Storying Sheffield

Model Ships, Memory and Mental Health

Many thanks to Jonathan Rayner for this story.

SMS Scharnhorst (1915)
© National Maritime Museum Collections

Growing up in the 1970s, everyone I knew made models. My older brother did so I started, mostly from kits bought in toy shops. In retrospect I think this communal activity represented several nested acts of nostalgia. The archetypal Airfix models made by my generation and celebrated by James May were a standardised commercialisation of post-war amateur scratch-building by my parents’ generation, and an institutionalisation of national memories, since the overwhelming majority of models had one subject: the two World Wars. My brother always made planes. For reasons I’ve never been able to fathom, I was always drawn to ships. Ships are anthropomorphised characters in narratives of their own, their crews and their country’s lives.

Along with fiction, comics and cinema, those models were part of the propagation of stories about the recent past. If in retrospect the subject has become problematic for me, so has the activity itself. Others pointed out to me that submergence in intricacies of detail and history necessary to make a model was a probably a retreat from a problematic childhood. I think creating a miniature world stands in for having no control over the real one. I eventually gave up model making but never lost interest in both naval history and the other area where my passions converged, in miniatures made for films such as Weta Workshop’s magnificent models for Master and Commander.

Decades later these interests led me to read and write about cinema’s part in the propagation of the preferred narratives of the World Wars. I was surprised to find other related histories of model making. Before Airfix and plastic, there were paper and card, other mediums with the same subject and the same unifying functions for children in the 1940s:

Vintage American Card Model, 1941

I’ve taken up model making again using paper and card, reconnecting with the reasons I did it originally and finding it therapeutic. Any kind of creative activity can become totally absorbing. When my hands are busy, my mind becomes empty of all but the properties of the medium and the practical problems of the craft. This is a release in more ways than simply being a fundamental change from any other job or task I undertake. It is the same escape from stress that it was in my younger days, but now I understand it better for what it is. In its way it requires the same obsessive concentration as work: if it wasn’t all consuming and compulsive, I don’t think it would be so beneficial. The making of ships connects the investigation of their stories with the practical process of representing them. Accuracy is never really achievable (the American model above is completely inaccurate!), and for me not the real point. The model is the by-product of the period of relaxation.

However, recognising this as self-administered therapy connects it with other acts of more poignant and expressive story-telling and healing. At the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich there is a collection of hundreds of model ships, many made by sailors themselves of the ships they sailed on, each one invested with memories and stories of attachment, and loss. Below is one of the most affecting, a model of a German ship from the First World War. When this ship was sunk in action, a survivor made this from materials given to him or perhaps scavenged aboard a British ship – the ship that sank his, and which was then carrying him to captivity in Britain as a prisoner of war. However accurate this model is, its attention to detail is, I think, secondary to its emotional investment as an attempt to restore the ship and all it represented after its traumatic loss. It is a commemorative and I expect for its maker, a therapeutic artefact. In a comparatively trivial way, mine are too.