A Ramsgate councillor has again raised concerns over the condition of exhibits at the harbour’s Maritime Museum following the loss of items in a fire last month.
The blaze, which is thought to have been set deliberately, took place in a converted container that forms an extension of the museum.
Sally Line ferry memorabilia and a Viking 1 model were destroyed by the fire on November 23 and a painting was severely damaged. The heat damage was minor to the other artefacts but items not in cabinets were affected by smoke and the container is waterlogged.
A total of 1,513 items have either been gifted to or purchased by the museum in the past.
Cllr Ovenden, who is also a maritime historian, says there appears to be no detailed record of exhibits and still no conservation care of the collection.
He said: “It appears the museum had no record of the exhibits that were on display. That is hardly surprising as there has been no managed museum system at the venue for a number of years. In fact, I had to provide my own images taken in September this year to help assist in identifying losses.
“There is going to be a major problem with the museum in the future, due to recognised museum standards being absent it has become very third rate. The biggest issue is the lack of conservation care of the collection. At present the items in the extension are being left in situ in a waterlogged airtight container. Like the rest of the museum exhibits they will be locked up and abandoned for another winter without any due care or attention. This is not the way to manage a collection deemed to represent our maritime culture and heritage.
“We have to remember that the Ramsgate maritime collection in the past was built up using public funds. It was then handed over to the Steam Museum Trust which has done nothing with the collection for well over a decade. The loan register is currently outdated and will be a major problem in the future.
“I find the response to the fire very concerning as it appears to be non-existent.”
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, securing a grant of £22,812 from the Historic England Heritage at Risk Response Fund for repair work to the roof earlier this year.
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.
Cllr Ovenden raised fears over the condition of the museum collection in June of this year and in February 2020. The Steam Museum Trust was approached for comment but made no response.
The museum has been open to the public thanks to The Ramsgate Society which has taken on that role for around five years. The society is not responsible for the condition of the collection.
In 2016 at a cost of some £25,000 the Society produced a complete feasibility study for the restoration of the museum and the Heritage Lottery Fund was prepared to offer a substantial grant to undertake the work, which included the creation of a new town square in Pier Yard.
Consent was required from Thanet council as the freeholders of the building but the authority declined to proceed.
However, Thanet council did use that study as part of its bid for the £19.8million Levelling Up grant for Ramsgate. This bid was approved last month.
Ramsgate Society chairman John Walker said: “The condition of the collection in the Maritime Museum is entirely the responsibility of the Steam Museum Trust.
“The Ramsgate Society does not own the collection but we have taken the lead role in keeping the museum open to the public over the last 5 years or so.
“Earlier this year the Society secured a grant of £25,000 from Historic England to carry out emergency repairs to the building which have now been completed.
“With support from the Ramsgate Society, Thanet council used our feasibility study to secure funding for the project from the Government’s Levelling Up Fund. We currently await a meeting with TDC to discuss how the project is to be delivered.
“If this project goes ahead it will provide a new future for the Clock House and the museum collection about which Tony and others are rightly concerned.”
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. The Levelling Up proposal includes plans for a town square at Pier Yard car park.
Cllr Ovenden says the issue to be addressed urgently is to find out how the Steam Museum Trust will act will to conserve the remaining items in the collection. He suggests they are moved to safe storage as a matter of urgency.
Four fire engines attended the fire at the Clock House building in the East Crosswall and crews wearing breathing apparatus put the fire out using a fog spike and hose reel jets, preventing further fire spread and reducing smoke damage.
Fire crews commended museum staff for having closed internal doors, which protected other sections of the building. There were no reported injuries and the fire is believed to have been started deliberately.
A Kent Police spokesperson said: “The fire is currently being treated as suspicious and an investigation into the circumstances surrounding it is underway. Anyone with information is urged to call Kent Police on 01843 222289, quoting reference 23-0927.
“You can also contact Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555111, or by using the online form.”