Now we’re in the centenary of the First World War, and with the recent anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, it emphasised how much of a role physical objects play in constructing our interpretation of events now lost to living memory. Not just in an historical factual sense, but in an emotional sense too.

The recent unveiling of the memorial to the Battle of Waterloo at Waterloo station and another at Hougoumont Farm, Belgium are a good examples, providing long overdue physical memorials for the now unimaginable event.

Ship models can provide the same. They can become a focus for modern pilgrimage. Those relatives or descendants of those that served on these ships can use the models as a pivot to mould their interpretation and reconstruct that which is now lost. After all, for many ships the model is the only physical manifestation which remains above water. Of the First World War, only three naval vessels survive afloat today, an astounding loss considering there were 1,354 warships in service at the signing of the Armistice in 1918.[1]

Scale: 1:48. SLR0103. Full hull model of HMS 'Jackal' (1911), an Acheron-class destroyer. The flush, uncomplicated deck of the ‘Jackal’ together with its streamlined hull is clearly demonstrated by the model. On display in the Forgotten Fighters Gallery, we can see the model's fantastic detail: torpedoes and their launch tubes mounted on turntables, powerful searchlights fore and aft, and the bridge paraphernalia: wheel, binnacle and telegraphs.

The 3D realism of a ship model can breathe life into history and allow the imagination to see lost relatives in miniature, walking the miniature deck or manning the miniature guns. They provide stimulus to our senses, whether to construct our collective memory or to deal with personal loss.

F2557: Model of HMS Queen Mary (1912) Scale: 1:180. SLR1407. A full hull model of the battle-cruiser HMS 'Queen Mary' (1912). Built by Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Co. Ltd., Jarrow-on-Tyne, at 700 feet in length and 89 feet in the beam, she was a colossus. In the battle-cruiser force at Jutland, on 31 May 1916, she suddenly blew up with the loss of 1266 men. The explosion was probably due to cordite flash.

In many ways ship models have gone full circle. What have been primarily technical objects for at least 300 years have once again taken their place amongst the social and ethereal aspects of the human psyche.

Scale: Not to scale. AAE0030 A papyriform model of a 12th Dynasty (c.1850 BC) Egyptian funerary boat called the 'Sacred Boat of Osiris'. The hull is carved from a single piece of timber, painted yellow ochre. In the middle of the deck, positioned towards the bow, is a sarcophagus, painted white with eight figures crouching behind.

The Ancient Egyptians used model funerary boats, placed in tombs, as symbols of vessels to carry their dead into the afterlife. From the medieval period until at least the 19th century coastal communities in Northern Europe made votive ship models to hang in churches to protect those that went to earn a perilous living at sea.

Scale: 1:33. SLR0365. A full hull votive model of an armed Dutch East Indiaman (circa 1657). The model is decked, equipped and rigged. The custom of hanging ‘votive’ ship models in churches was widespread in many seaports and small fishing harbours of Europe. A typical feature of these models is the wavy line painted on the lower portion of the hull to indicate the waterline.

But like all spiritual objects, they are really for the living rather than the dead. The Egyptian funerary boat gave hope to the family of the person entombed that their relative would pass safely into the afterlife. The ship model hanging in the church in a small fishing village instilled a sense of security to the family awaiting the return of the father on a stormy night.

Ship models can provide a physical aspect to the intangible, to form and shape our memories of what has been lost to the sea and to time. Perhaps a more fitting memorial than cold white stone?

The National Maritime Museum has over 3200 objects in the Ship Model Collection.

[1] Statement of the First Lord of the Admiralty, Explanatory of the Navy Estimates, 1919-1920, III. Statistical Tables Relating to the Period of the War.