Hard Times

National Waterways Museum, Ellesmere Port Boat Museum, boat restoration, historic boat preservation, Heritage Lottery

In this hard financial autumn our old historic canal boats have had a very hard month indeed. Their natural rot has been accelerated by the Waterways Trust museums at Ellesmere Port and Gloucester shutting down to part –time opening, operating with even fewer staff than they have been struggling with anyway. But it is just another prop to be knocked away due to straightened circumstances and yet another change in management. It has actually been obvious for years that there has never been enough labour, or enough money to pay outside contractors to maintain their huge collection of boats in anything like a respectable condition, let alone restore or improve them.

In recent years all future faith in their future has been invested in the hope of a major grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. However, even applying for such a grant is a long process involving a huge amount of preparatory research and form filling designed, quite properly, to ensure that public money will only be spent on something for the public good. But the process is time consuming and increasingly a specialist skill in its own right. (For specialist read costly.) And when the craft and spirit of historic boat restoration is so far divorced from the office arts of bureaucratic administration they really all need other translators in the middle as well (i.e. more discussions and meetings.) It’s like teaching an English gamekeeper vegetarian cooking, in Chinese.

For the last five years or so, ever since the last major reshuffle, the curatorial staff have been carrying the baton of the previous redundant administration, dutifully pursuing a policy designed by a different director for a different time, but even that will grind to a halt now. There’s nobody to do it. Mean while the boats are five years older and five years more rotten and five years more expensive to restore, and one suspects that even this simple arithmetic is optimistic for it doesn’t take the compound deterioration into account. Even the narrow boats are at risk now, especially the wooden ones. The wide boats have always been at risk but that of course was the original impetus for setting up the museum in the first place. It was to preserve examples of the sort of canal boats that were unlikely to survive as pleasure boats simply because their cruising range was so limited by their size. Anything that couldn’t access Braunston, Stratford and Llangollen was less likely to be given the unconditional love, care and money that any old boat needs to survive in working condition. Preserving those difficult boats was the challenge that we took on back in 1970, the one we are floundering in now.

To be fair there has been a large element of self-delusion about all this, especially in recent years. The early delusion was that a group of boats gathered together and called a museum was a safe haven, that the word ‘museum’ would be some sort of prophylactic protection in itself. If you could achieve that designation you would surely be offered a degree of respect that could be translated into some sort of supportive funding from above. This delusion however was already based on an old fashioned ethic, one that my post war progressive generation imbibed with our mother’s milk, that museums were a good thing, secure, educational and essential for the future of a sensible society. And preferably free. A museum was a solid expression of culture, and any past culture was a significant part of history, and history is what the future learns from. Educational and secure, and worth subsidising -- a very good thing.

But that was an old concept even then, harking back to the philanthropic impulses of the Victorians. From being a secure repository of facts and artefacts that old-fashioned definition has now been undermined and museums have been redefined as part of the leisure industry. Unfortunately the modern capitalist definition of industry is one that pays for itself, or even makes a profit…. All values have to be expressed in monetary terms, a difficult idea when we are talking about a museum experience. We don’t yet do it with education – we don’t yet equate one day at play school for a four-year-old as worth ten pounds a day in taxes in twenty years time. We still accept that an inspired and stimulated child will become a more fully rounded adult, a positive and useful addition to our future society. But don’t be complacent—the accountants are still gnawing away at this optimistic benevolence. These ‘accountants’ are not actually individuals that we can argue with, or whose faces we can slap – they are an insidious creeping belief system that we – you and I –have allowed to colonise our minds. In a similar way most of us have been advised to participate in the greedy society ethic by investing in a stock market which it suddenly turns out is based on promises, debts and, at times, downright lies. Many of us may have harboured doubts in our hearts but when most of the financial doctors prescribe investment as the only way to safeguard the future then we allow the self-delusion to predominate, and we go with the flow. Oh, shucks!

And so too with the boats. For several years the self delusion has been that the Heritage Lottery would save the museum collection and we have allowed this delusion to strengthen because there was no other option offered. If you are only offered one cure for a potentially fatal disease, however dodgy the success rate – that’s the one you delude yourself is going to do the business. The alternative is unthinkable or at least unhelpful. Nobody gets better by thinking they are going to die. But now we have to think the unthinkable so if you are interested in historic old boats go and see them soon because they won’t be there forever. And for the rest of the winter you can only go at weekends.

©Tony Lewery, The Brow, Ellesmere,
October 31 2008

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