Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Ships Past

Photo by omblod

Although I’m not particularly well versed in maritime history, I’ve noticed that there have been plenty of historic ships in the news this week. The new Titanic Belfast visitor centre has been heavily publicised ahead of its opening on March 31st. There is even a large poster at Oxford station, the startling building – evoking the doomed ship and its iceberg - looming over the passing trains. It’s interesting to see that Titanic Belfast has galleries about the city’s shipbuilding past and the vessel itself, but a good part of its focus seems to be on Titanic’s afterlife, on human interaction with the wreck and also ‘myths and legends’. In that sense, this new centre (which insists on calling itself an experience, rather than a museum) appears to take as one of its main subjects historical consciousness, popular and cinematic memory, and even (although they’d never call it that) historiography, the shifting interpretations and responses to the events of April 1912. It’s an arresting and rather postmodern approach – very different, say, to the fine but earnest Mary Rose visitor centre in Portsmouth. There the ghostly wreck itself, half-glimpsed in a hall dark with water-spray, is presented above all as a window onto Tudor social history, as a way of recovering the everyday life of the unjustly forgotten common man via his flutes and medicine pots… an approach which in itself reflects an earlier set of historians’ agendas.

This week, it was also announced that the good ship City of Adelaide is to return to Australia. This ship, which carried an estimated 250,000 visitors and settlers to Australia from its construction in 1864, now sits ignominiously rotting in Irvine in Scotland, having been rescued from the waters of the Clyde, in which it sank in 1991. The City of Adelaide is finally going back to Port Adelaide, for a projected new visitor centre, its preservation secured. It’s interesting to see the varied ways in which we treat the physical remains of ships (as relics, or junk), and to be reminded of how central ships are to national and urban stories, of how certain vessels become iconic, and of the very different ways in which we choose to remember them and decide what they represent about ourselves and our pasts.

'The City of Adelaide', Irvine
Photo copyright wfmillar, reproduced under Creative Commons license.


  1. The news this week also featured this Japanese fishing vessel, abandoned in the tsunami last year and now drifting off mainland Canada:


    No 'history' for this one, but an undeniable past?

  2. I think that's even an even creepier, and sadder, photo than the City of Adelaide...