A San Francisco marina (© Alexi Baker)

During a presentation not too long ago, the curator and conservator Dr Mary Brooks mentioned questions having been raised about how much of the Cutty Sark is still original after the ravages of time and fire. This set me to thinking about ships as 'museum objects', and specifically about the historical ships and other maritime sites which I visited in California earlier this year. As I saw in San Francisco and San Diego, historical ships which are still afloat are somewhat different from many other types of museum objects, as they are often used to great effect both as exhibition space and as a means of evoking the past experience of life and work at sea. This may put them in a somewhat different category than most objects in the debate among curators and conservators over reflections of and reactions to the fragility and decay and authenticity of material culture, about which Dr. Brooks spoke.

In both San Francisco and San Diego there are many historical resources and sites which educate about and evoke the long history of people and the sea on the Golden Cost including historical plaques, museums and historical ships, and memorials and ruins. The stories told encompass maritime travel, trade, defense and technology, as well as seaside living up to the modern day - most often starting with the so-called 'Age of Exploration' and the arrival of the Spaniards rather than with the seafaring of local Native American tribes. I thought that most of these sites and resources were especially strong at evoking the human or individual experience of life and work at sea through first-hand accounts, biographies, and material objects and tableaux (albeit without enough claustrophobia and stench and noise to be realistic!).

I started my visit to California in San Francisco, which has many maritime history sites and plaques near the bay and at Fisherman's Wharf (where the plaques mainly told of the still extant Italian-dominated fishing industry). Sadly all but the lobby of the maritime museum was closed for renovations. However, it was still worth a visit to the striking Art Deco / Streamline Moderne building to see a small number of objects and paintings which told the story of interesting local vessels such as the Niantic, and to see the original WPA artwork painted and overseen by Hilaire Hiler when the building first opened as a public bathhouse. The latter includes tile mosaics of fish on the exterior of the building and psychedelic maritime-themed murals inside, including a 120-color circular spectrum on the ceiling based upon Hiler's unique 'sensational' colour theory. (The author and painter Henry Miller considered these the only murals then worth seeing in the United States.)

Mural by Hilaire Hiler in the San Francisco maritime museum (© Alexi Baker)

A tile mosaic at the San Francisco maritime museum (© Alexi Baker)

In addition to a separate Visitor Center, the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park maintains a fleet of historic vessels at the Hyde Street Pier including: the square-rigged sailing ship Balclutha from 1886; the schooner C.A. Thayer from 1895; the steam ferryboat Eureka from 1890; the scow schooner Alma from 1891; the steam tug Hercules from 1907; and the paddlewheel tug Eppleton Hall from 1914. There are exhibitions and tableaux on some of the main vessels which help to evoke the experience and the hierarchies of life aboard ship during centuries past, and a boat builders' workshop on the pier.

There are also a variety of park events which accomplish the same, including sea chantey sing-a-longs and onboard concerts, sail raising demonstrations, visits from costumed players, films and lectures, wildlife and walking tours, and periodically trips on the Alma. When I visited, a group of schoolchildren were being taught how to man the Balclutha and were going to spend the night.

Alcatraz and the 'Balclutha' in San Francisco (© Alexi Baker)

There were materials about and remnants of the local maritime history in many other locations in San Francisco as well, for example at the Presidio which was first fortified in the eighteenth century, at the memorial for the USS San Francisco in the striking Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and at the nearby ruins of the Sutro Baths (which first drew in millions of gallons of seawater for the health of bathers during the late nineteenth century). Perhaps the most unabashedly fun site was the Musée Mécanique with its hundreds of working mechanical games, automata, and music players, and early forms of moving pictures from the late nineteenth through the twentieth centuries and from Europe as well as America. These objects, and the museum's accompanying background material and historical photographs, vividly evoked entertainment at the seaside.

The ruins of the Sutro Baths in San Francisco (© Alexi Baker)

The mechanical tableau 'A Message from the Sea' at the Musée Mécanique (© Alexi Baker)

The somewhat disturbing automaton 'Jolly Jack' (© Alexi Baker)

From San Francisco I journeyed to San Diego, where historical plaques and sites tell similar narratives about California's maritime past over the last five centuries. The San Diego Maritime Museum houses some very interesting collections and a temporary art exhibition aboard the 1898 ferryboat Berkeley. The museum, like that in San Francisco, also hosts a wide variety of events to evoke and entertain. These include bay and whale-watching tours on some of the ships, sea chantey days, learning to be sailors, overnight visits, mock cannon battles - and even a twelve-week course on celestial navigation!  The museum's other vessels include: the merchant bark Star of India from 1863; the steam yacht Medea from 1904; the 1914 harbor pilot boat Pilot; a Soviet Foxtrot class submarine B-39; the diesel-electric submarine USS Dolphin launched in 1968; a 1984 replica of an 1847 cutter the Californian; and a 1970 replica of a Royal Navy frigate the HMS Surprise. (The replicas add another level to the discussion of 'authenticity' when it comes to vessels kept at maritime museums and parks. The Surprise has appeared in movies including Master and Commander and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.)

The HMS 'Surprise' and the 'Star of India', as seen against the San Diego skyline from the 'Berkeley' (© Alexi Baker)

A number of the ships still afloat contain exhibitions, displays and tableaux which are evocative (despite, again, not being able to depict conditions in a realistically cramped and riotous enough manner). I thought that these were most successful when they included the stories and sometimes the photographs and testimonials of individuals who worked or traveled on the ships in centuries past.
It was fascinating to tour the retired Soviet submarine as well, which I had not expected, in part because of the quality of the descriptions of the uses and human experience of each space on the vessel. It was interesting to see so much in the way of hierarchies (including in the allocation of space), logistics, technologies, and regulations carried over from service above the waves. Despite perks including better food, it must have been difficult serving in such cramped conditions, where most men had little if any private space of their own and very limited access to toilets and showers. (No wonder hundreds of illicit vodka bottles were found hidden on board during restoration!)
The collections on the ferry Berkeley were very interesting if in some ways 'haphazard', jumping all over in time and place. Items which stand out in my memory include a Catholic altar from a local Italian-American fishing boat, educational models from World War II of the profiles of different ships, a 'fishing log' used to attract shoals of fish during the twentieth century, and archival photographs from the canneries and from the histories of specific vessels, etc. I was also very pleased to see that the small displays telling the story of early modern European navigation included elements which haven't always reached popular tellings of the longitude story - such as the Royal Observatory's having been founded to help ships better keep longitude at sea, Edmond Halley and others' efforts at developing a longitude method based on magnetic variation, the development and importance of the Nautical Almanac, and marine chronometers' not having gone into wider use until later in the nineteenth century.

The Soviet submarine 'B-39' in San Diego (© Alexi Baker)

Inside the submarine 'B-39' (© Alexi Baker)

Finally, I visited the aircraft carrier turned museum USS Midway, which, like the submarine, proved surprisingly interesting to me. Again, this was mainly because the museum's exhibition designers have done such a good job at explaining how people lived and worked in the vast array of spaces on the ship, from the hierarchy of crew quarters and dining halls to the dentists' and barbers' offices. This is in part accomplished through a liberal use of archival photographs and quotations from former crew members about their experiences in the different parts of the carrier. The Midway was commissioned shortly after World War II, was the largest ship in the world until 1955, and was decommissioned in 1992.

The aircraft carrier USS 'Midway', now a museum in San Diego (© Alexi Baker)

The flight deck on the USS 'Midway' (© Alexi Baker)

After visiting so many different maritime history sites and vessels in San Francisco and San Diego, what stands out most to me (besides the sites' good evocation of life at sea) is the great degree of continuity. The interpersonal hierarchies, the uses and hierarchical allocation of space aboard ship, and the core technologies employed remained very similar on seagoing vessels from the 'search for the longitude' and often earlier until at least the late twentieth-century. Our well-informed former-Navy guide on the USS Midway made a point of telling us that many long-standing technologies such as the sextant and approaches such as charting by hand remained in use on that vessel until it was decommissioned, since GPS did not become fully operational until 1994. While innovative new tools including the sextant, the marine chronometer and the Nautical Almanac improved navigation as they were (often slowly) adopted by the fleets - stability may have been the most common experience over the centuries!

Traditional navigational tools used on the USS 'Midway' until the 1990's (© Alexi Baker)