SS Great Britain visit China and Australia

Matthew Tanner, Chief Executive at SS Great Britain travelled to China and Australia in June 2018 with an ICOM UK – British Council Travel Grant.  This is Matthew’s report from his visit.

The original goals for my visit were:

  1. The creation of more formal links with international partners to exchange knowledge and information
  2. To raise the profile of the SS Great Britain in Australia, and the Australian links in the UK, particularly in order to increase inbound tourism visitors.
  3. To further the work we are now undertaking on international migration and the provision of genealogical information, particularly in terms of international diversity and travel in the 19thC.
  4. To position the SS Great Britain Trust more firmly on the international stage to further its reputation, and potential audiences and users, as a museum, research library, and visitor attraction.

The aim was to further these purposes by developing links with three institutions in Australia that are closely linked. These were:

Australian National Maritime Museum to meet with Dr Kevin Sumption, Director.  It was also intended that I give a public talk about the ss Great Britain and her passengers in Sydney.

Sovereign Hill

In particular, the intention is to develop a more formal relationship with Sovereign Hill to celebrate the migration history of passengers on the ss Great Britain.

The State Library of Victoria in Melbourne, the primary repository for migration records for Victoria and already holds a significant number of records that relate to the SS Great Britain.


The success of the visit stems from two directions – the interesting/stimulating things seen and experienced in every city, and the very warm welcome received to the SS Great Britain approach to link up. There was a genuine desire to engage, and certainly a sense in which the SS Great Britain has things to teach as well as to learn from them. I gave two public lectures (in Sydney and in Hong Kong) about the SS Great Britain and her links with the East. There were about forty people in the audience each time, and at each event, there were good discussions. Most fruitful was meeting with the museum directors and discussing their challenges, and the goals of my visit. The visits to each city strongly contributed to the fulfilment of goals 2 and 4 .

Australian National Maritime Museum

Australian National Maritime Museum

Goals 1 and 3 will be fulfilled through further discussions, but verbal commitment was secured with Australian National Maritime Museum to pursue a more formal partnering arrangement, similar to an agreement they formed last year with the Hawaii Maritime Center in Honolulu, which would facilitate mutual exchange of information, possible exchange of staff, and loans for exhibitions. Discussions were also advanced with Sovereign Hill to develop a more formal arrangement to share information about migration, and the stories of people that travelled out to the gold fields on the SS Great Britain in the 1850s.




I have gained good experience in developing potential partnerships with international museums, noting that they are just as keen as we are to develop links if possible. However, these links must be established upon genuine mutual points of connection and interest, and do not happen just through the general desire to ‘partner’. Thus the discussion with Sovereign Hill and the Australian National Maritime Museum are likely to bear more fruit than the very friendly chats that were had with Shanghai and Hong Kong, and with the State Library, Victoria, which itself turned out to have much less of an SSGB holding than we had believed.

There was an eagerness generally to learn from what we do that makes us successful, particularly in terms of independent governance models, and financial self-sufficiency. Generally, we were seen to be further developed in terms of governance and income than most museums in Australia and Hong Kong. Sovereign Hill was the closest model, and it was very interesting to see their focus on intelligent monetisation of the variety of experiences that they offer on site, including gold panning, and retail sales. The attention to detail and the commitment to the visitor was heartening to see, and many good ideas have been brought back.

Sovereign Hill and SSGB painting (copy)

Sovereign Hill and SSGB painting (copy)

The wealth of migration stories in Australia was exemplified by the 20,000 names on the ‘Welcome Wall’ built alongside the Australian National Maritime Museum. There is clear and strong interest in the stories of migration, but with some hints of equivocation. The 30,000 names we have on the SS Great Britain database excited great interest, and the related stories of passengers and crew might form the basis of future joint exhibitions.

Another point of learning arose through the discussion of translation, particularly to and from Mandarin. I learned that our current Mandarin literature is simply not good enough for native speakers to understand and respect. An obvious point, but a useful one that also led to two offers of future help to test translation of literature we produce by providing a reverse translation.

Key advice for other museum professionals undertaking international visits would be to prepare well in advance to identify and make contact with fellow professionals. In particular, an extension of this is then to allow sufficient time in the programme to follow up with people met in seminars and meetings, and to visit further places that are recommended when in the country. Too rigid a timetable (it was completely full) in advance meant not taking up some opportunities that appeared.

The next steps after my visit include:

  • We are now exploring a formal partnership agreement with the Australian National Maritime Museum.
  • We are preparing a brief for a joint exhibition project, and possible staff exchange, with the Sovereign Hill museum.
  • We are preparing a brief to explore further the possibility of revitalising the ‘Australian Friends of the SS Great Britain.

These will require some considerable resource to deliver and may have at least a two-year lead time. Approach to ICOM UK, HLF and ACE are envisaged once the project is scoped.

The visit exceeded expectations and has encouraged the Trust to aim for long-distance international cooperation. It has also helped me develop a stronger sense of the international place in which the SS Great Britain Trust could/should stand.

“Maritime museums are by definition ‘international’ and should look across the seas. This grant from ICOM UK – British Council has enabled the Trust to reach out significantly further than it otherwise thought it could, and we look forward to the fruits of the links that have been made.”

J McKenna, Chairman of the SS Great Britain Trust