Kevin J. Foster

Historic Ships are difficult structures to preserve. They rot and rust and sink altogether if not well cared for. Ships, which generally must be kept in waterborne and waterfront locations, require good planning to overcome the harsh, unforgiving nature of the environment Yet we seek to preserve these fragile, almost ephemeral structures for the long term.

For many years the difference in our working environments has led to a separation between shore side preservation, with its long, successful history, and the relatively new field of maritime preservation. Despite the differences, many useful ideas from shore side preservation have found their way on board historic ships.

One of the most difficult planning tasks for vessel preservationists is setting the long term goals and standards for their project. It requires assessment of what is important about a particular vessel and development of a preservation plan that has reasonable expectations of success.

What must be preserved?

Ships were often the most complex technological creation of the culture that built them. They required the work of many people and trades to build and operate them. Each vessel has thus become the physical, artifactual record of the way that people lived and worked in the past. So in a way the preservation of ships is tile preservation of a distilled record of many past people. Preserving ships allows respectful study of those past people's lives.

Ships and the collections associated with them are important to our understanding of the past Preserved vessels vary from mere curiosities and tourist attractions to ships that were at the center of pivotal events which determined the fate of cultures. Some of the most important vessels may even be seen as part of a collective self-image, symbols of national heritage.


Preserved ships provide us with many types of information about the past. That information is both embodied by the physical culmination of the work of many people and is the center a considerable body of associated information.

Study of the ship itself, as an artifact, can yield important insights into past ways of thinking and working Recent study of vessels recovered from archaeological sites has taught us a new way of looking at all ships. Study of carpenter's marks and seemingly obscure construction details has forced reinterpretation of the way ships were built, operated and modified. Peter Goodwin's paper on HMS Victory is an excellent example of how such methods may yield unexpected insights into even the most famous vessel.

Ships are also the center of myriad associated artifacts and records. These include written and electronic records, photographic collections, plans, and compiled histories as well as artifacts, models and art work which relate to the vessel. Many ships also amass considerable collections of awards, honors, and mementos.

A visit to the ship may elicit vivid memories from people formerly associated with the ship. That oral history provides a different sort of information from the associated written, iconographic, and electronic records of the vessel. Other associations suggested by the ship may remind us of national patrimony, glorious deeds, and long honorable service. On occasion the history of a ship may be of such transcendent importance that it becomes a national symbol. This trend may

How must it be preserved?

The decision about how each vessel will be preserved for the future is among the most important facing ship preservationists around the globe. Debate is sometimes heated where the basic ideas have not yet been decided, or where those ideas run counter to those of other individuals and groups. Yet some ideas about preservation are so basic that they carry intact easily across disciplines and cultures.

The conservation ethics of the International Institute for Conservation are an excellent cross check for maritime preservationists A brief summary of these ethical principles follows. 1) Conservators must maintain respect for the integrity of object, foregoing the chance to "improve" it in any way. 2) They must be competent and make use of adequate facilities for the work. 3) They must treat all objects to the highest standard. There should be no caste system among artifacts 4) Any treatment used must be in the best interest of the object. 5) All materials and techniques must lend themselves to potential reversal, or removal. This allows the artifact to retain its integrity while recognizing that theories, techniques and interpretations of artifacts change over time. 6) Compensation for damage or loss must not modify the character of an original. These limitations on aesthetic reintegration keep artifacts corning from the conservation lab from looking better than new. 7) Conservators must remain abreast of current practice through continued self education. 8) Auxiliary personnel working with artifacts must be competent and under conservators supervision

Criteria for Evaluation

The methods used by the U.S. National Register of Historic Places for judging tile integrity and significance of properties and artifacts provide a time-tested example.

The National Register recognizes seven forms of integrity: location, design (form), setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association. Three of these forms of integrity are related to the structure itself, namely design, materials, and workmanship. Four, location, setting, feeling and association, are related to the ways in which that structure relates to its environment.

The National Register judges historical and archaeological significance through four pathways. Significance may can come through association with important events or people. It can be an example of what museum people call "the goods, bests, and onlys." Or it may have the potential to yield important information in the future.

The National Register says that to be significant properties must meet at least one of the following criteria. It must:

A) be associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of history

B) be associated with the lives of persons significant in our past

C) embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or that represents a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction

D) have yielded, or may be likely to yield, information important in prehistory or history.

National Register Bulletin 20: Nominating Historic Vessels and Shipwrecks to the National Register of Historic Places further refines the criteria for ships by suggesting that they are:

1) sole, best or good representative of a specific vessel type

2) associated with a significant designer or builder

3) involved in important maritime trade, naval recreational, government or commercial activities.

Secretary's Standards

The cultural resources management field in the U.S. has produced a series of guides for preserving different types of properties. Called the U.S. Secretary Of Interior's Standards, these handbooks for preservation planning have been produced for buildings, landscapes, interiors and large preserved vessels. The Standards have attempted to distill the accumulated wisdom of each of these fields of preservation. Although each field has its own terminology and philosophy, each set of Standards has been adapted and tested by members of that field to meet the specialized requirements of each. The Standards in turn have come to be important reassurances to finding organizations that projects have been properly planned This leads to greater availability of grants and other assistance.

The design of each Standard starts from the premise that the many courses of action for different management tracks can be reduced to four basic preservation tracks. Each track, or "treatment" includes guidelines to help project leaders plan wisely. The treatments include preservation, rehabilitation, restoration and reconstruction. Some projects require features from more than one treatment.

Preservation treatment maintains and repairs an existing historic property and retains its form as it has evolved over time. (USS North Carolina, Balclutha) Rehabilitation retains a property's historic character while allowing alterations or additions to meet different needs, most often adaptive reuse to allow continued economic utility. (Delta Queen, Cutty Sark, Queen Mary) Restoration concentrates on depicting a property at a particular time in history, removing evidence of other periods. (Victory, Warrior) Reconstruction re-creates missing portions of a property for educational purposes. (Warrior; Niagara)

The U.S. Secretary Of Interior's Standards For Historic Vessel Preservation Projects (the "Green Book") were written in response to a 1984 Congressional request to the National Park Service. The Service was asked to "conduct a survey of historic maritime resources, recommend standards and priorities for the preservation of those resources; and recommend appropriate Federal and Private sector roles in addressing those priorities."

The result was the forging of a partnership involving the National Park Service, other Federal agencies, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, state Historic Preservation Offices, and the maritime community at large. Entitled the National Maritime Initiative, this partnership is headquartered in the History Division of the National Park Service.

The vessel standards were written by Michael Naab, former Director of the Columbia River Maritime Museum, under contract to the National Park Service. A panel of five experienced maritime preservation professionals made extensive comments. Wider review of the resulting manuscript and sometimes heated discussion at a national conference convened for that purpose further polished the work.

The result was a list of seven treatment processes for ships which matched the preservation theory of that time. They included guidelines for acquisition, protection, documentation, stabilization, preservation, rehabilitation, and restoration.

As these have been rethought, the seven original treatments have been compressed into four. Acquisition, protection and documentation are processes that might be required for any planned use of a vessel. A second edition under consideration will be organized around the current four treatment options and include elements of acquisition, protection and documentation for each treatment.

The "'Green Book" has met the test of time. It has been disseminated to over twenty countries and reportedly formed the basis for standards in several other nations. The Standards have also been found useful to the small craft, aviation and railroad preservation communities. The sharing of the accumulated knowledge of ship preservationists will continue to improve the quality of the Standards. We are proud to have had a part in the gathering of these ideas and their continued implementation.

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Version 1.01, 16 Oct 2013