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Conserved figureheads to tell untold and sometimes difficult stories

Date published 27/12/2023
Contractors remove figurehead belonging to HMS Charlotte in preparation for conservation. Credit NMRN.jpg

Essential grants from The National Lottery Heritage Fund and The Pilgrim Trust save nationally significant collection of figureheads from irrevocable damage

Ships’ figureheads have long captured the imagination and the suspicions of sailors. Now curators and conservators at The National Museum of the Royal Navy are embarking on their own journey to tell the untold and sometimes difficult stories of its intriguing ships’ figureheads.

The Museum has received a grant of £249,893 from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, thanks to money raised by National Lottery players, and £15,000 from The Pilgrim Trust for the project.

Some of the nationally significant collection has rarely been seen by the public because it has been located “behind the wire” and outside on secure naval bases. Water ingress has rapidly deteriorated the internal timber surfaces and metal fixings in many, and the collection was at risk of falling into an irrevocable state of repair if not conserved in the immediate future. 

The figureheads identified for conservation and re-interpretation are HMS Seaflower, HMS Martin and HMS Queen Charlotte. In addition, a further two have been identified for re-interpretation – HMS Asia and HMS Madagascar. 

The role the Royal Navy played in creating and sustaining Britain’s colonial empire also warrants an investigation into how the figureheads, which were affixed to many of the ships at the time, are interpreted in the 21st century. 

Consultation with visitors, as well as community and Royal Navy groups, has suggested that although they find the figureheads intriguing, in many ways they remain mysterious. Newly-appointed staff will work with diverse communities and the Royal Navy to develop community activities that will explore the figureheads’ history and unpick historic perceptions they represent.

All of this research will go into a newly developed digital offer which will allow people to get up close and personal with the figureheads as never before. 

Louisa Blight, Head of Collections and Research at the National Museum of the Royal Navy explains: 

“This is an incredibly exciting project for the Museum, connecting objects so commonly identified as part of the Royal Navy with the 21st century. Every figurehead has a story to tell, but many of these stories are both partial and one-sided. 

“We will undertake 3D scanning and tomography of the figureheads identified as in a perilous state, as well as two others that fall within the project’s areas of focus. The funding enables us to respond to our visitors’ call for a reinterpretation of the figureheads and work closely with communities to ensure that they can see themselves in the stories we tell and the collections we hold.”

Helen Featherstone, Director, England North at The National Lottery Heritage Fund said: “We’re proud to support the National Museum of the Royal Navy through our ‘Dynamic Collections’ campaign. It’s fantastic to know that, thanks to money raised by National Lottery players, this collection of figureheads will be preserved for years to come, meaning local people and visitors can learn more about their important stories and connect with our naval heritage.”

There will be plenty of exciting ways for people to get involved with the project from talks, creative workshops, focus groups and participatory events.