Friday 3 January 2014

Sex and the sea exhibited: Rotterdam

I’ve just been to the Netherlands to see the new Sex & The Sea exhibition ( at Rotterdam’s Maritime Museum and talk with the people who organised it.
It’s fascinating and very successful in discussing sex in a straightforward, thoughtful and stimulating way.
This is the world’s first exhibition to be absolutely about sex and blue water seafarers (though there has been related ones in Vancouver and Oostduinkerke). So it’s bravely pioneering.
And it’s an important model that many maritime museums – knowing that sex sells – are watching before they follow suit or not.
One huge exhibition hall shows a range of material, from the literal (nineteenth-century stuffed mermaids) to the highly aesthetic: projected images on three canvas screens ten foot high, accompanied by music.
Conceptually central to it all is a series of ten filmed interviews with eight Dutch seafarers or ex-seafarers of varied sexual orientation, a port medicine and a barmaid. They are shown against an ever-changing backdrop of sea and sex-related images, devised by internationally-acclaimed film-maker Peter Greenaway and Dutch multimedia director Saskia Boddeke.

As this blog is about gender I’m going to comment here on two gender aspects of the exhibition. You can read more generalised discussions in my forthcoming review articles in the International Journal of Maritime History and the Journal of Transport History among others.
First, the principle nexus shown here is that women – that’s poor and pimped land-based women - are the providers of heterosexual sex. Mobile men are the buyers.
They can be affectionate, to be sure. But nevertheless they are ones with most power in a transaction that for women is a negative equity situation. If her customer doesn’t act responsibly he’ll sail away and she’ll remain, with a disease that stops her earning for weeks if not months, possibly proving fatal, and even an unwanted child.
So for me the most poignant sound in the exhibition was the (recorded) cries of a baby, which underlined seafarer Dirk Tang’s story about a child sleeping near their bed as his prostitute does her job.
Equally the most poignant sights were the blown-up snaps showing sad eyes of the women standing by to service the partying seamen in a Thai brothel.

Second, the interpretive element of the exhibition feels to me to be a man’s story about men. Only one of the ten seafarers interviewed is a woman; the other woman is a bar worker in the maritime area of Rotterdam, Katendrecht.
That’s an excellent ratio, given that women are less than two percent of the world’s seafaring population. But these women don’t talk much about their own sexuality, only that of the men Monique, a second mate, for example heaves them out of brothels to get them back to the ship. But where did she herself go for sex, or why didn’t she?


So I came away feeling that there was a lot more that could have been said. But to do so a museum needs the impossible: a big budget that would enable it to interview not only seafarers, but workers in port sex industries and ‘steady’ partners back home, and to give each interviewee days – not minutes – to explore how to create the most profound version they can.
Rotterdam Maritime Museum have created something rather romanticised and charmingly domestic, but also surprisingly touching. Endlessly thought-provoking, it will be valuable as a model for other museums of work or transport which, in our sexualised times, will be mounting exhibitions about the subject too.

If you’re interested in seafaring life and subjectivities this is a must. For those who can’t get to Rotterdam before December 2014 there is an affordable ‘catalogue’, a special edition of the museum’s magazine Brave Hendrik. museum’s magazine Brave Hendrik. It’s illustrated but in Dutch. You can download it for free from the website:
The museum has also created a Whores’ Trail (again only in Dutch) for use on smartphones. De Hoerenloper is full of (non-titillating) photographs and includes a walker’s map of 29 historic locations in the city, particularly near the waterfront bars that seafarers used.
Sex & The Sea, Maritiem Museum, Rotterdam, Leuvehaven 1, 3011 EA Rotterdam,The Netherlands. Tel: +31(0)10 413 2680. On until 19 December 2014, from 10 to 17.00 hours daily (except Sunday 11-17). An on-line summary in English can also be seen at

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