Wednesday 10 December 2008

Making history accessible

LGBT people's history at sea is fascinating. A ship is such an exceptional space that enables human beings to behave very differently to the way they behave ashore. Queer things do indeed happen at sea. They are not only worth recording - in depth, and ideally multi-dimensionally eg through sounds and images, not just text. Such records also need to widely available.

In the last three weeks I've been reminded of the importance of this at two conferences: the UK Maritime Heritage Forum on Dec 3, and Curioser and Curioser, the LGBT History and Archives conference on Dec 6. After Sir Neil Cosson's inspiring speech at the former, it seemed to me that those of us working in maritime heritage can give a key gift to posterity. We can proudly explain that some ships were spaces where diversity of sexual orientation was accepted, even welcomed, by passengers and crew. And this important social phenomenon occured far more readily than in any other 20th century space, even the theatre.

It was not an unproblematic acceptance. But it was a telling and inspiring proof that human beings can be extraordinarily tolerant of different ways of loving and living life. It's a proof that we humans can transcend our deepest prejudices and embrace the Othered - oddly easily. My view is that the sea and its ships are thus wondrous spaces. And we historians have the privelege of being able to assist people in the important process of wondering at them.

The Curioser conference implicitly demonstrated how remarkable the phenomenon of queer seafarers is. It also impressively showed how many lively projects are being created in the UK to ensure that the on-land history is being recorded and made accessible before it's too late. There's energy and funding - and that's heartening.

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