A Ramsgate councillor and maritime historian has slammed the ‘neglect’ of artefacts in Ramsgate’s Maritime Museum – leading to lost items or damage to many held in mouldy cabinets.
Cllr Tony Ovenden says he was shocked at the state of the collection which has continued to deteriorate since he last raised the issue more than 16 months ago.
The damage has come, partly, from leaks in the roof that caused damage to the interior of the building and created damp conditions for the artefacts housed inside as part of the Ramsgate Maritime Museum collection.
The roof was repaired this year after The Ramsgate Society secured a grant of £22,812 from the Historic England Heritage at Risk Response Fund for the work.
Thanet council owns the freehold of the Clock House – where the museum is based- and Smeaton Dry Dock in Ramsgate. Both are Grade II* Listed. However, The Clock House was placed on the Historic England Buildings at Risk register in 2019.
Thanet council granted a 25 year full repairing and insuring lease for the site to The Steam Museum Trust (SMT) in April 2012 at a peppercorn rent. This lease expires on January 31, 2037.
The terms stipulate that the Trust start repair works between April 2013 and March 2017 but no work was undertaken until The Ramsgate Society took the initiative.
Cllr Ovenden said: “Nothing has been done to address the problem, everything is being left to rot. All the upstairs cabinets have mould on the inside. Items are missing. a RNLI representative came to collect some items to find they are not there.
“There are no conservation measures in place. Items are starting to decay. There have been attempts to address this. Many of the items were donated to the museum in good faith by the people of Ramsgate, along with loans. They are not being looked after.
“It is an insult to our maritime heritage.
“The Steam Museum Trust is responsible as guardians of our maritime heritage. If they have lost interest then they should hand over the collection to another trust who will look after our heritage. The maritime museum is a disgrace under the stewardship of the Steam Museum Trust and something has to be done.”
Cllr Ovenden says most items upstairs have been affected by damp.
He said: “Inside the cabinets have damp spores, the only items not affected are glass, ceramics and fossils. There is a mouldy smell.
“All metalware and organic items have been affected. The only exception are the prints and paintings downstairs.
“Everyone in Ramsgate is making a huge effort to take Ramsgate forward. The maritime museum, the centrepiece of the Royal Harbour, is letting the side down in a big way.”
The artefacts are made up of donations and loans from the public and loans from other institutions. The assets included purchases by the former East Kent Maritime Trust which was then taken over by the Steam Museums Trust.
During the tenure of the clock house by the EKMT a library collection and archive was built up. Included in the archive were Royal Harbour records donated by Thanet District Council and around 247 items loaned by the Isle of Thanet Archaeological Society from the shipwreck of the Stirling Castle.
But, Cllr Ovenden says, no conservation audits have been undertaken and the collection started to deteriorate in the glass cabinets. The winter of 2020 to 2021 saw water penetration enter the building that caused a rise in humidity levels to an unacceptable museum standard.
He added: “This has put the entire collection at risk. The RNLI and the National Museum of the Royal Navy had already rescued some items they were responsible for that were on loan. On June 26, 2021, the museum was opened for a volunteer’s induction organised by the Ramsgate Society. It was found that in every single cabinet on the first floor there is evidence of damp penetration with mould growing on the inside glass of the cabinets. The “Stirling Castle collection has been severely affected. Some items in an advanced state of decay. All metal items on the first floor have been discoloured.
“I also have concerns for the items that are locked in three storage areas. This includes archive stored on the first floor. The items have been in storage since 2008 so if they are consistent with the deterioration of other items throughout the building then they are at risk.
“There is a concern for original archive material including items that are unpublished. There are also collections of photography within these archives. The bulk of the artefacts that relate to the history of the life and times of the Royal Harbour owned by the museum are important, along with archive for any future regeneration or government Levelling Up funding.”
However, there is hope that the Ramsgate Society will bring their scheme for the Clock House and surrounding area to fruition.
First mooted in 2015, but with lease issues standing in the way, the Society’s feasibility study has been included in the recent £19.8million bid to government for the Levelling Up fund.
The Ramsgate Society proposal includes a museum and heritage centre with five gallery areas, a terrace and mechanical interactive exhibits on various historical themes. It would be a combination of renovation and new build,
In the proposal it states: “The Clock House presents an exciting opportunity to develop a heritage centre which enables visitors to explore Ramsgate’s maritime and social history.
The surrounding Harbour and dry dock is of significant heritage value and would greatly benefit from a centre where visitors can access information and interpretation.
The proposed centre should compliment rather than compete with existing museums and places of interest, encouraging visitors and residents alike to explore the historic town.”
The bid is part of a three-point plan for Ramsgate. This includes the port, access for the community in town and in Newington and proposals for the Royal Harbour to link buildings within the area to develop new and distinctive visitor assets that will provide important new training and employment pathways for residents.
A new boutique hotel and a high end restaurant and a brasserie will provide apprenticeships and in work training in hospitality. These will be accompanied by investment in quayside fishing facilities to enable the local fleet to store and sell their catch, as well as providing new fishing and maritime jobs and training to support the growth and resilience of the town’s fishing community.
The proposal says: “New public realm adjacent to a refurbished clocktower will create a new town square, as well as connecting projects and reducing congestion within the centre.”
John Walker, from The Ramsgate Society, says a new Community Interest Company has been set up to act as the vehicle for the scheme.
He added: “We are waiting to hear whether the Levelling Up bid is successful and will probably find out in September. Then it will be all systems go and we will be working with the council to try and develop the project and deliver it. The council is in discussion with the Steam Museums Trust about arrangements for that.
“The new CIC will oversee the running of the museum as this is not just a Ramsgate Society project but something for the whole community and we want the community to have that feeling of ownership.”
Mr Walker said the SMT had been co-operative in discussions.
The Maritime Museum reopens to the public tomorrow (June 30), opening hours Wednesday-Sunday, 11am to 4pm. The site will be open to the public until October 3.
Thanet council and the SMT have been contacted for further details.