Conservation at the National Museum of the Royal Navy

Since 2015, a dedicated and growing conservation team have been in place at the National Museum of the Royal Navy that look after the collection of historic vessels. The team has grown over the years to include all kinds of specialists whose skills are needed to manage the ships and submarines. Riggers, shipwrights, conservators, painters, shipkeepers, electricians, archaeologists, curators, apprentices and project and team managers all play a part in maintaining the vessels safely, preserving their historic fabric and presenting them to our visitors.

The way we approach preserving historic ships is to think about their historical significance, how original the materials are, how to keep them in a stable condition, and how people can best learn about the things that make them unique. The first aim of conservation is preserving the original and historic fabric, because this is often what makes an object unique, so we try to preserve material rather than replace it. But we also aim to facilitate the use of the collection so that people can learn from the cultural heritage without causing undue damage to the artefacts. This means we have to strike a balance between careful preservation of objects and allowing enough access to the ships and collections so that people can still learn from and enjoy them. For example, HMS Victory can be thought of as a very large museum artefact, but people have to be able to walk through the ship to really experience it – you can actually walk on this amazing artefact.

Sometimes though, preserving materials just isn’t possible, because in large complex structures like our ships, there are structural safety concerns that have to be met as well. If we do have to replace materials, for example some planking on HMS Victory, the old fabric will be carefully recorded by our archaeologists and archived in the objects store, where it will be looked after by our conservators. The shipwrights will then make the replacement planking out of suitable timber and fit it to the ship using appropriate authentic techniques and materials. This keeps the ship protected and accessible without losing the historic material. Our archived artefacts and materials can then be stored and made available for research and for any historical enquiries.

The shipkeeping team handle the daily cleaning and care of the ships and are on board seven days a week. They have training to allow them to spot problems such as rot or insect pest attack quickly, so that we can respond to this type of issue before it becomes a big problem.

We also try to accommodate apprenticeships and student learning wherever possible, because historic ship conservation is a specialist job, and the National Museum of the Royal Navy recognise that there’s a real need to develop awareness and skills for the future. That way, our amazing ships can continue to be enjoyed by generations to come.

Keep an eye on this blog to hear more about the conservation projects we are working on at the National Museum of the Royal Navy; we’ll be posting every month to share the work of the whole conservation team in a bit more detail.

White BG