British naval heritage at risk of being sold off
Artefacts from HMS Victory could be auctioned to pay for its excavation by US company
By Belinda Seppings. Conservation, Issue 235, May 2012
Published online: 16 May 2012
Archaeologists are up in arms over the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD’s) decision to transfer the management of an 18th-century British warship to a newly formed charitable body, the Maritime Heritage Foundation, which has entered into an agreement with the US ocean salvage company, Odyssey Marine Exploration, to raise the wreck. They fear that the public/private partnership will lead to the deaccession and sale of artefacts from HMS Victory (1744) to raise money to pay the salvor.
“It’s inconceivable that the government can be so misguided and ignore the Unesco convention,” says Robert Yorke, the chairman of the Joint Nautical Archaeology Policy Committee. The 2001 convention states that underwater cultural heritage should not be commercially exploited. “Britain has become a laughing stock,” Yorke says. Joe Flatman, a senior lecturer at the University College London’s Institute of Archaeology, thinks no archaeologist should sell recovered artefacts. “The minute you sell materials you aren’t doing archaeology,” he says.
HMS Victory—not to be confused with Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, HMS Victory (1759)—sank during a storm in 1744 under the command of John Balchin, an ancestor of Lord Lingfield, the chair of the foundation. The wreck was discovered in the English Channel in 2008 by Odyssey more than 100km from the Channel Islands.
The MoD and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport launched a public consultation in 2010 to discuss the wreck. In January, the MoD announced it would hand over management of the site to the foundation.
While the foundation’s aims are in line with the management and preservation of the wreck, the lack of public information available about the organisation has raised concerns. As we went to press the foundation’s website was just a landing page and our attempts to contact Lord Lingfield by phone, email and through the foundation’s public relations firm, failed. “We don’t know what it is,” Flatman says. “If they’d said, ‘we’re a new foundation, here are our objectives and these are our advisers’, I’d have no problem.”
Some say that the consultation should have reopened to allow established heritage charities to apply. “A closed deal has been done,” Flatman says. The MoD says the foundation was the only charity to come forward and is well suited to manage the site. “We did not know about the foundation’s contract with Odyssey when we gifted the wreck, but it is unsurprising; we expected they would need to buy in expertise,” says an MoD spokesman, who adds that the foundation must seek permission from the Secretary of State for Defence before disturbing, excavating or disposing of the site.
The MoD’s decision not to issue a departmental minute in the House of Commons as is customary with gifts exceeding £250,000 has also raised eyebrows. The MoD says HMS Victory did not require one, although Yorke estimates that the ship’s value is over £250,000.
“Odyssey has more experience conducting archaeological excavations on deep-ocean shipwrecks than anyone in the world,” says Odyssey’s chief executive, Greg Stemm. “Any deaccessioned artefacts will first be offered to museums before any duplicates are deaccessioned to private collectors.”
“The [Unesco] convention is a guide, not a bible, and we have a moral obligation to raise the ship,” says the director of Wreck Watch International, Sean Kingsley, who advises Odyssey.
Stemm says Odyssey is also in discussions with other organisations: “People are realising the public/private partnership is a valid way to manage our underwater cultural heritage without spending public money.”
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