Between 2006 and 2012, the Cutty Sark Trust undertook an ambitious conservation project to save the last remaining tea clipper. Recollections is a series of short interviews with key people who worked on the project. Jessica Lewis, Curator of Cutty Sark, gives her insights.
What types of audience were you hoping to attract to the ship?
Families have always been the main audience for Cutty Sark, however our aim was always to have something for everyone – families, especially with young children; tourists; historic ship enthusiasts – and we developed the displays to meet the needs of all these audiences. The challenge for us is the competition for their leisure time and how to meet it by interpreting stories in a variety of ways for different ages and for different learning styles.
So the new presentation of the ship is not just for people interested in ships?
Many people come who don’t have an interest in ships. They come partly because of what Cutty Sark is – an icon in Greenwich – but also because of all the stories her name conjures up. You don’t need to be interested in ships to be excited about the adventure of sailing or exploring something 145 years old. But the ship has many different points of contact for different people: some people are interested in social history; some have a maritime connection in their family. Others live along the Thames and see Cutty Sark as part of London’s story. And she is of course the last remaining tea clipper – and what is more quintessentially British than the story of tea?
What were the main improvements you’ve made to the presentation of the ship?
We have vastly increased accessibility to the ship for those with disabilities. There are lifts that take wheelchair users and visitors with mobility difficulties to almost every part of the ship, and a large number of tactile and audio exhibits and interpretation to support visitors with additional needs. We wanted to make a visit an inclusive experience and although these elements are tailored for specific audiences, they are used by many more. This project has also been a great opportunity to tell the whole story of Cutty Sark: visitors say, ‘I didn’t know she carried wool or that she was owned by the Portuguese’. Others remember her in Falmouth and in Greenhithe and they appreciate these stories being told.
What do you think is the most successful element?
I’m pleased that we allow the ship to speak for herself – for example the main deck looks as it did in 1872, so visitors can let their imaginations roam free and explore the ship for themselves. At the same time we don’t abandon the visitor – there is information, but it is not overwhelming. I’m also proud of how we’ve integrated the provision for very young visitors. They are not catered for in a separate space, but, for example, on the ’tween deck, where we talk about the crew and life on board, they can scrub the deck or tie knots. Actually, the manual interactives have proved popular with visitors of all ages. But my favourite element is when you first enter the ship and see the structure of the ship – you touch a 145-year old vessel and that is very special.
And how have the public reacted?
Visitor feedback has been even better than we could have hoped for. The public are saying things like, ‘I spent so much longer here than I thought I would because there was so much to do’ , ‘I’m coming back’ – all the things we want to hear at the end of a regeneration project to create a sustainable future for the ship. We wanted to ensure that a visit to Cutty Sark is a social experience and many visitor comments talk about their experiences visiting with friends, with family and enjoying the spaces together.
Read what our visitors say about their visit on TripAdvisor
Is your work now complete?
We are determined to avoid the situation we were in before the project, when the interpretation of the ship had been static for more than 25 years and was no longer catering to the needs of current visitors. We are already undertaking research to make the presentation of the ship even better, to establish and build on the defining characteristics of a good day out on Cutty Sark.