a familiar scene where all the silver and glassware is laid out for dinner. The same scene is recreated on Edmund Gardner. The problem is that the static emptiness of the scenes can distort the visitor's perception of life on board. Here the visitor begins to imagine that the officers only ever sit at table ready to eat, but there is never any food. What they really want to know is what was it actually like. I have found one of the most common questions asked in the saloon of Edmund Gardner is "In rough weather how did they stop the soup falling into their laps?". And that is exactly the right question to ask. i.e. What was it really like? How did it feel?

HMS Victory manages to break the dining table clich* through the medium of a guide. The guide can describe over the table in the Great Cabin the specific historic moment when Nelson held his last conference with his captains before the battle of Trafalgar. Perhaps we should see here a decanter of port and some half empty glasses?

On board Edmund Gardner we have attempted to bring reality aboard to a limited extent. The twin diesel engines are not used but are held in preservation. Instead a good recording of the engines at work is played over loudspeakers which themselves are bolted to the deckplates on which the visitor walks. This provides not only noise but vibration too, so that the ship feels alive. The addition of typical engine room smells of hot oil and diesel make the engine room display a popular part of the vessel. Similar affects are achieved in the galley with the smell of fresh baked bread. In these ways we are tentatively moving towards giving our visitors an experience of what reality was like on board by satisfying all his/her senses11. Although we still do use some labels, we recognise that they do not satisfy more than about 10% of our visitors. In fact nearly 50% of visitors ignore them completely!12

What is needed in my view is a clearer recognition of the fundamental way in which visitors learn in a museum type environment. Not only can we not make assumptions about how much our visitors know about a subject, but we cannot assume either how much they actually want to know. For the majority of visitors are not seeking much of an intellectual experience. Instead they prefer to react to an emotive and atmospheric landscape.13 We ourselves may study our subject dispassionately, objectively and in the abstract, but the majority of visitors want passion, subjectivity, and feelings14. The esoteric label, and even the Marie Celeste, rarely achieves this. For example at Merseyside we consistently see very high satisfaction ratings in visitor surveys and comments. These results do not square with the results of traditional questionnaires which usually seek to measure the success of our galleries by finding out how many intellectualised facts the visitor goes away with. The facts are all around the builder's model of Titanic, for example, but this poorly displayed model works for the emotive experience that surrounds it.

These visitor reactions are not a bad thing - if we can provide the accuracy of HMS Warrior in a manner that conveys the emotional and atmospheric information as well as the intellectual. That is we are facilitating learning, and not overtly teaching. The National Fishing Heritage Centre at Grimsby has succeeded to a considerable degree. Their stokehold really is dirty and hot, and the fireman is sweating in the heat. The visitor can see and relate to what may have been like. The best tableau is that of the cook in the galley of a trawler. The weather is rough and he is at a crazy angle doing a miraculous balancing act with a pot and a saucepan. He is about to fail, and the look on his face speaks volumes - the four-letter word can be seen forming on his lips. Every visitor can feel for him; and that is an interpretative victory.

Similarly effective is the display at Grimsby of the trawl deck at night landing the codend. The scene is dark cold, wet, smelly, noisy, and even the walkway where the visitor stands rocks gently to match the vessel. Children do get frightened seeing this; and why not. The most successful display at Merseyside is the recreation of the street scene leading down to the docks where lies a recreation of the mid 19th century emigrant ship Shackamaxon. Going on board this ship and seeing the lanterns sway and the ship creak is the strongest image taken away from the museum by the visitor.

These two previous examples are both museum based, where such display techniques have been developed in a few places. But this doesn't have to be restricted to traditional museums. It is time to bring the best techniques aboard our ships and really bring them to life. Of course, replica ships can be the interpretative tool par excellence. Users can experience what it was like very realistically. So replicas must be operated all the time - they have no other value. It concerns me a little that so far we have concentrated on replicating ships that we do not have in museums - it is time to replicate those we do have in order to interpret them in the most effective manner. This may well be where the future of virtual reality systems lies. I feel confident that a fully developed interactive virtual reality system will greatly enhance the future of ship interpretation - and we should not be afraid of it. For the foreseeable and continuous expansion of electronic media will place an increasing premium on the value of completely original objects from the past.
1 A Plea for Original Objects - Paper at the First Historic Ship Preservation Conference (Technical Aspects etc.). Boston, USA, Sept.1994.
2 Paraphrase from NMGM Corporate Plan 1996-2000. March 1996
3 White Star Line, Royal Mail Triple Screw Steamers Olympic and Titanic. Publicity booklet 1911. Reprinted Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. 1987.
4 Report on Olympic, August 29th, 1911 by Leonard Peskett. Merseyside Maritime Museum Archives.
5 White Star Line, Royal Mail Triple Screw Steamers Olympic and Titanic. Publicity booklet 1911. Reprinted Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. 1987.
6 MMM.1995.78
7 Screven, C.G. Educational Exhibitions for Unguided Visitors. in ICOM. CCCA.1991.12:13
8 See e.g. Hutchinson, G. - The museum display of early boat finds, in A Spirit of Enquiry - Essays for Ted Wright. 1993.
9 e.g. White, C. Putting People back into ships - Toward more effective interpretation of historic ships - Paper at the Second Historic Ship Preservation Conference (Technical Aspects etc.). Dundee. 1995.
10 Ibid.
11 Screven, C.G. Educational Exhibitions for Unguided Visitors. in ICOM. CCCA.1991.12:13
12 McManuc, P. Its the Company You Keep - The Social Determination of Learning-Related Behaviou in a Science Museum. in International Journal of Museum Management and Curatorship. 6.263-270. (Where results at the Natural History Museum revealed 48.4% of visitors ignored labels completely.)
13 e.g. Screven, C.G. Educational Exhibitions for Unguided Visitors. in ICOM. CCCA.1991.12:13; and Rees P. Interactvies - Do they work? in Proceedings of IX International Congress of Maritime Museums. NMM & NMGM 1996.
14 See Duffy, C. Museum Visitors - A suitable case for treatment. in Museum Education Association of Australia. 1989.

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