Caring & conserving

Making ready - The Vigilance in Brixham Harbour

Historic vessels

Hannah Cunliffe By Hannah Cunliffe Published 17 April, 2013

Hannah Cunliffe holds the current position of Policy and Project Manager for National Historic Ships UK.


Ships and boats are some of the most complex human artefacts designed at any time in history.  Diverse in scale and type, they have immense emotional impact as expressions, functional and often beautiful, of people’s ingenuity in relation to their environment.  There has always been discussion in the maritime sector about how best or to what extent any vessel should be repaired or conserved.  This has led to fragmentation of views, and widely differing approaches, standards and outcomes.  The right decisions about conservation cannot be made without a real understanding of the vessel in question, both through the materials of which she is composed and the history of her life.


Understanding why a vessel is significant is integral to making decisions about how best to conserve her and a statement of significance should be developed at an early stage.  This can be written using the format set down in the National Historic Ships UK guidance publication Conserving Historic Vessels which asks:

  • What is the vessel’s ability to demonstrate history in her physical fabric?
  • What are the vessel’s associational links for which there is no physical evidence?
  • How does the vessel’s shape or form combine and contribute to her function?

Conservation Processes

Vessel custodians are then faced with one of the most difficult decisions – whether to conserve the vessel primarily for her fabric or keep her in operational use.  The conservation route which is followed will impact on the conservation processes employed, defined by NHS-UK as:

  • Preservation: keeping the fabric or part of the fabric of a vessel as far as possible in its existing state and retarding deterioration
  • Restoration: returning the existing fabric or part of the fabric of a vessel to a known earlier state by removing additions or re-assembling existing components with the minimum introduction of new material and without conjecture
  • Reconstruction: returning the fabric or part of the fabric of a vessel to a known earlier state, but distinguished from restoration by the introduction of new material
  • Adaptation: modifying the vessel to suit a proposed new use.

Where to find out more

NHS-UK has published a three-volume guidance publication entitled Understanding Historic Vessels available at: