In terms of why we should be concerned about the future of the ship, a brief overview of the budget proposals reveals a number of suggested fiscal cuts, which would leave the ship homeless and without any curatorial or interpretive support in the near future.
‘The Council is committed to the completion of the conservation of the archaeological timbers, however, there is no funding to progress beyond this conservation phase.’
In the budget summary, while the council maintains its long standing commitment to completing the ongoing conservation process, it is quick to state that there is no additional money for the project beyond this point. Further, there is no mention of any intent to pursue additional funding, simply that the council intent is focused on reducing ship related costs to zero.
‘Staff working on the project will be at risk of redundancy (5 FTE staff impact, 2 vacant, 3 filled).
This would result in limited knowledge within the organisation about the Ship.
There will be a significant challenge to transfer the timbers to a suitable institution or organisation.’
While direct costs in relation to the presentation of the ship and ongoing costs, bar storage, would be removed in this scenario (open days for instance would, of course, end), there is the additional impact of staffing cuts. During the past decade and a bit, the Newport ship team has developed into a leading authority on this particularly unique archaeological collection. The creation of such expertise does not happen overnight, yet its loss can be instantaneous. Loss of funding for the ship would rob south east Wales of an assemblage which has the potential to be a significant tourist attraction, but as significant, we would lose the world class expertise which has grown around it. This is not so much a case of creating ‘limited knowledge within the organisation about the Ship’, it is a case of decimating it. While the ship has the potential to come and go in terms of where it is stored and displayed, the same cannot be said of the expertise. Once that is gone, it is gone.
In terms of display, the council proposals make a token gesture:
‘However, some timbers will still be available to see at the Museum and the digital Archive will be available through Internet Archaeology in the next twelve months.’
The display of ‘some timbers’, however many that could plausibly be (i.e. not many), would be highly limited in scope and do little in terms of the potential of the collection. Yet this ‘display’ is dependent on the long term viability of the museum itself. Further to the proposed ship cuts, are reductions to the hours of provision provided by the current museum and library service. In addition, further recommendations on staff reductions within the museum service are made. Were these factors to combine, Newport could face the loss of access to the bulk of the Newport ship, the loss of all expertise on the collection, a reduced museum coupled with a reduction in expertise and staff numbers at that museum. The picture presented is a bleak one. Especially if one considers the gradual reduction of museum staffing and hours as the first step down a slippery slope towards closure.
Back at the start of the year, I reflected on the short and long term future for the heritage sector in Wales, and cited the future of the Newport ship as a test case for the way in which we could expect our heritage resources to be treated in the coming years, as the full impacts of austerity gradually reveal themselves. At present, Newport City Council are arguing a case which would significantly undermine, if not totally erode the presence of the medieval ship in Newport, with no indication in their strategy that this artefact would play any role at all in the proposed regeneration of the city. This would be as critically short sighted as the same council’s original intention to bury the timbers under concrete.
All is not lost though. In the last week, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, faced with what seemed an inevitable ‘merger’ with Cadw, to be forced through by the Welsh Government, earned a reprieve. The weight of popular opinion, sent in to the Welsh Government, forced a rethink, and a stay of execution for the RCAHMW. This is what the ship, both the physical remains and the staff responsible for it, needs now. Comments can be sent in to Newport City Council via this link: http://www.newport.gov.uk/_dc/index.cfm?fuseaction=council.homepage&contentid=CONT543078 and I encourage any and all who value this unique element of both Newport, Welsh and British heritage, to voice their opinions as soon as possible.