Robert M. Browning, Jr.
Chief Historian, U.S. Coast Guard

Imagine a collection of one million artifacts. They lay scattered about unorganized, unidentified, unaccessioned and uncataloged in hundreds of different locations. Several scenarios are possible: you have just discovered the lost city of Atlantis, you have died and traveled to the place in Hell for curators, or you are the curator of a large historic ship.

I say this in a flippant manner, yet this is what every curator of a large historic vessel initially faces. This task becomes more crucial and time sensitive, however, when the vessel is scheduled for major restoration or dry dock. At this juncture your whole ship becomes one large collection of associated artifacts and must be dealt with in a different manner than before.

Protection, relocation and extra documentation of your artifacts are now a necessity. If done in a careful and meticulous manner you can save a great deal of the ship's history and learn much more than you ever thought possible about the ship and those who served on board.


The first thing that should be done by the curator prior to any large restoration project is to plan how to document and protect artifacts. A compartmental plan with highlighted priorities and notations will give you an initial idea. There are several things to consider when deciding which artifacts are in the most danger.

1. The potential damage of restoration on the artifacts that remain in place.

2. The likely impact of the restoration personnel on the artifacts in and nearby the immediate work areas.

3. Danger to artifacts from weather or other natural causes created by the restoration.

4. Fragile artifacts that are normally safe.

5. Artifacts that could easily be mixed with others.

In short, prioritize your documentation and cataloging. The compartments facing the greatest risk, either to artifacts or information, should receive your greatest and earliest attention.


The comparison of a historic ship with the Lost City of Atlantis may not be far from reality. One must apply many of the same rules of archeology to the documentation and collection on board the ship. Each compartment should be treated as a separate project as in an archeological site. This may seem excessive, but there is a lot to learn and a great deal that can be lost with careless or imperfect documentation. By treating each of the compartments as an archeological site, large historic vessels in essence become Atlantis-sized.

You must first pick up all loose items. Record the position of the artifacts as you find them. This information may be important in documenting the compartment. Items scattered about have possibly been moved over time and belong elsewhere. Without documenting the location, it may be difficult or impossible to place it back in its original context.

The primary thing to remember is to think in detail. Leave no stone unturned. Sailors hide things and they leave things behind. You must look behind bulkheads, in lockers, inside and behind filing cabinets or overhead. Never assume that everything has been cleaned. Take out the drawers of the lockers and filing cabinets. You will likely find things that have fallen behind -- photos, cigar bands and other personal effects. In the overhead, you may find magazines, cups, utensils and other paraphernalia that tell about the men that inhabited the ship. This process is important when each compartment is studied and pieced back together.

Often you will find artifacts that cannot be identified. Only when you sit down to sort out everything will you understand the entire picture. It is risky to sort all the artifacts found on the ship by type (electrical, mechanical, etc.) This can be done once the compartment has been well documented and you are reconstructing it. Thousands of artifacts grouped together by type present the dilemma of finding a specific widget among hundreds of other widgets. Keep your artifacts from each compartment together as much as possible!


Once you have collected all the loose artifacts from the compartments, the immediate concern is identification. If this is the first attempt at collecting and cataloging you might find an incredible task ahead. You can make two assumptions: the artifacts found in the compartment belong there, or they have been placed there through some activity on board the ship.

This is the reason why it is important to keep each compartment's artifacts together as much as possible. When you are ready to interpret or restore the compartment it will be crucial to view everything that was found there. When looking at the group of artifacts as a set you will be better able to determine the things that belong and the things that arrived at a later date. Its recorded location may be the only link to identification, interpretation and eventual correct placement of the artifact in the context of the vessel.

In some ships, particularly large ships, there will be hundreds of artifacts that defy identification; this prevents making an educated guess as to their original location. There are several ways to identify these mystery artifacts.

1.Show them to men who have served on board or to those familiar with naval or maritime history.

2.Take Polaroid shots and send them to other curators who deal with similar artifacts.

3.Look in old manuals, catalogs, photographs, compartment inventories, allowance lists and the ship's blueprints.

4. Visit similar ships.


There is a category of artifact that should receive special attention. This is the broad group of items that are small, easily concealed and may be removed. None of us like to think that anyone would take an item--but it happens. If the curator and the staff do not take special care to document and secure these items, the loss can be tremendous during a restoration project.

A good example is any machinery space. There is usually no lack of small removable items. Initial documentation is crucial to ensure that an item that later turns up missing can be replaced with a spare or a remanufactured piece.

Do not, however, confine yourself to machinery spaces. Most ships have small artifacts scattered all about. Place yourself in the shoes of someone looking for a souvenir and you will quickly see hundreds of vulnerable items (tags, hand wheels, gauges, knobs). Virtually anything not welded down fits into this category. Years of this type of loss have made many ships barren of the detail that once made the compartments complete. Several weeks of major restoration, with uncontrolled access to compartments not before open, can be devastating.


This relationship can often be the most strained on the ship, and yet is perhaps the most important single relationship to nurture. The curator and the maintenance crew are often diametrically opposed as to how the ship should be maintained or restored. In a major restoration project a maintenance crew can destroy more in a few days than a curator ever thought possible.

Documentation and tight control to access are the keys to resolving this conflict.

The curator should document every detail of the compartment from the tags and equipment to the paint and the furniture. After careful documentation, the curator can monitor the work by preparing a work order for each compartment and then making continual checks to make sure that no change has been made until all the criteria set by the curator have been met. Daily meetings with the head of the maintenance/restoration crew will help to guarantee that the restoration does not go beyond the documentation. If you have shipyard workers on board, it is doubly important that your maintenance crew help in keeping an eye on the ship's artifacts and to monitor the working parties.

Ships that served for long periods of time have usually been modified. These changes make the gathering of information more complex and present a greater potential for information loss. The curator should make the documentation effort more intense in these cases. It is important to record this because restoration is like archeology -- the information will be destroyed in the process of restoration.

All this can be a challenging process for the curator. If skillful (and patient), the curator can encourage the maintenance crew to take pride in restoring the compartments to their original condition with no information lost in the process.


Shipyard restoration and major overhauls take on a whole new dimension. You no longer need to worry about a small and familiar maintenance staff, but now must fret over dozens of personnel over whom you have virtually no control.

Compartment documentation in this case is mandatory for each compartment accessible to shipyard workers. This includes items that under normal circumstances do not need this attention. Remember that shipyard workers will have ready access, probably little or no watchful eye and, most importantly, they will have tools which make souvenir procurement easy.

The curator will find that small items will have to be removed from most compartments to preserve them. Special documentation must be maintained to insure that the artifacts can be returned to their original context. Brass items should take precedence in documentation and removal. This process is labor intensive and difficult. A special documenting form should be created to handle the extra work. This process will allow you to not only document these artifacts but will provide the opportunity to do some minor conservation before placing them back in their original location. Again, take a compartmental plan and highlight all the compartments that will be impacted and make sure your job is complete.

A second concern should be to protect the artifacts that cannot be removed--the soda fountain in the geedunk, barber shop chairs, ward room furniture, tailor shop sewing machines, etc. In these spaces, the curator and the ship's maintenance crew, prior to shipyard activity, should work together to board over and protect the areas and equipment that may be harmed. Welding, equipment movement and shipyard workers looking for souvenirs should all be taken into consideration. Closing off areas during restoration is the best defense and makes documentation and removal of artifacts less crucial.


Many historic ships reserve compartments for the storage of artifacts. Shipboard storage, however, is never the best choice. This situation becomes a crisis when the ship is scheduled for major maintenance or dry dock. The only solution is to shepherd the collection, as much as possible, out of harm's way. Remove everything from the ship if possible. This is labor intensive and will not be a popular suggestion to the crew.

If removal is impossible, you may have to set aside a section of the ship that will be inaccessible to workers. If this is the case, consider the following questions:

1.Will restorative activity create special hazards such as welding sparks, smoke, etc.?

2.Will the spaces above be open to the weather and create a water hazard if it rains?

3. Will the movement of the artifacts cause you to lose all environmental control?

The uniqueness of every historic vessel will require each curator to devise a program to save the ship's artifacts during a major restoration project. Complete documentation will aid in artifact removal and replacement and will guide the curator's special protective measures to save the ship's artifacts. Keeping the artifacts intact is essential to the complete understanding and interpretation of the ship and all the activities of her crew. Without special care and meticulous planning, you could be left with a site much like Atlantis -- a city lost.

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