University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Heritage and Memory: HMS Belfast

Ben Humphreys, a second year History student at the University of Portsmouth, has written the following blog entry on the museum ship HMS Belfast for the Introduction to Historical Research module. Ben considers why the ship was chosen for preservation and reveals that political factors likely played a key role in the decision-making process. The module is co-ordinated by Dr Maria Cannon, Lecturer in Early Modern History at Portsmouth.

Heritage and memory have always had a political relationship. War museums and memorials almost exclusively portray a heroic tale of the machines and men (and increasingly women) who ‘served the nation,’ for which we should be grateful. As Gerder Lerner fears, such a collective memory would be prone to selectiveness and the dark sides of events would be forgotten. [1] HMS Belfast is no exception and attempts to represent national values such as patriotism and strength, ignoring the countless lives which ended violently at the receiving end of her guns. As Geoff Cubitt has demonstrated, history and memory are undoubtedly intertwined although there is fierce historiographical debate over what the relationship is exactly. [2] What is certain, though, is the efforts of heritage sites to construct a collective memory for our imagined communities – the nation. After all, ‘The practice of history is […] a highly specialised form of commemoration.’ [3] This blog looks to examine HMS Belfast as a useful historical source, its effectiveness as a museum, the politics surrounding the preservation of vessels and why Belfast may not be the most suitable choice.

HMS Belfast. Image: Wikipedia

HMS Belfast is a Town-class light-cruiser of the Royal Navy, commissioned in 1938, just in time for the Second World War. Belfast was decommissioned in 1963 after being placed in Reserve. She had a relatively long service, involved in the European and Pacific theatres of the Second World War; the Normandy invasion, escorting arctic convoys and operations in the Pacific. She was also involved in the Korean War and then exercise after that. HMS Belfast became a museum ship in 1973, moored in London next to Tower Bridge, after a private trust fund was started and then managed by the Imperial War Museum, a government funded organisation. [4] At the heart of the country, the location is suitable for a war museum which is critical to a nation’s self-identification. [5] However, Belfast had a relatively uneventful or heroic service. She was not unique, being one of ten ships of her class. Light-cruisers stood to their name; they were not particularly large and in no way considered a flagship or a symbol of power for the Royal Navy. This makes Belfast a questionable choice for preservation, especially in comparison with other RN vessels, such as the famous HMS Dreadnought, which was world renowned for initiating a naval arms race pre-First World War – a ship so superior that all other battleships became regarded as ‘dreadnoughts’ or ‘pre-dreadnoughts’. [6] Yet surprisingly, Dreadnought was scrapped in 1921 despite her outstanding historical significance. This demonstrates to historians how objects are preserved and discarded based on contemporary perception of significance, which the preservation of museums ships verifies. [7] By 1921 Dreadnought was an inferior vessel and valued by its metal content. Almost a hundred years later and its significance is still widely publicised and regularly noted in history books. Another factor that contributed to the preservation of Belfast was the ease of access to worthy moorings; another contender for preservation was HMS Illustrious, the lead aircraft carrier of her type and therefore a true symbol of power, with a number of confirmed kills. Unfortunately, Illustrious was so large that there were few suitable options.

The preservation of Belfast may reveal political tensions from its conception in 1972. The 1970s are hallmarked by tough political and economic conditions for Britain – power cuts, miners’ strikes and IRA bombings. Perhaps a coincidence, but the heritage and honour created in preserving a vessel named after the Northern Irish city it was built in was likely a strategic movement by the British government to quell tensions in Northern Ireland, by placing an achievement of Irish labour at the heart of England as a symbolic gesture. In this sense, heritage has been used for contemporary purposes. [8]

A controversial factor in the preservation of Belfast was how far it should be modified for museum purposes, without damaging her authenticity. Some decisions were unquestionable, such as removing asbestos from the ship, for obvious health and safety reasons, in areas that were accessible to visitors. [9] Removing this insulation from some of her piping was insignificant in damaging her authentic condition. However, the interior of the vessel proves challenging for visitors with disabilities or even poor mobility, due to steep stairways, trip hazards, and watertight hatches, which require stepping over and through, and head height hazards. Jason Dittmer and Emma Waterton comment on the matter frankly: ‘Sailors in the Royal Navy were trained extensively in order to function as highly efficient combat machines. This is in sharp contrast to most visitors to HMS Belfast.’ [10] However, they do recognise the value in this physical challenge. The ‘alien experience’ is a learning opportunity that a museum ship provides. [11] Instead of reading the dimensions or viewing images of watertight hatches, visitors and historians get to experience it for themselves. This is something that historical textbooks and other types of primary sources cannot do. What is controversial, though, is the café installed on the ship, which arguably damages a historical relic, whereas others may appreciate the fact that museums must generate their own income, which a café will supplement, whilst improving the experience of the visitor.

A final point to consider is that for Belfast the task of commemorating the crew and the conflicts is complicated by its long service. Whose story should it tell? How will the IWM depict the experience of the sailors on Belfast at Normandy, Belfast in the Arctic and Belfast in Korea? A decade later? Considering there were over 700 crew members at any given time, and four commanding officers throughout her service, how can the IWM decide who should be represented. Furthermore, the ship is not what she used to be due to numerous refits, which has significantly altered her appearance. For example, the removal of her catapult, scout aircraft and a fully enclosed bridge. [12] Thus, historians would have to rely on official or visual sources to learn about the original specifications of the vessel.

In conclusion, HMS Belfast is a questionable choice of vessel in terms of symbolism and representation of the Royal Navy, although as some historians have discussed, heritage is part of the past chosen for contemporary issues, in this case, the political climate of the 70s. However, Belfast should be commended for remaining in relatively authentic condition, by minimising commercial refittings that other heritage sites have succumbed to such as gift shops, play areas and multifunctional areas. In fact, it is this authentic restricted and sometimes dangerous spaces within the ship which is the most valuable aspect of this floating historical relic to historians and casual visitors alike.


[1] Gerder Lerner, Why History Matters: Life and Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 52.

[2] Geoffrey Cubitt, History and Memory (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), 30.

[3] Ludmilla Jordanova, History in Practice (London: Bloomsbury, 2000), 138.

[4] John Wingate, In Trust for the Nation: HMS Belfast, 1939 – 92 (London: Profile Publications, 1972), 14.

[5] Sue Malvern, “War, Memory and Museums: Art and Artefact in the Imperial War Museum,” History Workshop Journal 2000, no. 49 (2000), 178.

[6] Roger Parkinson, The Late Victorian Navy: The Pre-dreadnought Era and the Origins of the First World War (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2008), viii.

[7] Eileen Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge (London: Routledge, 1992), 196.

[8] Brian Graham, Gregory John Ashworth and John E. Tunbridge “The Uses and Abuses of Heritage,” in Heritage, Museums and Galleries an Introductory Reader, ed. Gerard Corsane (Abingdon: Routledge, 2005), 29.

[9] Jason Dittmer and Emma Waterton, “‘You’ll go home with bruises’: Affect, embodiment and heritage on board HMS Belfast,” Wiley, Area. (2018), 5.

[10] Dittmer and Waterton, “‘You’ll go home with bruises’,” 6.

[11] Ibid.

[12] John Wingate, In Trust for the Nation: HMS Belfast, 1939 – 92 (London: Profile Publications, 1972), 58.

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