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£250k lottery handout gives historic Navy figureheads new lease of life

2 January 2024
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Historic ship figureheads at iconic naval sites in Portsmouth are to be restored – and others put on display for museum visitors – thanks to £250k of lottery cash.

The figureheads were once the symbols of HMS Seaflower, Martin, Queen Charlotte, Madagascar and Asia – each unique carving on the ship’s prow acting as both an identifier in an age when many sailors could not read, and also a source of pride and identity akin to present-day crests and badges.

The figureheads of HMS Seaflower and Martin have adorned HMS Nelson’s wardroom since the impressive building in Portsmouth’s Queen Street opened 120 years ago, while that of HMS Queen Charlotte greets anyone working on or visiting HMS Excellent on Whale Island.

And those from HMS Madagascar and Asia are held by the National Museum of the Royal Navy, which has been awarded the cash by National Lottery Heritage Fund, plus £15,000 from The Pilgrim Trust, to restore the three figureheads exposed to the elements – and tell the story behind all five.

The symbols of HMS Seaflower and Martin – both late Victorian training brigs – have suffered especially; water has rapidly deteriorated the internal timber surfaces and metal fixings such they were in danger of reaching a state beyond repair.

The funding enables us to respond to our visitors’ call for a reinterpretation of the figureheads and work closely with communities to ensure that they can see themselves in the stories we tell and the collections we hold.

Louisa Blight, Head of Collections and Research at the National Museum.

The money will not allow conservators to get to work, but also tell the story of the individual figureheads and the objects in general, their cultural and artistic significance and the role of the Royal Navy in creating and sustaining Britain’s colonial empire. New museum staff will work with communities and the Royal Navy to develop activities which will explore the figureheads’ history and unpick historic perceptions they represent.

And courtesy of technology it will allow people who wouldn’t normally see the figureheads of HM Ships Seaflower, Martin and Queen Charlotte due to their locations on secure naval sites to experience and learn about them virtually.

Louisa Blight, Head of Collections and Research at the National Museum, said people were both intrigued and somewhat bemused by figureheads.

“Every figurehead has a story to tell, but many of these stories are both partial and one-sided,” she said.

“We will undertake 3D scanning and tomography of the figureheads identified as in a perilous state, as well as two others which fall within the project’s areas of focus.

“The funding enables us to respond to our visitors’ call for a reinterpretation of the figureheads and work closely with communities to ensure that they can see themselves in the stories we tell and the collections we hold.”

 

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