The SS Great Britain’s ‘Final Passenger’

Written by Nick Booth, Head of Collections, SS Great Britain Trust.

Drakon Heritage and Conservation can be contacted via their website – https://drakonheritage.co.uk/.

This blog explores conservation work and public engagement activities focused on a natural history specimen found in an unlikely museum setting, made possible thanks to the Bill Pettit Memorial Award 2020.

Brunel’s SS Great Britain is a museum and visitor attraction on the harbour side in Bristol. The site centres around the Steamship Great Britain, which sits within the drydock she was originally built in and launched from on the 19th July 1843. The famous Victorian Engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, acted as her Chief Engineer. She returned to the same drydock on the 19th July, 1970 – a gap of 127 years during when she steamed or sailed to every continent in the world, excluding the Antarctic, and circumnavigated the globe 32 times. The site also includes two museums – the Dockyard Museum, which tells the story of the SS Great Britain from construction to her return to Bristol, and the Being Brunel Museum, which explored the life and works of IK Brunel. The Trusts Collections were Designated in 2014.

In March 2020 the SS Great Britain Trust applied for funding as part of the Bill Pettit Memorial Award.

The funding was to allow the Trust to employ an accredited conservator to assess, conserve and develop a future conservation plan for a naturally mummified Magellan Cormorant specimen that forms part of the Trust’s Collection, previously referred to as the SS Great Britain’s final passenger. The Cormorant was found within the hull of the ship after she returned from the Falklands Island to Bristol in 1970 and had been displayed in the Dockyard Museum on site since at least 2010. Previously the specimen had been displayed partially obscured behind a banner, which meant it was often missed by the public. In December 2019 it was moved to a more visible location, which highlighted the need for the work going forward. The project was initially delayed by the temporary closure of the SS Great Britain site due to Covid-19.

Throughout the project the SS Great Britain Trust worked closely with Pieta Greaves ACR, of Drakon Heritage and Conservation, to review the specimen and identify the work required, and then carry out the work once the grant had been awarded.

Image 1. The Cormorant Specimen during initial inspection. © Drakon Heritage and Conservation.

The initial condition review showed the specimen to be in generally good condition – it was still articulated, and had gone through a ‘natural’ mummification process (as opposed to being a deliberate taxidermy specimen). The preserved sinew and skin was found to be holding the specimen together, although the skin was extremely brittle, almost paper-like in some places. The whole specimen was dusty.

The initial stage of the project saw the specimen taken to the labs of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, where Drakon Heritage and Conservation were renting lab space. This was to allow an initial x-ray to take place, in order to get a better idea of the condition of the specimen, and investigate the source of a rattle that came from inside the specimen when moved. It was also aimed at providing some interesting images for future public engagement work.

Image 2. The specimen while being x-rayed in the labs of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. © Nick Booth.

The x-ray showed that the interior of the specimen was in generally good condition, and identified the rattle as coming from a mix of loose materials inside the body of the cormorant (soils, iron corrosion products and old dried bits of biological tissue). It also showed a thin wire that had been threaded from the skull along the neck for support at some point – this work is not visible from the outside of the specimen, and had not previously been recorded.

Image 3. X-ray of the head and neck of the specimen. The metal wire can just be made out running the length of the specimen’s neck and into the skull. © Drakon Heritage and Conservation.

Following on from the x-ray a date was agreed for the work to be carried out onsite at the SS Great Britain, on the 27th and 28th October 2021. These dates were chosen as they fell over the half term holidays of the local schools, and as a part of the project, the aim was to have the work visible to the public. It is the policy of the SS Great Britain Trust to carry out as much traditionally ‘behind the scenes’ work as possible in front of the public, in order to break down barriers to accessing the collection. ‘Conservation in Action’ sessions are regularly run on site, where the public are invited to come and see conservation work being carried out, to speak to the people doing the work, and (where possible) to take part themselves. Over four days, 26th–29th October, the doors to the David MacGregor Library were open from 11am-2pm and the public were encouraged to view the specimen and work going on, and ask questions to staff, volunteers and Pieta.

Due to the phased reopening of the SS Great Britain site to the public this whole week was treated as a ‘reopening’ event for public access to the library. In total 250 people came to see the work being carried out, and learn more about conservation and the project.

While carrying out the work Pieta live tweeted from the Drakon Heritage Twitter account (@drakonheritage). The SS Great Britain Trust also featured the work on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram (all @SSGreatBritain).

Image 4. Tweets from Drakon Heritage and Conservation and the SS Great Britain Trust giving details of the project.

As part of the conservation work the specimen was cleaned; fragile or loose areas were consolidated, and the specimen was remounted. It is now displayed in a safer and more visually appealing way, and thanks to the public engagement activities, knowledge of its existence is much higher within the Trust with our own staff and volunteers. Work is currently ongoing with our Interpretation Team to improve it’s interpretation onsite, and thanks to a public vote held across the Trust’s social media channels we now even have a name for it, ‘Ewan Cormorant’, named in honour of the man whose letter to the Times in 1967 began the project to salvage the SS Great Britain – Ewan Corlett.

Image 5. The cormorant newly remounted and redisplayed in the Dockyard Museum. © Nick Booth/SS Great Britain Trust.

For future contacts regarding this blog post, please forward any enquiries to Joanna Mathers (Head of Collections from February 2022).

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