A Forum for Discussions among Voyagers and Others related to the 38th Voyage of the Charles W. Morgan
From: Wyn Kelley
Date: 2014 Jul 16, 18:35 +0000
You raise an interesting point about general interest in maritime history and/or whaling. It's something I've been thinking a great deal about. Many of us are so impassioned about the topic that it can be difficult, and discouraging, to understand that our interests are not more widely embraced by the general public.
As a museum professional, I think about audience a lot. How do we expand the audience or "core market?" There are multiple ways to tackle this question. First, I think we have to acknowledge the history of celebrations of the maritime as a hallmark of the colonial revival, with its imagery of rugged, hardy, and almost always Anglo-Saxon males. The multicultural history of labor at sea was largely whitewashed throughout the 20th century. Though scholarship in the last few decades has corrected these old notions about who worked at sea, many nonwhite people aren't aware of any resonance the age of sail may have for them. Since our institutions, as well, struggle to attract and maintain nonwhite participation, there is a self-selection of audience into and out of maritime museum environments. Pop culture has played its part, too - Hollywood's imagery has largely been of white mariners.
There are also class issues. That links somewhat to geographical issues. Opportunities to get out on the water are limited for people who did not grow up with access to the generally middle- and upper-class resources of boats, yacht clubs, and sailing camps, or who did not grow up near the water. These are additional reasons that most forms of sailing activity can simply feel foreign to many people - even those who avidly make use of excursion boats like whale watches, ferries, and even cruises.
There's also a gendered component. People still routinely express surprise at seeing women on tall ship and schooner crews, even though women today make up a majority of the traditional-rig workforce. Girls and women who don't grow up with access to sailing experiences may not realize how well they would like it, and assume that it is not for them, again because of the primarily male imagery around sailing in mass culture.
Despite all of this, sailing does have a romance that seems enduring. I was in just about all of the above categories growing up, though at least I did grow up in a coastal area, and yet for some reason (probably reading, and general love of salt water) I knew that I wanted to get out onto the water, and as an adult made inroads into maritime culture. What causes an individual without ready access to the conditions that readily encourage a love of the maritime to develop that spark of interest? My co-voyager Mike Bancroft talked about museum settings as inspiration. A self-described "kid from the Midwest," he was captivated by the Morgan on a visit to Mystic Seaport. It's certainly an argument for providing more youth the kinds of access to maritime history and maritime experience that he had. Mike and I also talked more generally about museums as places that make life-changing encounters possible.
This topic is a focus of some recent museum research. Museum and library scholar Keirsten Latham has been studying the "numinous experience" in museums - something she refers to as the "Lincoln's hat moment," after the experiences reported by people who come across Lincoln's stovepipe hat in the Smithsonian Museum of American History. A numinous museum experience, in her definition, is "a deeply meaningful, transcendent encounter" with an object. She conducted hundreds of interviews with people who had that type of experience in an effort to discern patterns, and has published her work in a dissertation (http://www.academia.edu/187458/Numinous_Experiences_with_Museum_Objects) and most recently, a book with Elee Wood titled "The Objects of Experience: Transforming Visitor-Object Encounters in Museums." (http://www.lcoastpress.com/book.php?id=483) The Visitor Studies Association (http://www.visitorstudies.org/) is a professional association of museum & library staff who study visitor impacts and often report on life-changing museum encounters and what can make them happen. I also really enjoy the work of Reach Advisors (http://reachadvisors.com/) , who look at all sorts of tourist interactions with museums and other attractions and do deep analysis as to what makes them rewarding (or not).
The question of how to get a broader public interested is not unique to maritime history. Currently, almost all history organizations are struggling to find a way to reignite interest in the American past. Historic houses, especially, are seeking ways to reinvent themselves. Being a resource for people to explore issues of contemporary personal relevance is one key strategy. That's one of the reasons I've so admired the work of Mystic Seaport in putting the 38th Voyage together - connecting with thinkers and actors who care about the oceans, whales, literature, technology, history, and science, because all of these fields offer multiple, strong links with maritime experience. Interdisciplinary approaches, open-ended programs like the 38th Voyage with its range of multiple project outcomes, and direct relevance to current concerns like marine conservation and the ethics of extractive industry can all help a project that might otherwise be for a niche, specialty audience one of greater import to a wider audience. And, of course, supporting museums, supporting access to the water, and making sure most American kids have some kind of meaningful maritime opportunity can make a difference. The story I heard in New Bedford about a man who brought his son out at dawn to sit on the hurricane wall and watch the Morgan come in was memorable. Over the hours it took from the first sight of the vessel to docking, he said, "I told him everything I knew about the Morgan, then everything I knew about whaling, then everything I knew about New Bedford, and then I ran out of things I knew and we just watched." I suspect that if the Morgan ever makes a return visit, that kid will care about it. This is one of the reasons I believe museums are so essential: they are rich, layered, public sites that can create very powerful personal experiences. In the end, it is personal experience -whether it starts in the pages of a book, on the seawall with your grandfather, at Mystic Seaport or beachcombing on Coney Island - that makes us care about the things we care about.