Stuart Burroughs November 2012

The question of ‘authenticity’ is a moot point in the field of restoration or conservation and in particular when restoring structure or machinery how, after a long life of alteration and adaption, you present it. This could be for commercial or domestic use and in the case of structures and buildings which, in order to pay for their maintenance and continuance, have to charge admission and promote themselves as attractions, the question becomes even more problematic. Since the first industrial sites and structures were opened as attractions-admitting the public-industrial archaeologists have pondered on the matter.

Take for example the case of the SS Great Britain. After its use as a passenger and parcels vessel it passed through a number of other commercial uses, finishing its commercial life as a static store in the Falkland Islands. When the vessel was returned to Bristol, the decision was taken to present the ship as it would have been during its first incarnation – as an innovative steamship with scant reference to its later uses in the interpretation or presentation at the attraction. This was done in part for reasons of convenience and in order to maximise its commercial potential along with the honourable intention to present a 19th century manufacturing marvel. There is, needless to say, no sin in this. Would paying visitors be interested in visiting a hull partly ‘restored’ -if that is the word- to show it as it was just prior to its return to Bristol, half derelict, stranded in the Falklands? Probably not.

The restoration proceeded – and continues to do so-with the intention of showing the vessel, in dry dock, as if ready for its maiden voyage. This may seem like an arcane and nit-picking point of view but in the process of ‘restoration’ much of the structure of the vessel which reflected its subsequent use was removed permanently and an idealised view of the ship’s heyday presented. To be sure the SS Great Britain is a fine example of a successful compromise between realistic presentation and commercial requirement, as a safe and enjoyable environment but it reveals the extent to which historical authenticity or the presentation of the whole story, often needs to be secondary to the need to encourage the public to visit. The public who will to give up time and money, to ensure the financial stability of the organisations in whose care, these structures rest. The example of preserved railway lines is common example where such compromises exist.

Should we quibble about this? Probably not but it is worth consideration when any restoration is about to be presented to the public there should be appropriate interpretation to explain what compromises have been made so visitors have a very clear and complete idea of what they are looking at.