Monday, June 20, 2011

Museum ships - damage control

As an amateur historian-type and active-duty SWO (surface warfare officer) I'm getting pretty fed up with reading about museum ships and their plight. That's because while I, perhaps more than most, appreciate the significance of these floating (wait for it) treasures, as I learn more and more about their management the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach gets worse and worse.

First, some background.

I am one of the few people in my demographic who enjoy spending hours upon hours in archives, museums, etc. gazing in intense study at anything and everything 'period' or 'original' trying to decode their secrets. When on a road trip, I will divert to the most obscure of museums, much to the chagrin of whatever company is along for the ride. And so when I get the opportunity to visit a museum ship I get pretty excited. But on arrival, I've learned that I have about a 50/50 shot of the excitement continuing or being completely stifled by the material condition of the ship.

Now granted, that's because I'm used to walking passageways testing battle lanterns, looking into crevices for dust bunnies and checking DC gear. But I'd like to think I've developed a separate and more practical sense of 'acceptable' for museum ships. A little peeling paint and/or a few dust bunnies, okay. Plants growing a foot high from your wooden decking - fail. But even in the best maintained ships, I almost always find significant fault in the museum management.

Just about everyone has heard of the USS Olympia and her struggle for survival. Despite the better part of a century as a ticket-taking tourist attraction in Philadelphia, it would seem that her managing 501c3 - which has raised tens of millions over the years - has given nary a thought to the actual preservation of the ship, to the point now that her frail hull may not be capable of supporting a drydocking. Olympia herself is truly a gem of naval history and heritage, and you can find plenty of information on that in sites all over the internet. But what you won't find, at least readily, is the outrage that ought to be expressed that the management has not only neglected her maintenance - she hasn't been drydocked in more than 60 years - but that they have the gall to insinuate that the US Navy ought to step in and save them. 'Help! Help! We've wasted all of our money! We were caught blindsided with this deterioration! Save us, cash-strapped Navy!'


I've been waiting to write something on this subject for a while now, not wanting to crush anyone's hopes and dreams. After all, I had been of the opinion that there is too much pessimism in the mix already. But this morning I read about the ongoing woes of USS Yorktown in Charleston, and the last straw is broken.

Yorktown, venerable old veteran of WWII, is sitting in the mud - 26 feet deep in it, to be precise - of Charleston Harbor. I've toured that ship and I thought the displays were pretty decent as museums go. But to learn that she was allowed to settle into that state - where now cofferdams have to be built to dig her out - marks just another example of this horrible phenomenon created when museum professionals take the reigns of a waterborne animal like a ship. Even those who have specialties as 'maritime museums' seem to be perfectly content to let their ships rot pierside without apparent concern or requisite planning to ensure those assets survive for the next generation. We as maritime professionals are keen to chastise, but more often fight the symptoms rather than the disease - lead the lip-service charge to fix the ship and give it back to the same stagnant, passive, complacent management system that put her in that position to begin with. WE KNOW BETTER - LET'S FIX THIS!

I'm completely putting aside the NHS interests in Hornet and our other projects for a moment when I say this. Don't confuse our funding with that which usually goes toward museum ships.

Professional mariners - stand up and tell these museums that bad management of our treasures will not go unnoticed. When an organization starts crying for more money, ask what they did with the funds they had - and scrutinize the results. Each and every museum ship ought to come with a 10- and 20- year plan for maintenance, based on cash reserves built up from revenues and collected donations and unbiased third-party professional surveys of the ship. Prioritize your maintenance requirements effectively. Financial management gurus can help figure out ways to make the available cash do this based on your income trend. Success breeds more success and when these organizations can show a proven track record of doing good things, genuinely preserving and actively interpreting the assets with which they are entrusted, things will change.

But this charge will start with the dyed-in-the-wool seafarers. Stop the lip service, look objectively like the professionals we are, and demand better for our proud old ships! Perhaps the tragedy of Olympia being sunk as a reef will provide us the wake-up call we sorely need.



Mike Ninivaggi (FB user) said...

I wonder - The HMS Victory, the USS Albacore, and the Portsmouth lightship are all out of the water, as is that U Boat in Chicago (which has the additional advantage of being in a climate-controlled environment a la the PT Boats at Battleship Cove in MA). I know seeing a ship in the water, in its natural environment, is preferential, but might it make more sense preservation-wise to get them out of the water? Do you think it's a bad idea? Granted, no easy task for the Yorktown, but maybe Olympia could be managed in that fashion.

LT Will King said...

I think we need to explore the realm of out-of-the-water preservation more thoroughly, but I do believe it is the best preservation option.

I haven't fully developed the idea, but I would think an in-ground approach would be best here. First, dig a graving dock - akin to a trench large enough to contain the ship - open it to a navigable waterway. Into the bottom of the trench lay perforated drainage piping. Allow the trench to flood. Move the ship into it, and slip a protective cover/vapor barrier around the hull (this is the expensive part). This vapor barrier could even be fitted with integrated tubing to remove moisture from and deliver chemical treatments to the outside surface of the hull - all of which would be contained by the barrier. Begin filling in the trench with gravel, sand and other media that will permit satisfactory drainage. If your perforated piping is set up such that one end terminates above ground level and is capped off, while another terminates at the bottom of a vertical access shaft, you could situate a pump in the bottom of the shaft to remove excess drainwater, while the end above ground gives you a means of clearing and flushing the piping as necessary. Set up correctly by qualified civil engineers, there is no reason such a system can't be 1) cheaper, 2) more effective in preserving the ship, and 3) less maintenance intensive over a longer period of time.

The question then becomes what do you do to increase your visitation - and make the ship an interactive attraction? I have my ideas there too.

But again, all of this is reliant on flexible, forward-leaning, out-of-the-box thinking management.

Thanks for your comment!

Michael Ninivaggi (FB user) said...

I see where you're going - unlike the Albacore, where they did the first part (dug the trench, put the ship in, and then closed it off and drained it, leaving the sub on a stand high and dry) You're proposing filling around the bottom of the hull, but using the system you propose to maintain the hull and drain water away. Sounds like a process that would work for the bigger ships. For Olympia I'm thinking that they could probably put her on a stand or cradle, if they can overcome her current friability - bigger than the Albacore certainly but not nearly as big as Yorktown.

My thoughts are that leaving the hull free and clear of water, land, etc, makes it easier to maintain the entire hull.

You're probably familiar with the steel replica of USS Monitor outside of the Mariner's Museum. I've been there and admit that it's pretty neat to be able to walk underneath as well as on top of it. Albacore doesn't let you do that (maybe I should suggest it to them). Imagine being able to stand under the Olympia for a unique vantage point? How about a destroyer, to allow you to appreciate her lines that gave her speed? And if it were somehow possible for a ship like Yorktown, which I doubt, imagine being under that monster (heck, there's be enough space under the ship for any number of uses).

Going back to the original idea, I would propose that the "trench" be lined with concrete making it drydock-like, which can be sealed to prevent moisture from entering the ship area (like you seal a foundation of a house). The edges of the drydock, at surface level, could then act as a foundation for a building erected over the ship once she's in place, creating a climate controlled all weather attraction. Obviously again not for Yorktown, but doable for Olympia.

Certainly these ideas mean quite a bit more up front money than just tying the ship to a dock, but in the long term it should vastly decrease maintenance costs. With a proper business and maintenance plan (going back to your original post, which I wholeheartedly agree with) the ship would then be safe for the long term.

LT Will King said...

Just remember - that HMS Victory is falling apart piece by piece, sagging between cradles. When a ship is in the water, the forces acting on the hull are applied uniformly over its surface, distributing the load. That's the idea with the fill.
It would be great to stand under Olympia, but despite outward appearances, she is a big girl who'll need lots of strucutral support to avoid breaking up.