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Rescued From Rot, 19th-Century Naval Figureheads to Feature in New Exhibit

A collection of 14 restored wooden statues, including a two-ton William IV, will be shown at the Box Museum in England

The Box Museum in England will open this May with an exhibit featuring 14 19th-century naval figureheads (The Box Museum)
smithsonianmag.com

A long time ago in a country far, far away, naval lore held that ships simply weren’t seaworthy until they got their figureheads. Carefully crafted to appease ocean gods or strike fear into enemy hearts, these wooden decorations, which often resembled people or animals, perched atop the bows of many a vessel to remind all who saw them of the ships’ power and prowess.

Figureheads fell out of fashion in the late 19th century. But thanks to a years-long restoration project led by the team at Orbis Conservation, 14 of these spectacular sculptures are set to go on display at the Box Museum in the English city of Plymouth, reports Stephen Morris for the Guardian.

Thirteen of the figureheads, all of which date to the 1800s, have been hoisted up and suspended from the ceiling of the institution’s atrium, simulating the positions they might have taken as they steered ships into battle. Clocking in at a whopping two tons and standing 13 feet tall, the fourteenth—a statue of England’s William IV—is too large to lift and will instead feature in a floor-level display.

“The figureheads are more than just wooden sculptures,” Tudor Evans, leader of Plymouth’s city council, told the Guardian last year. “They’re iconic symbols of the history of the city of Plymouth and the Royal Navy. They’re also fantastic representations of the craftsmanship and skill of the sculptors who made them over 200 years ago.”

Full roster of figureheads
Bottom from left, HMS Calliope (1837), HMS Royal Windsor Castle (1854), HMS Minerva (1800s), HMS Aurora (1855), HMS Defiance (1837), HMS Tamar (unknown) and HMS Topaze (1856) (Photo by Finnbarr Webster / Getty Images)

Per a museum statement, the roster of figureheads includes Cadmus, an 8-foot-tall bust of the king of Thebes; Windsor Castle, a more than 13-foot-tall model of Queen Victoria; and Sphinx, an 8-foot-tall bust of a “turbaned, bearded male.”

The exhibit won’t be on public display until the middle of May, when the Box Museum officially opens. But the flotilla of figureheads, including several on loan from the National Museum of the Royal Navy, has been ready to go for months, as restorers completed their work last fall.

Rescued from various storage facilities, many of the figureheads were in bad shape when the process began, having spent years hidden away after being plucked from their respective ships, some of which had spent decades at sea. By pulsing soundwaves through the statues’ interior—a technique commonly used by scientists to map the internal structure of trees—experts discovered that many of their wooden innards had rotted through, some so badly that “you could scoop [the interior] out with your hand,” conservator Hans Thompson told BBC News last year.

In part, the issue stemmed from the fiberglass coating some of the figureheads received during the 1950s and 1960s. Though this material preserved the statues’ surfaces, it inadvertently trapped moisture—accumulated from years of water damage—deep in their interiors.

HMS Calliope figurehead
The HMS Calliope figurehead (Photo by Finnbarr Webster / Getty Images)

One figurehead, showing a woman in a bodice and skirt that had once adorned the frigate HMS Topaze, had undergone so much decay that rot had pervaded 90 percent of its structure, according to the Guardian. (Not all the figureheads were in such dire straits, however: One built for the HMS Minerva to honor the Greek goddess of wisdom never actually made it onto the ship.)

To repair the most deteriorated statues, the team dried them in large chambers, then reinforced and painstakingly repainted them, in some cases adding more vibrant hues to make their features pop.

Now fully rejuvenated, the fleet of figureheads stands ready for its debut in May.

“It’s wonderful seeing our vision come to life,” says Abby Coombs, the Box Museum’s associate director and project lead at event, in the statement. “These huge objects say so much about Plymouth’s relationship with the sea and its role as a gateway to the rest of the world.”

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Undark magazine, Popular Science and more. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University, and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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