Friday 15 September 2023

Rainbow Seas in Maritime Museums: group summary

There's no doubt about it. Most maritime museums  could do with representing aspects of seafaring life that have hitherto been marginalised. That includes the ways LGBT+ seafarers used voyages as a exceptional opportunities to explore new identities and relationships. 

On some ships you could go beyond heteronormatvity. However, it took a while before seafarers could be seen brandishing rainbow flags at Pride (see above). Now there's modern visibility and inclusion, but the history is still under-visible. 

Since 2005 a number of museums in Euope, and two in Canada have put on special temporary exhibitions focused entirely on gay life at sea. See the main images of Victoria, BC, exhibition, right.) 

Other museums arrange events for LGBT+ History Month every February.

Curators and community outreach staff who work in this area are often trailblazers. They seek hard-to-find artefacts, struggle to be diplomatic, and sometimes face homophobic responses by visitors. 

Having experienced and supportive mates helps. Friendly peers share advice, explore, get inspired by others' ideas and endlessly seek to do better. 

The Rainbow Seas in Maritime Museums group has shared expertise remotely zoom for nearly two years. This blog is my attempt, as chair, to summarise it as I see it. And I do so in the hope that others with join in.

Describing a group that is evolving all the time is not easy. But these common FAQ's will help put you in the picture.

1.What does it do? Works informally via 90-minute meetings over Zoom to ensure the diverse history of LGBT+ life on ships and in ports is better represented in museums.

2. Who's in it? A small group of people in Europe, but with speakers from other time zones when possible.  Members are employed by museums, or work with them as expert consultants or interns. Some identify as queer, and some are queer allies. 

3. When do you meet?  About every two months over Zoom, usually on a Friday  morning (agreed at the previous meeting). The meetings are recorded so if you miss one you can still see the video of what happened, and make comments etc by email afterwards.

4. What happens in a typical meeting?  We check in briefly with news about what we are doing. Then the agreed speaker describes their current exhibition work (for example in Bergen 2023, see main image, left.) Or the guest speaker contributes for 30 mins on  a particular area. About 20 mins  chat follows, which usually involves a lot of sharing and recommending. 

5, How are meetings recorded? On the agreed platform, e.g. Teams. We do so because we see ourselves as creating something useful we can offer to the future.  

Sometimes I write a reflective diary,. I hope others do too. I circulate mine by email but am not sure anyone reads it!

6. What has the group done?  In 2022, when we began, three members were putting on displays about queer seafarers. Two others had already done so. 

Veterans offered a hand to the newcomers: this was both formal and informal consultancy. A key question was ‘How do we get hold of evidence?’ The answer: 'By appealing to older seafarers to come forward with artefacts and oral testimony and see themselves educators of newcomers.' 

Community participation is seen as invaluable. (Pictured, former steward Charles Traa and friend in foreign port. Charles was proud to help Amsterdam's National Maritime Museum by sharing his photo albums and being videod.)

7. Who are your guest speakers?  Sometimes we invite in speakers from the maritime industry today. That way, historical displays can be made relevant to present times and the future.  

8. What’s next?  It’s hard to know. It seems likely that some members will fall away because, having put on a exhibition focused on gay life, they now have to move on to mounting their next exhibition. It’s likely that they will be less frequent partiicipants, there in spirit but not in person. 

I certainly hope that people working with other maritime museums keen to represent the subject will join in. A dynamic organisation will be shaped by newcomers and new moves, such as rainbow capitalism. 

9. What future speakers do you have lined up? Professor Seth Stein LeJaq will speak at our next meeting, about using early Royal Navy archives. Our group members are always keen to work with local LGBT+ organisations including archives and universities. Luckily most museums offer talks programmes now, and even podcasts,  which continue to expand the positive effects of an exhibition long after it's over.   

And it seems possible that we may work with people in ports about queer seafarers’ use of ‘cottages’, gay brothels, Turkish baths, Seamen’s Homes. 

Antwerp, Australia and the Far East seem to be emerging as possible partners. We will be drawing in historians of queer life who are not necessarily interested in seafarers. Together we can make connections.

10. What are the side benefits of joining this peer support group with all its potential to help research? 

  • maritime museums are supported in being more inclusive (and thereby attracting new audiences)
  • museum workers don’t 'reinvent wheels'. It’s likely that increased international agency and consultancy will evolve
  •  there’s a domino effect: other museums will consider what they can do, even of it’s only expand their archives, not put on a whole exhibition.

11. How to join? Contact me by email in the first instance. Then I will put you on mailing list. 

Reading more 

Start here. For an introduction and recommeded reading see the LGBT+ Sea page on my website:

To read the latest on gay sea exhibitions see my articles:
  • 'Rainbow Seas Swelling:', Lloyd's Register Foundation Heritage and Education Centre, 20 June 2022, 
  • 'Museum musings: a cultural update from the world's maritime museums', Nautilus Telegraph,  26 August 2022,

Filmed talks by me. 
2023. “Revealing queer maritime history: international museums’ LGBT+ sea exhibitions,” Blaydes Maritime Centre webinar, University of Hull, May 2023.
2023. “Entertaining 4 Sanity@sea: Hull's glitzy ship’s steward Roy ‘Wendy’ Gibson and the history of shipboard entertainment,“ University of Hull, Blaydes Maritime Centre webinar, Feb 2023.
2023. “A Whirlwind Tour of a Jigsaw 1600-2020. 400 packed years of LGBTQI+ maritime history, “ Maritime UK, Pride in Diversity network webinar.
2008.  Homotopia. “Hello Sailor,” filmed interview with me touring an interviewer round the Merseyside Maritime Museum version of the Hello Sailor exhibition, 2008.

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