How Do You Look After A Warship?
HMS Belfast joined the Imperial War Museums collection in 1978, becoming a museum and also the largest item in our collection. As both a historical object and museum its needs are unique and it requires constant conservation work. It is through our Conservation Teams' efforts that HMS Belfast remains in the best possible state for visitors to come aboard.
This article introduces our Volunteer Warship Conservation Team and their recent projects.
Conservation Manager Andy Curran heads the Conservation Team on the ship. The team includes two technicians and several volunteers. These volunteers range from students to retirees, and visit the ship at least once a month or a couple times a week, depending on what time they can contribute.
If you visit the ship you might see members of the Conservation Team walking around in their overalls, working on an object, or if you peek through the open door of a workshop.
Volunteer conservator David Day says that he enjoys being able to discover new things, even buried under the layers of paint. His father was also in the Navy and he feels that by helping to preserve HMS Belfast he is honouring those who served.
All the rooms on display to visitors only represent a fraction of the rooms on HMS Belfast. The restoration of rooms is prioritised for the visitor experience, however, focus switches outdoors whenever the weather improves.
The ship equipment being conserved is often complex and a lot of work is put into making sure the conservators remember how to put it back together properly. Additionally much of it is made from steel, which corrodes in water. Maintenance is carried out to prevent the spread of corrosion and to protect the ship from the elements, but often more intervention is needed.
There are four gun mounts for the 4” guns aboard HMS Belfast. These guns were designed to mainly engage aircraft and had a crew of about 15 to operate them. It is believed that HMS Belfast’s first shot in the Battle of North Cape against the battleship Scharnhorst was fired from a 4” gun.
As the guns were manufactured either before or during the Second World War they are beginning to show their age, requiring intervention from the Conservation Team. One of the four mounts has already been completely restored, with another in process.
When approaching a conservation project the first step is to look at any contemporary drawings and photos available. In some cases, such as the 4” guns, there are manuals that provide detailed information and diagrams but in others there is little information.
Often, once the guns are disassembled, or when individual pieces are cleaned and checked, more work is discovered. Once things have been fully disassembled repairs can begin on the main unit. If there’s a jam in the firing mechanism the team has to figure out how to discover what the issue is safely.
The final step, after everything is put back together, is firing the guns to make sure they work.
In this photo, students Kirsten Hooton and Jessica Rees work on restoring an Officer’s Cabin, during their work placement on HMS Belfast. The cabin was probably used by Junior Watch Keepers. Unlike other cabins, this one had two beds that could be converted into a settee during the day.
After HMS Belfast became a museum, the Electronic Warfare Office (EWO) was used for exhibiting objects rather than its 1959 purpose of housing equipment designed to confuse enemy radar and radio signals. It was decided to restore it back to its original purpose. Fortunately there are many photos of the ship taken after 1959. Using these photos and other resources, the Conservation Team can restore the rooms to their former state.
During the restoration process a strip of negatives belonging to a unidentified sailor was found in a drawer in the room. These negatives include photos of the sailor taken around the ship, participating in games in Singapore and working in the EWO.
Gun directors were used on HMS Belfast to aim and control the double-barrelled Bofors guns for close range action and anti-aircraft defence. As most of the directors on board are made of steel, the equipment needs intervention to deal with the rust. This photograph shows a gun director currently under restoration. Its panels have been removed so they can be repaired individually.
The scuttles ( port-holes) are another on-going project. Of the approximately 170 located throughout the ship, only about 80 have been fully repaired so far.
In this photo, volunteer Doug Paskett takes apart the scuttle so that it can be cleaned properly. Each scuttle needs to be cleaned, polished, resealed, and refitted. Workshops for conservation work are located around the ship. Often the doors will be open so that visitors can see inside as they walk past.
Our volunteers come from all types of backgrounds and interests, but all are passionate about HMS Belfast. Are you interested in joining the team and becoming a Warship Conservator?
Learn more about how you can get involved.