26 Years of Conservation & Transformation 

31 October 2023


31 October 2023


Following the announcement that Matthew Tanner MBE, the Trust’s long serving Chief Executive, was to stand down it seems opportune to record the huge transformation that has taken place under his leadership and stewardship. The last quarter-century has become yet another chapter of the SS Great Britain’s extraordinary journey…

Matthew joined what was then the SS Great Britain Project as the organisation’s first professional curator in July 1997 and was responsible for shaping a transformational bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund that provided a long-term plan for the conservation of the SS Great Britain, and proposals for new museum interpretation and visitor facilities to transition the organisation into one of the world’s most important maritime heritage attractions. 

Working with conservation consultants and Cardiff University, Matthew was responsible for the completion of a far-reaching Conservation Plan for the ship and dockyard. This not only highlighted the international significance of the ship and provided a full analysis of its condition, but also provided a truly unique solution to preserving it and arresting the decay of its iron hull. This involved the creation of the ‘glass sea’ and introduction of dehumidification plant that now keeps the relative humidity of the underwater part of the hull at 20% and provides a legacy that will ensure the ship survives for many years to come.

The ‘glass sea’ being installed in 2005.

This groundbreaking work was supplemented by the creation of the Dockyard Museum which not only told the story of the ship but also provided full on board access for visitors. The reconstructed interior of the ship, based on authentic research completed the transformation. The project was completed following a challenging struggle to not only deliver the conservation and development work, but to also raise the necessary funding from HLF and other funders and donors which Matthew and the team worked tirelessly to deliver.  

Following the successful relaunch of the ship on 19 July 2005 the ship received many accolades from the thousands of visitors who flocked to the newly opened site, and numerous national and international awards such as the prestigious Gulbenkian Prize in 2006. The following year Matthew Tanner’s huge contribution to the project was recognised in the New Year Honours list when he became an MBE. 

This huge achievement was only the first phase of an ambitious vision for the Trust which saw the development of the Brunel Institute which would provide a new shop and visitor centre as well as a state of the art archive, library and learning facility. In another innovative venture, Matthew and the Trust worked with property developers to create a building that replicated the original 1839 engine factory, in a residential complex that also housed the Institute. Most importantly the Institute was a collaboration with the University of Bristol enabling its Brunel archive along with a significant donation by Brunel collector Clive Richards to be cared for by the Trust in what is now known as the National Brunel Collection. These along with the library of the maritime historian David Macgregor have created an internationally important and accessible resource for historians, researchers and the public. 

The Brunel Institute was opened in 2010, but further developments celebrating the work of the great engineer were to come with the opening of the ‘Being Brunel’ Museum in 2018. This £2 million project has enabled the Trust to not only tell the story of Brunel, but to also display many rare and original items from its collection; it also enabled the conservation of the original dockyard drawing office where the engineer may have worked. 

Being Brunel opened in 2018, with Future Brunels being the first to explore the new museum.
Matthew Tanner standing at the bow of the SS Great Britain.

These large capital projects only tell part of the story; supporting all these developments has been the creation of award-winning visitor experiences and groundbreaking educational initiatives like the Trust’s Future Brunels programme. New community initiatives have helped the team develop new and exciting stories for visitors that will take the story of the ship forward in the future and this work, along with Matthew’s critical role in developing a long-term strategy for the conservation and survival of the SS Great Britain provide a lasting tribute to his work over the last 26 years.

The Trust thanks Matthew warmly for the significant contribution he has made over an incredible 26 years of service, making it what it is today – a world class maritime museum, visitor attraction and research/education centre, and wishes him every success for the future.

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