Arts Admin Logo

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

A well hidden secret

The Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool is a rather masculine and heteronormative institution, therefore 'Hello Sailor' is a brave exhibition, as it reveals some of the hidden histories of gay seafarers and their 'floating gay havens'. I'd heard about it in a seminar about exhibiting the 'Other', and had it not been for that, I probably wouldn't have known about it or discovered this secret history.

On visiting the museum, I found the show itself was rather well hidden, but on my second trawl around the manly, navy blue surround, I saw a sliver of pink out of the corner of my eye and thought "ah-ha that must be it", immediately identifying it through a stereotype. The disposable flat-pack display with harsh lighting and pink candy stripe boards, stands in stark contrast to the somber darkness of the permanent exhibitions, making it feel like a bit of light relief from the preceding 'important' history on show. Most of the visitors I saw had stumbled upon it by mistake and were quite surprised, many finding it interesting and a part of history they'd not considered before, then there were the embarrassed sniggers and cliche homophobic responses, (sadly not surprising), although I think it's terrible that such history is still quite hidden and difficult to handle. A show like this should be permanent and taught as a significant part of history, aspects of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) life should be embedded in general history, rather than segregated as an 'other', then maybe other sexualities would be normalised and people wouldn't be so ignorant and fearful. It can be difficult to identify LGBT historical items though, without avoiding stereotypical kitsch, camp fashions, or pride memorabilia for example. Much of it is everyday and can be lost without cataloging and labeling, museums are often guilty of omitting information that may be seen as provocative or sensitive.

Hello sailor is dressed up in 'camp', with an installation of a gay man's cabin, as its centre piece, a flamboyant, bright orange feathered ball gown, swings from the wardrobe amongst feathered boas and other bits of frilly tat, posters of Rock Hudson and other sexy beefcakes of the time adorn the walls, and camp icon Kenneth Williams stars wearing his sailor suit in a photo pinned to the mirror. This is fun and entices the viewer in, but is it really an accurate portrayal of these seafaring men, or does it just feed stereotypes? Although dressing up and putting on cabaret shows was very much a part of life at sea for these men, their history goes far deeper...

My visit to the exhibition was very informative and enjoyable, it was intimate in the telling of stories and celebratory of the sailors lives. It was a step forward but could go so much further like the accompanying book does. Despite the stereotypical nature of the show, it does open up history and debate though. Is it ok then to use stereotypes in the teaching of 'other' cultures and histories? Is it avoidable? How far should the museum go in portraying an accurate account of what really went on, if it means being controversial and offensive to some? And what of so many more hidden histories and stories?

Hello Sailor is at the Merseyside Maritime Museum until January 2009.

No comments: