Tributes to Martyn Heighton (1947-2016)


Martyn Heighton, a stalwart figure in the UK maritime heritage community, died suddenly on 6 November 2016.

Martyn was latterly Director of the highly successful National Historic Ships UK unit, but also on the steering committee of the UK Maritime Heritage Forum, of which he was a founding member. This was just one small part of a long and stellar career within the maritime heritage, and wider heritage, sectors. He was very influential and knowledgeable, an incredibly supportive person, very generous with his time, always full of good humour. Martyn was also a founding member of ICMM's International Traditional & Historic Ships Panel (IHTS).


A tribute to Martyn from Dr Matthew Tanner MBE - Chief Executive ss Great Britain Trust

Martyn Heighton (1947-2016) was not only my friend and a valued colleague and mentor, but also a stalwart leader in UK and international maritime heritage. He was always unstinting with his help and good humour for everyone, and he will be very sorely missed.

His career was quite remarkable – he served the cause of best practice in UK and international heritage with extreme energy wherever he went, and where he went something significant always happened. I first met and got to know him while sheltering together from a hurricane called Floyd that was barreling through Philadelphia in 1999.

Starting out in heritage for Oxfordshire he was for example responsible for setting up the open air farm museum at Cogges Manor in 1974. In Liverpool he worked closely with Richard Foster to create the wonderful Merseyside Maritime Museum in the restored Albert Dock. Not only is it one of the first and greatest of regeneration schemes for Liverpool docks, but it also collected several full-size historic Liverpool ships into the dry docks, and raised the profile of Liverpool’s maritime heritage to hitherto unreached heights.

Moving on to Bristol he became the lead officer at Bristol City Council for arts and culture, and devoted time and energy to all other art forms as well as the large city museum service, particularly his love of theatre, especially at the Old Vic. But here he will be remembered not only for supporting the first International Festival of the Sea in 1996, but commissioning and securing the funding for the replica caravel Matthew, which then re-enacted the 1497 voyage of John Cabot from Bristol to Newfoundland.

As Director at the Mary Rose in Portsmouth he contributed to establishing the organisation as a modern independent museum that could and would thrive in the historic dockyard, and when he became Western Area Director at the National Trust he immediately made his mark leading nerve-wracking ‘through the night’ negotiations to secure Tyntesfield for the nation.

Martyn set up the south west festival that celebrated the 200 year anniversary of the birth of I.K.Brunel in 2006, before taking up the reins of the newly expanded National Historic Ships UK unit. Supported by DCMS, and based in the National Maritime Museum, under Martyn’s clear direction, and his great ability to win friends and allies from all amidst the great diversity of the UK maritime heritage scene, National Historic Ships UK has grown to be the genuine centre and guardian of our national historic fleet of vessels of all ages and types.

Martyn was always inclusive, and always embracing – welcoming people in and encouraging them to find their own place in the national heritage while never letting go of his core principles and values as a heritage and conservation professional. This balance of quality and rigour, while finding ways for everyone to take part, was a significantly positive attribute. There have been many triumphs at National Historic Ships that should be celebrated; finding a way through a tortuous maze to secure the long term future of the clipper City of Adelaide in Australia for example, or the new steamboat museum project at Windermere as part of the Lakeland Arts Trust, to note just a few - there are many other examples.

He has been unstinting in his work leading and supporting the Technical Committee of HMS Victory, and he advised Heritage Lottery Fund in detail on almost all of the major maritime heritage grants that they have made in the UK. Never afraid to be critical, and express his professional views based on experience and knowledge, he gave his advice without fear or favour on projects such as the Cutty Sark, and was much respected for that.

There are probably very few historic ships in the UK that have not been directly touched, and supported, and enabled by Martyn and his team over the last ten years. His unstinting support and help were instrumental in helping the ss Great Britain project grow and develop to the great success it has become today. He kick-started her renaissance while still serving at Bristol City Council by enabling the long lease for the dockyard where she lies, and more recently served as a Trustee for the ss Great Britain for over 12 years, including a stint as Vice Chairman. He helped the ship in many other ways besides with advice and guidance to the board of trustees on the realities and professional challenges that face big ship conservation and operations. He was always committed to steering the right balance of securing the highest professional standards, the best possible public outcomes, and operating as commercially sharply and efficiently as possible.

More recently he sat on the Curatorial and Educational Committee for the ss Great Britain, and helped shape the forthcoming National Brunel Museum project alongside the great iron ship. He also worked closely on a range of international initiatives, and contributed strongly to many meetings and conferences around the world under the umbrella of the International Congress of Maritime Museums.

As a legacy and of real importance is his work to deliver and edit the major and unique book ‘Conserving Historic Vessels’ published by National Historic Ships in 2010 (ISBN 978-0-9566554-0-0). This volume has become the definitive guide to best practice and practical conservation for historic ships worldwide. It develops the philosophy and technique for approaching and dealing successfully with boats and ships of all kinds from our maritime heritage, and is on the shelves of virtually every practitioner worth their salt in the field today.

Martyn received the Museums & Heritage Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010, and there is little doubt that he deserved imminent public recognition with a national honour; it is sad that it cannot now happen. The loss of Martyn Heighton is real, and a blow to the management and conservation of our maritime heritage and culture. My thoughts are with Evelyn and their two sons, and for the loss of a charismatic and energetic friend with whom there was much work still to do.

Dr Matthew Tanner MBE ss Great Britain, Bristol – November 2016


Click here for a further tribute to Martyn Heighton from National Historic Ships UK.