A trip to see the SS Great Britain

The Heritage and Education Centre team at Lloyd’s Register were able to visit the SS Great Britain in Bristol in 2015 and talked to some of the fantastic staff at the museum.

The SS Great Britain was launched in 1843 as a luxury liner and later became an emigrant steam clipper, before taking the role of a sailing ship carrying coal to San Francisco (http://www.ssgreatbritain.org/). “In 1886 she was badly damaged in a storm and her ocean-going career came to an end. Bought by the Falklands Islands Company she spent the next 47 years as a floating warehouse. In 1937, after becoming too unsafe even for this, she was towed to Sparrow Cove, a remote bay near Port William, and scuttled in its shallow waters.

And there she might have remained, a sorry sight left to rust and rot, gradually losing her fittings to trophy hunters and visited only by the occasional picnic party or curious penguin.” (Original text from SS GB website) You can see a video of her incredible journey at http://www.ssgreatbritain.org/story/incredible-journey. There are several parts to the heritage operations that have sprung up about the ship. Of course there is the SS Great Britain herself, which you can explore but there is also an absolutely fantastic, interactive exhibition space, as well as the library and archive.


However, what really interested us about the museum is the digitisation project it recently finished on its collection of 7300 ship plans from the collection of David MacGregor. Coincidentally David MacGregor did a lot of research using Lloyd’s Register’s collection, which closely links our institutions. Interestingly, this brought up the idea of our collections enriching each other. Unfortunately over the years, there have been 3 separate culls of Lloyd’s Register’s collection so some of the plans that were once with us have been lost. However, when MacGregor visited our archive, he often made tracings of our plans. This means that there is a possibility that copies of our lost plans still exist in the SS Great Britain’s Collection! It also means that for those drawings that the SS Great Britain is unsure of the context and ship identity, Lloyd’s Register’s collection may be able to shed some light. 

The team gave us a tour of the area and stores where they digitised the ship plans, most of which were extremely large and difficult to move. What caught our attention however, was the inclusive nature of the project. Many heritage institutions, including our own with the collection we want to digitise, are guilty of keeping collections in an inaccessible location or format, making it hard for the public to benefit from them. This is what our digitisation project is attempting to rectify but we perhaps didn’t give much thought to ensuring the digitisation project itself was inclusive. The rather unusual thing about the Great Britain project was that visitors were allowed to watch the imaging process and even take the picture!

Even with this interactive element, the team managed to develop a conveyor belt workflow to ensure that documents go through the system as quickly as possible. 200-300 plans were catalogued during the month and then the imaging company came in for a short period of time to photograph the plans. This meant that images had a record that they could be linked with immediately, making it easier to keep track of the original document and its digital counterpart. The team managed to get the scanning process itself down to roughly 30 seconds per plan but the scanning company never actually touched a plan, they simply took the photos and took care of post-processing. Volunteers got the material out of storage and carried it to and from the scanning area for each plan to streamline the process.

To keep up morale, the project was planned in phases and a thermometer was put on the wall to demonstrate the project’s process.


Seeing the cigar box of Brunel and the one cigar remaining inside!

We learned a great many things from the SS Great Britain team and really admire the quality of the project they managed to develop. A clear message however was that this quality is not producible overnight. Instead it develops organically alongside the project timeline. No two digitisation projects can be the same because of their different goals, institutions, structures, collections and outputs.  Therefore, whilst we can learn a lot from these discussions with other institutions, we must constantly be considering how such ideas would fit with our own project. Elements must be cherry picked and then knitted together to ensure that the project is successful.

We want to thank the team at the Great Britain for orchestrating such a fascinating, informative day. We look forward to talking to you in the future and maybe even collaborating in certain areas. We were extremely impressed with the project and in particular we’re rather annoyed that we didn’t think of their incredible interactive game first!