Beth Elen Roberts
North Wales. UK.
Thames Ship Lab.
Finding Place in Hiraeth.
The Thames Estuary has been the final resting place for thousands of ships; caught out by storms, shifting sandbanks, and the guns of enemy fighters; the Kentish coast having the largest concentration of shipwrecks in the world.
This project was conceived as a space that connects the island back to the sea. It does this through reworking the existing building and the site to create the Thames Ship Lab; a space where wrecks are excavated from the seabed, and brought to the building to be analysed, researched, studied and preserved. Contextualising the research in an exhibition, choreographed to correspond to each stage of the laboratory’s conservation process.
In order to reinforce and expose the fragility of the existing building, both in its condition, but also how Sheppey, a swampy island, is constructed like Venice, atop timber piles, the main intervention takes the form of a deep excavation. The interior of the ruined church is dug down four stories deep. This move reinforces the archaeological dimensions of the lab’s work; with fragile artefacts re-submerged into the depths to be worked upon, alluding to the surrounding dockyard, once built upon the skeletal remains of decommissioned ship hulks.
As visitors enter the church, they are surprised to find that the ground falls away before them, revealing a four-storey vertical laboratory, animated with workers, technicians and exhibition-goers. The dynamism of this space is extended through the action of a crane, fixed to the roof, delivering artefacts from a new canal beside the building, allowing direct passage between site and sea.
The new laboratory enables visitors to learn from not just the island but also the sea that surrounds it, engaging them in a subterranean excavation of the unseen archaeology that is hidden all around them, a celebration of Sheppey’s rich and bountiful maritime history.
Keywords: Archaeology, Conservation, Fragility, History, Excavation, Exhibition Design, Adaptive Reuse, Maritime History
Mediums: Hand-Drawing, Collage, Animation, Film