ss Great Britain Trust

Matthew Tanner


ss Great Britain Trust

Great Western Dockyard Bristol BS1 6TY United Kingdom

The Conservation and Display of Brunel's ss Great Britain

Brunel's ss Great Britain is one of the world's most significant historic ships (launched in 1843). The world's first screw-propelled, iron-built passenger liner, she revolutionised ship technology and world communications. She was 50% bigger than any previous ship, and she sailed 32 times around the world (c.1.6 million km at sea), and carried many thousands of passengers to America and especially to Australia. She also carried soldiers to the Crimea and to India. Only in 1886 did she come to rest in the Falkland Islands to finish her days. But in 1970, her heritage importance was recognised, and she was salvaged and towed across the Atlantic Ocean to her original ls"birthplace' in Bristol, UK.
However disaster loomed. By 1998 it was clear that the ship was rapidly corroding away into rust. The trustees of the ship therefore had to find a new way of preserving the great ship in a sustainable way for future generations to enjoy.
She now provides the glorious centrepiece of an exciting independent public museum and visitor destination, attracting public acclaim when she won the UK Museum of the Year Award 2006, the England Large Visitor Attraction of the Year 2007, a Europa Nostra Diploma, the Micheletti European Industrial Museum Award 2007, and numerous other prizes.


credit Mandy Reynolds

Meticulous survey work and research underpinned the entire conservation process, resulting in the Conservation Plan (2 vols.1998). The core problem was the extensive contamination of the wrought iron fabric with salt. The Plan explored thirteen possible conservation approaches for the control or removal of chlorides. On examination these approaches fell clearly into two separate classes: on the one hand traditional cleaning, replacement, and highly interventive chloride removal, and on the other the creation of a controlled stable environment of some order. The first class all showed limited life for the ship fabric. The second give at least 100 years or more. To ensure the longest possible life for the ship with the lowest possible level of intervention, it was clear that the plan had to control the environment around the iron ship; an idea well understood in traditional museum conservation, but very unusual and difficult to achieve in large outdoor items, particularly for a 1,000-tonne corroded iron ship sitting in a very wet dry-dock .
The chosen solution was simple and ingenious. It was decided that a horizontal glass waterline plate would be designed and installed so that it sealed the gap between the wall of the dock and the ship. This would allow the entire hull below the waterline plate and the whole of the interior of the ship to be dried to <20%Relative Humidity and so stop the rusting.
No original fabric has been lost in the conservation of this ship. A thin layer of water flows across the plate providing insulation and cooling for the environmental control system. Drawn from the nearby harbour, the water cooling provides a 20% efficiency benefit to the machinery running costs; while helping to keep the glass clean and making the ship look like she is afloat, ready to sail to New York. The conjunction of the required conservation environment with a stunning visual effect has had a massive public impact.


The ship receives no funding from national or local government to support the costs of her preservation. Therefore, the visitor experience must be very effective in order to inspire and excite many visitors, since it is the visitors that must pay for the costs involved.
The Dockyard Museum takes the visitor back in time through the key periods of the ship's history until they cross on board as passengers ready to sail to New York or Melbourne. They explore the beautifully recreated spaces - from the First Class Dining Saloon and Promenade Deck, to the Engine Room and Steerage cabins. Passengers' and crew members' stories are retold through automatic audio guides. The smell of newly baked bread, dirty travellers, a huge engine turning, and even vomit smell help bring the 19th century experience of travel around the world alive. The visitor experience carefully balances intellectual learning with real historic objects and interactive machines in the museum, and emotive learning and an immersive experience on board the ship with all the sounds and smells of life on board.

Historic ships are physically challenging and notoriously difficult to access for people with disabilities. The Trust, however, was committed to making the entire visitor experience accessible to all and making the ship one of the most accessible maritime attractions in the world. Lifts hidden inside the funnel allow physical access, whilst not compromising the original iron fabric's integrity. Lifts provide access to the dry dock and a ramp routes all visitors around the Dockyard Museum and across to the ship. The Trust worked to develop innovative British Sign Language video guides, and special audio tours for visually-impaired people. Consequently, the ship is now one of the most accessible maritime attractions in the world and has been awarded several national awards for its innovative approach to creating access.
Visitors of all ages have responded enthusiastically to the ship experience, and the ship has enjoyed record visitor numbers, which makes the future of this piece of international cultural heritage seem very bright.


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