The ones we have are severely limited in what they can teach us. This may seem like a strange claim to those who are aware of just how many ship models we have, dating back to when the ships they were based on were still sailing. The intricacy, accuracy, and attention to detail on the best ship models duplicate the structure, equipment, and finish of the original to an astounding degree. And yet, I would argue, they don’t teach us that much about what a ship really is. They can’t, because they are static. They present the ship as a disconnected object (or conglomerate of objects), floating in space or sitting on a stand, motionless. This is true whether or not they are displayed with sails or without. It is only slightly less true of those displayed in contextual dioramas.
The more I study the sailing ship, the clearer it becomes that there is no understanding of the ship apart from understanding it as immersed in water and air. Even characteristics that may seem comprehensible by examining a static model—hull shape, for instance—are not to be comprehended (beyond an indication of capacity) without immersion and motion. The traditional ship model presents the ship as something that is what the viewer sees in the case, but that is only a small part of what the ship really is, and it conveys only details, and not the substance, of what it represents.
The best ship models we can devise are still in the future, I think, because they will be “constructed” using high-resolution holography. A ship model that would present to a viewer—even a wholly uninitiated one, who had just walked into an exhibit gallery—what a ship really is, in a way almost instantly comprehensible, would be a model in motion, at the constantly-fluctuating boundary layer of two fluid media, the lower darker and denser than the upper, both transparent. The vessel itself would move in constant response to those fluctuations. Every movement of the hull in the water changes the shape of that hull in a way that changes how that hull moves in and through the water, even though the structure itself—the structure on display in a static model—only changes imperceptibly, by flexing under strain. Every change in the strength and direction of the wind—and every change in strength causes a change of direction of the wind powering the ship, when we consider the vessel’s own forward momentum—calls for an adjustment of the sails and the rigging from the crew. So, what the ship is, as a complex physical object, is almost constantly in flux, in response to the fluids through which it moves, which are never completely static and frequently so violent as to threaten its destruction. This core mutability of the ship is what is utterly lost in a static representation, especially a static model; a talented painter can certainly convey a sense of it, but only of a frozen moment.
The model I envision would cycle through the spectrum of wind strength, the compass rose of wind direction, and the range of sea states from glass-calm to a fully-developed storm sea forcing the ship into survival mode. It would show the accompanying responses in pitch, roll, and yaw. It would show the crew making small to major adjustments in the sail plan, and to the rigging, in response to inputs from the fluid media—adjustments that could be near-constant at sea. It would show adjustments to heading by the helmsman, the angle of the rudder, the changing underwater shape of the hull. The viewer would realize, in just a few minutes, that a ship at sea was never the same thing for long. Its hull may have been constructed to be strong and rigid, as a traditional model makes clear. But the ship itself was a complex thing in motion, constantly responding and adapting to the air and water that propelled it and buoyed it up. Only then could the viewer begin to understand why the pieces of wood, the miles of rope, the yards of canvas, and the group of humans on board were put together the way they were.
Such a model, then, would show not just what a ship does, but what a ship is. It would remind us that we cannot understand—we cannot even define—what something is when that something is removed from its context—from what surrounds it, acts upon it, is acted upon by it. To understand anything—from a toaster to a human being—requires situation and contextualization, not abstraction.