Saying it’s been a difficult year feels pretty redundant at this point. Museums and heritage, like many sectors, have been hard-hit by the pandemic. In November I attended the Museums Association conference (I say attended, in reality of course I never left my couch - like so much else this year, the conference went digital) and was surprised to find it a much better and more uplifting experience than I had been expecting. After everything this year has thrown at us, I hadn’t expected the overarching theme of the conference to end up being hope.
Again and again people raised this four letter word, not as some empty platitude but with real conviction. Not just hope either, but a need to move forward with love and compassion, the message that cynicism and hate don’t get us anywhere. Perhaps the session in which it hit hardest though was one I attended on the very first day called The Wisdom of Elders. It was the session that everyone was talking about for the rest of the week. Johnnetta Betsch Cole and Elaine Heumann Gurian both have long careers in museums and education in the USA. Now both 84, and showing no signs of slowing down, they have lived through things hard to imagine. Johnnetta was born in the American South into a segregated society. She reminded us that as a Black child growing up in the 30s and 40s, "there was no museum that I could go to". Johnnetta talked about hope being fundamental to social activists and how:
"It takes courage to be kind to someone who is not kind to you."
Elaine was born into a Jewish family and remembers her parents trying to save their German relatives from the Holocaust. She pointedly drew the link to the present immigration discussion, saying that her relatives were once the illegal immigrants. When asked where she found her hope, she answered that:
"Hope and kindness are decisions of the soul."
I am, I must admit, a bit of a natural-born cynic. Hearing these two incredible women, who have seen so much that has been hard and dark, talk about hope and kindness, and believe in them, could have felt like a rebuke to my own lack of hope. Instead it felt more like an extension of their own, an invitation to try to make that decision of the soul for myself. It would feel churlish not to accept such a gracious invitation. How though do you begin to make such a decision? Well, when I’m looking for something I usually begin with the collections and the stories they hold, so I took a mental stroll around our newest gallery, Life on board, asking myself what (if anything) in these exhibits gives me hope?
A pioneering woman
Fazilette Khan is one of a number of seafarers whose careers you can see a snapshot of in the gallery. She began her career at sea as a Radio Officer from 1984 until 1999, when the job was made obsolete by advances in technology. I met Fazilette back in 2018 and she was a force of nature, energetic and passionate. She seems to have spent all her career as a pioneer and campaigner, starting out as an officer when women at sea were still enough of a rarity that she was commissioned to write a regular column about her experience as the only woman on the ship’s crew.
The boiler suit we have comes from her last post as a Radio Officer on ITF (International Transport Worker Federation) ship Global Mariner. She joined this vessel on an 18 month world trip to campaign against flags of convenience – this is where ships are registered in different countries to that of their owners. On the surface, this is done to reduce operating costs, or avoid the regulations of the owner's country, in effect it leads to less protections for crew.
The badges come from her later years at sea, when she retrained as an Environmental Officer, having seen first-hand the effects of marine plastics and of littering in coastal areas. In 2003 she went on to set up GreenSeas Trust, a marine environmental charity. I was delighted to hear recently that Fazilette has been awarded the prestigious Merchant Navy Medal for Meritorious Service in recognition of her services to the marine environment. Fazilette’s energy and achievements make her a truly inspirational figure and offer the hope that, as her quote painted on our gallery wall states, "one person can make a difference".
The couple who fought for seafarers’ rights
Thinking of one individual making a difference, it would be hard for me to talk about the things in this gallery that give me hope without talking about Liberal MP Samuel Plimsoll. He is something of a personal hero; someone who, along with his wife Eliza, devoted his energies and much of his own money to the fight to improve seafarers’ rights and welfare. He’s the reason the load line on a ship (shown on the wall in the museum display above) is known as a Plimsoll line. The ornate silver cup was presented to him by unionised Liverpool seafarers to celebrate the passing of Merchant Shipping Act in 1876.
The medallion may look less impressive but its story is the story of what led up to that bill finally being passed. It’s a story of a passionate, and you could say slightly inappropriate, outburst in the House of Commons that ended with Plimsoll shaking his fist at the government before being lauded in the press as a champion of the vital cause of safer seafaring. Personally, I love Eliza’s role in that little drama - sneaking in written copies of her husband’s protest and claiming when challenged that her bag simply contained a few essentials she was bringing her husband, who was spending so much time working away from home. It strikes me that as a respectable Victorian woman she might have found it easy to persuade the men who initially challenged her that she was nothing they needed to worry about. How much trouble after all could a lone lady cause? They may have rethought a few things when they saw her showering the press gallery with the protest.
Samuel Plimsoll is a wonderfully emotional and sentimental figure at a time where the British stiff upper lip was in vogue and it was no longer fashionable for men to express sentiment. His Appeal for Seamen is filled with facts and figures, but also personal testimonials and a deep well of emotion. Eliza, by all accounts, was the more rational and calmer of the two. This made them a perfect pair in their campaigning work, casually breaking a few gender norms while they went about trying to improve the lives of the seafarers this country has long been reliant upon – and not always fully appreciated!
A support community
Sticking with what seems to have developed as my personal theme of hope, we have another object here related to campaigning. Unlike the previous objects though, this one is all about a community rather than a single remarkable individual. It could be easy to overlook when visiting us, this little brass plaque lacks the visual impact of the Plimsoll cup or Fazilette’s boiler suit. It’s one of those objects that you really come to appreciate by learning what it stands for. The Watch Ashore is a non-profit social group founded in 1933 to provide support and friendship to partners and families of those serving in the Merchant Navy.
"In 1933 the Watch Ashore lobbied for reforms and today the reforms we are lobbying for are remarkably similar – better conditions for the Merchant Navy, better safety, better training."
I’m struck by this quote from their website as these are the same things Plimsoll was campaigning for in the 19th century - it is still very much a living campaign. I wasn’t familiar with this group before we selected this item for the Life on Board gallery and thinking about it again now it seems even more poignant. It feels like no one who has experienced 2020 could doubt the importance of community and of friendship and support. I’ve written about the isolation faced by seafarers separated from friends and family before, but this is the flip side of that separation, those left ashore worrying about their loved one’s wellbeing and counting the days until they’re next back in their home port.
Maritime communities have historically been tightly knit, providing mutual support and understanding to those left ashore. In the 20th century though we don’t see the same physical communities that you once saw in cities like Liverpool, where there were many seafaring families living in close proximity. Indeed, Liverpool’s seafaring community is far smaller than it used to be and unfortunately there is no longer an active branch of the Watch Ashore for Merseyside, though you can see the Merseyside Chairman’s badge of office on Hull Museums’ website. Just as the internet has offered new ways to support seafarers, the Watch Ashore have a website filled with resources and details on how to join them for the seafarers’ partners and families.
More quiet unseen heroes
I can’t help but notice that the three items I’ve written about are all situated in one small area of the gallery, but stories of hope are not constrained to these two showcases. I did wonder when I first thought to write this article if limiting myself to talking only about our newest gallery would work – if I could find enough hope in just one exhibition space. Once I started looking though, hope was everywhere in our collections. In Belinda Bennett’s Captain’s uniform (pictured above) that she wore as the first Black woman to captain a commercial cruise ship. In the ingenuity of a prototype model for a way to make seawater safe to drink. In medals presented for saving lives. It can even be found in items tied inevitably to darker stories. It is perhaps in the success of the Derbyshire families’ long, hard fought, campaign for justice that we most clearly see that hope is not always joyful. Hope can be a battle for truth and to allow something good to come from tragedy, to stop suffering being repeated by others.
I wound up having to be selective in what I talked about when I’d wondered if I’d be scrabbling to find enough to say. Was that because I went looking for these stories? You can absolutely walk through our museum and take away a myriad of sad tales of loss and disaster. Though, as I think Derbyshire shows, hope and loss are not incompatible. Loss can be an important driving force for positive change and the fight for justice. Perhaps it simply emphasises the quote that started me off - hope is a decision. Don’t get me wrong, it is not an easy one, we are surrounded by the difficulties of Covid, climate change, structural racism and inequality, for many this has been the hardest year they have ever experienced.
We are also surrounded though by activists, by campaigners and by the kind of quiet unseen heroes our key workers have been revealed to be. It truly does feel like someone opened Pandora’s box this year, but then anyone who knows their Greek myths knows that that’s where hope comes from too.
I’m not sure that hope is what we use simply to endure these things, but actually what we need in order to fight them. We think of activism and campaigning as being about courage, and they undeniably are, but I think even more fundamental to them is hope. Without hope why would you even try? People don’t tend to attempt to accomplish things that they genuinely believe cannot be done. For progress, we need hope. In 2021 I hope that we can all move forwards with more kindness, less cynicism, and a belief that we can make a difference.
Images: Life on Board gallery photographs © Mina Bihi Adjustment Bureau