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Why Do We Save Ships?

Author(s): Karl Kortum


Source: APT Bulletin, Vol. 19, No. 1, Maritime Preservation (1987), pp. 30-33
Published by: Association for Preservation Technology International (APT)Association for Preservation
Technology International (APT)
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1494175
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Why Do We Save Ships?
Karl Kortum
Why do we save ships? In my case, I the clippers, the quintessentialAmerican But I insisted on the money and
like to look at them. But that is kind of square-rigger,were both lost because of designed a set of exhibits. Harry Dring
a selfishviewpoint. I think a much deeper public indifference. (later Manager of the Balclutha and
instinct on my part (and many others) I attribute that in very large part to Marine Maintenance Foreman for the
is the impulse described by President the fact that these ships were not inter- National Park Service) worked down in
Theodore Roosevelt-the mark of a preted. The level of interpretation in the museum basement, building these
civilization is the care and thought it those years was to tell the night watch- displays for the best part of the year,
devotes to the next generation, the peo- man, "Charlie, get a couple pieces of while we repairedthe ship with weekend
ple that are going to come after it. I seizing wire and make a little sign saying volunteer groups. About three weeks be-
have a strong instinct to save these ships "Captain's Cabin, and hang it up in fore the ship was to come to San Fran-
for people I will probably never en- there somewhere."That was the level at cisco, we trucked all these displays that
counter. which it stood pretty much across the had been created during the year over
What immediately motivates me is world until we did Balclutha in a dif- to Oakland and installed them in the
that I love the subject. I think that ships ferent fashion. vessel. The lighting had been installed
are a marvelous vehicle for a host of in advance during the repair process. So,
things. They convey, for instance, art when that ship came over and tied up
and literature. Or, put another way, art on the San Francisco waterfront, it was
and literatureattach themselves to ships The markof a civilization a floating museum. There were three
in various ways, at different times, and is the care and thought it decks of exhibits. The ship was exten-
to different degrees; so do geography sively interpretedin the fo'c'sle, in cabins
and history and psychology. Read that devotes to the next genera- and 'tween decks, and in the lower hold.
marvelous book (I just read it again), tion. I have a strong in- The $10,000 had been well spent and
The Nigger of the Narcissus, if you want stinct to save shipsfor peo- carefully spent.
to encounter a study in shipboard psy- Right from the start,when the public
chology. Joseph Conrad's artistry comes ple I will never meet. went aboard, they didn't see a sign that
through in a sea setting that I find Charlie the night watchman had made
incredible. It is just the way it is on a hanging from a piece of seizing wire
sailing-ship voyage. saying "Galley" or "Captain's cabin."
Because ships are so engrossing and We had a difficult time with Balclu- They saw cast-bronze dolphins holding
have so many ramifications,I like to tell tha. It was very tough to get the Board up elegantly lettered little panels telling
other people about how interesting they of Trustees of the San Francisco Mari- this aspect of the ship or that. In doing
are. A restored ship can tell a story. time Museum to buy that old wreck it this way, we told the public that we
They're a vehicle for missionary work. laying over in the mudflats of Sausalito. cared about them, respected their sen-
And to be that, to reach out and tell the It was tough to bring her back to life sibilities, and wanted to give them pleas-
story, they have to be interpreted. The and put her into a ship-shape condi- ure.
simple fact is that in the old-ship pro- tion - or the appearanceof a ship-shape Balclutha was a success right from
gram in this nation and basically world- condition. It was tough to raise money the start: "She's worth going to see." I
wide, interpretation is pretty bad. It's for the vessel. We raised $40,000 for a remembera couple of elderly ladies from
seldom carried out to the extent that it $250,000 job (if you paid for it at going out of town coming down the gangplank.
should be. It is sad that St. Paul, a noble rates). I asked the Board of Trustees for I happened to be there. One of them
ship built in Maine, which was up in a quarter of that sum to create displays. said, "That's the best 25 minutes in San
Seattle in the 1930's, and Benjamin F. They were a little skeptical because the Francisco."The ship has taken in better
Packard,which had been towed back to ship was in such bad shape and in such than five million dollarsfrom admissions.
Long Island Sound, the last examples of need of money. Displays on a ship? There Interpretation is seldom done. It's
the down-easter,the type that succeeded was one hole in her side big enough to still seldom done to this day. It's always
stick your head through and look around coming along in arrearsof the physical
Karl Kortumis Chief Curatorof the Na- outside. There were at least a hundred repair of the ship. This is understandable
tional MaritimeMuseumin San Francisco, smaller holes in that ship. The ship to some extent. But unless you can pro-
California. herself needed our scanty funds. ject the story of that vessel out to the

Associationfor PreservationTechnology 30
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After rotting in Sausalito's mudflats, Balclutha was restored with


$40,000 and volunteer labor. Now, her restoration would cost $250,000.
A quarter of the budget went for interpretive materials onboard the
ship. (Richard Frear) 31
o1 APTBulletin Vol.IXNo. 1 1987
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Unlike the steel-hulledBalclutha,part of the beautyof


C.A. Thayeris her craftsmanship.Exhibitsin Thayer
were clusteredso that visitorscould appreciatethe wood
construction
- of the vessel.
-.F
- - - - - - - - - - -

public, you're not going to have the see the creationsof those long-gone ship-
public support that is necessary for the wrights. To some degree, display mate-
ship to continue living. You'renot going rial takes away from that dignity and
to have the constituency unless you tell interest.
I strongly believe in visual the story and make the ship come alive. I strongly believe in visual material.
material. But there is an- There are different philosophies on You go aboard and see displays, text,
other way to interpret a interpretation. I favored that one for that and pictures and artifacts that tell the
because she is a steel ship. When story of that ship's life. But there is
ship - using docents.
ship
you are inside her 'tween decks it's not another method, which is to use docents.
much different from being inside a Lib- Docents have their virtues and shortcom-
erty ship. It's just a steel, cold interior. ings. One of the finest museum-ship
So, I installed lots of stuff to look at, lots experiences I ever had was with Lord
of artifacts,lots of pictures, and material Nelson's Victory. There was a skilled
to read. There are other ways to interpret docent there. He took the party through
a vessel. A wooden ship has to be treated, the ship, and he told her story. It was
in my opinion, in a different fashion, very well done. It was a good experience.
probably clustering the interpretive ma- The disadvantageof using docents is that
terial at one point, more or less as we the experience doesn't stick with visitors
have done with the Thayer. quite the way visuals do.
The construction of a wooden ship Maybe the thing to do is to have a
is a story in itself. It's something to see. visually developed ship with displays
It bears no resemblance to being inside somewhat like those on Balclutha. Then
a Liberty ship at all. It's marvelous to have a docent who takes the visitor

Associationfor PreservationTechnology 32
Youcan drum up publicity
for old vessels. The press
just loves them. But you
still may have no money
coming in.

around the ship and points out, at the


end of the tour, that there is infinitely
more to be found in the written material
and illustrative material: "If you have
the time, I suggest you go around again
and absorb this." That would seem to
me the best of two possible worlds.
We have just passed through what
might be called the romantic era of ship
preservation. "Let's get this old vessel.
Let's not let her perish." You can drum
up public support for that. Old ships, as After Balclutha'srestoration,largeportionsof the deck
most of you have found, easily garner had to be replaceddue to rot. (KarlKortum,NMM)
publicity - it's incredible the way you
can get into the papers with them. The
press just loves old vessels, and television "Ah, we have saved the ship." The to carry the ship once he had it up. He
seems to get a kick out of them, too. romantic thing has been done. And it was up against the unremitting deteri-
Roughly speaking, it's about as easy to has. A very solid thing has been done. oration of a wooden vessel, an inexorable
get publicity for old ships as it is hard But then we move into a different phase thing for one man to cope with.
to get money. altogether, a different era - it's the one I want to conclude with a word of
There is no real relationshipbetween we are in now - which is an economic hope. If you can restrain dry rot, and
the two. It's a very disturbingthing when one. Inescapably economic. It's the op- that is the big killer of wooden ships,
you come up against that fact, but sooner posite of romantic,because raisingmoney and to some degree keep out marine
or later most of us face it. There you've to keep a ship going is not a very borers,which is considerablyeasier,there
got a big buzz going for the ship in the romanticendeavor.It doesn't have much is a cheery note: the older the ship gets,
newspaperand on television, and you've public appeal. "Weneed money to scrape the more valuable it gets. That is the
got practically no dollars coming in. the bottom." Or, "We need money to opposite of most other aspects of the
There is very, very little correlation. replace five planks starting with the human experience. So, if the ship can
There is an awful lot of kidding one's garboard strake." These are not heart- survive, - even if, like Wawona, she is
self (I have been guilty of it more than wrenching cries. And so this money at a very low ebb and is about gone, if
once): "Gee, we're getting a lot of at- comes very hard indeed. I don't know she can hang on- she will be more
tention for this old girl, and things are what the solution is going to be in the valuable because she has lived another
going fine." Well, they are not going fine case of many vessels now extant. ten years. In this country there has set
until the money part is addressed. I admire the spirit of that man who in, during recent decades, a passionate
We have ridden on this wave (which brought up the schooner Alvin Clark nostalgia,an immense welling of interest
I call the romanticperiod) with the press; from the bottom of the Great Lakes. I in the past, and maritime nostalgia rides
but, with dedicated individuals and, by can sympathize with his great distress. I the crest. The whole subject is on a
some formulation,frequently not involv- have heard lately that he wanted to sink sharp, upward curve. Can funding be
ing too much money, the ship is saved. it again because there was no mechanism far behind?

33 APTBulletin Vol.IXNo. 1 1987