Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Justice

Transcript: Queer(y)ing Museums: Maritime Museum of BC

Welcome to Queer(y)ing Museums: a BCMA Gender & Sexuality podcast series!

In this podcast we seek to deepen the discussions begun in the Gender & Sexuality Inclusion Toolkit, and highlight great work being done around the province and beyond.

In this first episode, BCMA’s Desirée Hall and Tanya Pacholok sit down (virtually) with MMBC board member Jelena Putnik and Executive Director Brittany Vis to discuss the Maritime Museum of BC’s upcoming exhibit, “Queer at Sea: Tales from the 2SLGBTQ+ Community”. Jelena and Brittany share the inspiration for the exhibit, what they’ve learned about relationship building and community-centred exhibits, addressing homophobia, and more. 

“Queer at Sea: Tales from the 2SLGBTQ+ Community” will be open to the public 17 May 2022 and run for the duration of the summer. You can find more information about how and where to find the exhibit here!

Queer(y)ing Museums: Maritime Museum of BC

In this first episode, BCMA’s Desirée Hall and Tanya Pacholok sit down (virtually) with MMBC board member Jelena Putnik and executive director Brittany Vis to discuss the Maritime Museum of BC’s upcoming exhibit, “Queer at Sea: Tales from the 2SLGBTQ+ Community”.


Desirée Hall: This is queer(y)ing museums, a BCMA gender and sexuality podcast series. My name is Desirée and I’m Tanya. Welcome to our first episode. 


Tanya Pachalok: Today, we interviewed Jelena Putnik, board director of the maritime museum of BC and chair of their diversity equity, accessibility and inclusion committee, and Brittany Vis executive director of the maritime museum of BC.


DH: In this episode, Jelena and Brittany chat relationship building, addressing homophobia and all things queer at sea exhibit.


 So welcome Jelena and Brittany. We’re really, really excited to have you here today. And we just thought we’d start off by introducing our ourselves our name, pronouns, and where you’re calling in from.


Jelena Putnik: My name is Jelena Putnik,  pronouns she/her, I am calling from the territory of the Lekwungen speaking people today known as the Songhees and Esquimalt nations.  Which means I’m calling from the area of Greater Victoria. I am a board member of the maritime museum of BC, have been so for about a year. And I’m also the chair of the diversity equity, accessibility and inclusion committee.


Brittany Vis: Hi, I’m Brittany,  pronouns she/her. I’m the executive director with the maritime museum of BC.  I am also calling in from the territories of the Lekwungen speaking peoples the Songhees and Esquimalt nations. Which is basically right downtown Victoria from our location here.


JP: a little piece that I thought maybe I should add is that I do identify as queer and I’m also a mother of two. 


TP: Thanks for sharing that. And so great to meet you both.  I’ll also briefly introduce myself.  I’ll be one of the two voices asking questions today.


My name is Tanya. My pronouns are she/ her and today I’m calling in from amiskwaciwâskahikan in treaty six territory, otherwise known as Edmonton, Alberta.


DH: I’m Desirée. My pronouns are she /her and I am also joining from Lekwungen territory also known as Victoria.


TP: We’re really excited to hear about the queer at sea exhibit. And so for those who haven’t heard yet, we are wondering if you’d like to introduce the project? 


JP: Yes. Well, we’re excited about it too. It’s great to be part of this podcast and talk about it.

So our exhibit is coming up May 17th to November 5th  this year 2022. And  it’s  “Queer at Sea: Tales from the two spirit LGBTQ plus community.” So it is, an exhibit that is capturing the stories and experiences and, kind of stories in a whole bunch of different formats, whether, you know, through pictures, through video, through storytelling, through written, from the two-spirit LGBT community,  from the coast and beyond.


We’re in the timeframe right now, gathering those stories and compiling them, reaching out farther and farther into our community and making sure we get a nice broad diversity of stories to bring. 


DH: Mm I love that it sounds like it’s also really multimedia. That’s awesome.  We were also wondering if you  would just care to expand on kind of the inspiration for the project, the exhibit.  


JP: Well, actually, I feel blessed that kind of jumped into it when it was really slightly rolling and we were just going to get going with the planning. But the kind of origins of it, I guess a couple of years ago, our board chair was out east  in Halifax and came across the “Hello Sailor!” Exhibit of, queer lives on the trans continental liner community, and so was really excited about the exhibit, loved that it featured part of the history of the maritime community that doesn’t often get seen or heard and, came back really charged, with ideas about how we can do something similar on the west coast.


So I’ll hand it over to Brittany here. Cause I think that, there was some simultaneous things that are happening, um, here. 


BV: Yeah, for sure. So yeah,  around the same time of that happening, museum staff here were also aware of that exhibit and kind of starting to consider, oh, like maybe there’s something we could do on this coast as well.


And what would that look like? So we have kind of been toying with the idea for a few years and, It just finally became the right time. When as Jelena mentioned, Jamie Webb who had seen the exhibit back in Halifax, he came back to the board as the board president.


I remember one of the early conversations I had with him, once he became president was,  just kind of reviewing, okay.  What’s on the roster here for the next year. And he brought up his interest in doing an exhibit like this. And I was like, oh my God, that was right on my list as well. So it was just kind of like a melding of everyone’s minds all at once. And, yeah, it was just, it just became the right time to do it. 


JP: And Brittany was there, wasn’t there someone that from the community just kind of walks through the doors one day too? 


BV: Oh gosh, this probably goes back to 2016 or 2017, but we had a donation of some archival material from a trans woman. So we had a, yeah, we had some interesting conversations, um, as we were, you know, processing this donation, um, about just her, uh, experience throughout her career presenting as a male, because she only actually transitioned after her career. So that was a relationship actually, that I was lucky to be able to continue over the years. And so she was one of the first people we reached out to once we had decided  to do this exhibit. yeah, so  that was another connection as well. 


TP: And that was one of the parts that we were quite interested in and really inspired the way that your exhibit is so community centred and gathering stories from folks, from community. And you did have a call out for stories and input from queer and trans individuals who were willing to share their stories for the exhibit. And we’re wondering, if you could share a little bit about your process on this and how you went about that and how you’re designing your exhibit to meaningfully engage the 2SLGBTQIA plus voices in this.


JP: Yeah, that’s a, it’s a good question. You know, It kind of all starts foundationally, like, what are our values? What do we want to do as a museum? This new board specifically in this last few years has really highlighted the importance of reflecting an honest lens.


On our diverse maritime community, not as select, who’s got the power, who’s got the voice, who’s got the microphone, you know, who has access to that, but truly what is really our community and to honestly do that we need to open up and remove any of the barriers that exist, whether consciously or unconsciously to us all.


So, coming from that premise that this maritime museum is reflective of the whole maritime community.  We started to build on that, and  this is a natural, starting point for this. And I mean, part of it was then us, starting a committee, uh, our diversity equity, accessibility and inclusion community committee, but it also is doing a more of the work kind of foundationally and first of all, making sure that all of us are on board those foundational things that drive us and everybody is so the board, volunteers, donors, all the dialogue around what’s important to us happened early on. So then when we jumped into this exhibit, it was a no brainer because, you know, we come from the confidence of knowing we’re doing the right thing. And, we’re excited to be doing that. 


So we did kind of two things, you know, we did, as you say, broadcast it out there into the world and it’s been great. The media has been picking it up. People have been sharing it. Social media has been sharing it, but also we did a lot of our one-on-one connections. Cause it’s all about relationships, right? Sometimes people come forward, not knowing anybody, but often people come forward when they trust that this, that their story is going to be honoured in this process, right? And that they trust – especially if they’re, if they’ve been oppressed and there has been like, of course there’s been a history of homophobia and transphobia, in society, but in the maritime community. But that they trust that, where are we coming from with this? And so, like relationship wise, many of our board members and staff we’re connected with different aspects of the maritime community. So they reached out to those communities. 


So for example, one of our board members is involved with the diversity committee with the coast guard on the west coast. So, uh, reached out to that community. They already have those relationships built and could get that amplified, sent out, and people know each other so they trust each other and they go, oh yeah, she said it was okay. Or he said it was okay. Or they said it was okay. And then, like within all the big institutions, you know, the coast guard, the military, the, BC ferries. And we have a very large network of ferry boats that move people along this coast.


So that really made a big difference. And I think that another piece that I, for myself, of course, I feel strongly about is that representation from the community needs to be on the organization, our organizing committee. and so that you’re building it where it feels right, and the more representation, more diverse representation on that, the better. I think we’re, you know, kind of medium there in terms of that, but we were conscious of it. So every time we feel like maybe we don’t know we try to reach out to populations that can help us. 


BV: I’ll just add to that too, that, as staff we’ve kind of just seen our roles with this exhibit is just simply being the facilitators. It was really important for us early on, um, to establish the fact that this exhibit would be stories presented like from the community.


 So a lot of our conversations leading up to our announcement of this in early January was around, how do we go about that? And what does that look like? What’s our role and a staff, you know we are just simply facilitators of this. So we wanted to make sure that the voices of individuals really come through strong in this exhibit because we feel that those personal stories are what really resonate with visitors.


And we as staff, you know, working in the museum field, can’t really bring that lens of like, what is it like to be a queer person in maritime industries on this coast. So we really, really wanted from the beginning to make sure that those stories could come through in a strong way. And, yeah, so far we’ve been really, pleasantly surprised and, also partially humbled too, by the fact that, you know, people are willing to share their personal stories and, you know, we, a large part of it as Jelena has referred to, has been built from the relationships and trust that we had previously established, but we’ve also received some stories from people who’ve never been connected with us, and who, I guess, for whatever reason, they just were eager for their story to be told. So it’s been really interesting to see the responses so far.


DH: It sounds like you were really drawing on the relationships that  you had already built, but then also this is a beautiful opportunity to be strengthening and creating new relationships, which I think is really wonderful. And I wrote down honest lens. And I underlined that. I like that a lot, you know, with that, coming from a place of trying to really represent the community in an honest way.  Like you said, not just focusing on those in power because that is a huge reason to be doing this work. Exhibits need to be representative of the entire community. So I love that. I don’t know if, if you had any specific, kind of challenges  around engagement, if you’d want to speak to that?  


BV: Yeah, there’s, there’s kind of two challenges for me that stand out from like the, just the logistical lens. Um, so, again, part of our early conversations around this exhibit were, talking about the need to have, like diversity in our stories. Obviously the focus is on queer individuals. But like within that,  we were hoping to build like racial diversity, gender diversity, as well as diversity just within the maritime fields, but we were talking about, oh, wouldn’t it be great to have representation like from the Navy, from the coast guard, BC ferries, the fishing industry, yada yada, yada. And yeah, we’ve still got our stories open, which we’re still expecting some more stories to be coming in.


But yeah, at this point we know we’re starting to kind of get a picture of what will make up these stories and so far it’s definitely predominantly from people of a European background. There has been diversity in terms of gender, and within the field too, although, there’s a few industries that we haven’t yet heard from.


So yeah, we’re hopeful that a few more might be coming in here.  So yeah, just trying to make sure that we’re representing the story of the whole coast and not just, you know, like a few niche pieces because, maritime industries in BC are very broad. It’s, there’s a lot there.


So trying to make sure that it’s all represented has been a little more challenging than we were expecting or,  just something we knew we had to be mindful of from the beginning. And then, the second challenge that we’ve faced. And again, this is a very, very logistical challenge. Is just the time it takes  to prepare a community-based exhibit.  This has definitely been a lot more time consuming than the other exhibits that we might just produce in house or even produce, like in relationship with a partner or something like another organization partner. 


But working with the community has definitely required more resources,  predominantly in time at this stage. There was a lot that we had to invest just in terms of conversations at the committee level and, the staffing level of like, how do we put this together? And then from there, once it’s enacted to follow up and make sure, we’re keeping ourselves organized.


So yeah. That was just, again, a part of the kind of early discussions of just accepting. This is going to be a larger project than other exhibits we have put on. And just making that commitment from the beginning to ensure that this is done right. And it’s done well.


TP: Yeah, I really commend that, the time aspect of it and really doing it well, and with the relationship building that all takes a lot of love and care, and it’s such an important piece to the community aspect of the project. So that’s really beautiful to hear about and that trust building that you’re doing with the communities.


Have there been any surprises or discoveries within that engagement process that  you wanted to share? 


BV: I guess the only surprise really is just like how many people reached out with stories that they were just so eager to share that we hadn’t previously had a relationship with.


And so that, to me, tells me that people have had stories that they have wanted to be heard for a long time, and that there’s been a need for them to have a platform to share their voice and to share their experience. So I guess, the fact that people have been just so eager to just come in and just be ready to share their life story with us, it’s been really encouraging. 


JP: Mhmm. And I think that, people, perhaps those folks that were not connected to the maritime museum in the past, just never thought this was the right place for them because they didn’t see themselves reflected in it.


And so now, this kind of, I hope just shows that it’s a safe space and it’s a place that their history is reflected in it because, I know as someone that’s been in the maritime field on and off since I was a teenager, what a thrill it is to go through our archives or through our museum exhibits. It’s such a thrill because you see all those things that are dear to you. But how connected would I be if I didn’t feel that it was a safe space and that I could be myself? Yeah. You know, maybe I would be marginally connected, but that isn’t the case. You know, now my connection is really strong. 


And, it goes back also, I want to make a comment that Brittany, I think you made to me once and I said, oh yeah, you were totally right. You said that when you look at artefacts now,  you don’t look at them as artefacts that belong to straight white males that has been associated typically with maritime like that. These, who knows who these artefacts actually belong to! Was this you know, a trans individuals uniform or, whatever, telescope or whatever it is that we have. It’s pretty, what’s the right word? Gender centric? That one would look at, I don’t know if there’s such a term even exists, but, you know, one would look at things with that lens and it’s nice that we don’t necessarily look at them that way because, they could be a diversity of ethnicities or genders or sexualities that interacted and that those artefacts belong to. 


DH: Mhm, complicating and queering artefacts. 


JP: And so I think, maybe Brittany can speak more to it, but you know, if people’s stories come to us that, triggers a connection to some artefacts that we already have in our exhibit, we can connect those to the stories, even if they just come in text because it makes sense, right? Like this was the context of where they sat. And so, that helps make the whole experience of reading that story, engaging with that story much more rich.


DH: So we’re wondering if you have a sense of how it’s been received so far in the communities or, any particular challenges that have come up in that regard.


BV: Yeah. Overall the response has been fairly positive. Like I mentioned, those who have stories to share  have been reaching out, actually it’s only been like the last week or so my inbox has kind of calmed down a little bit because like, we were just getting so many stories being shared.  I mean, overall the response has been very positive. To date I’ve been tracking these just cause I’ve been kind of curious to see where the community as a whole is at.


We have received some negative responses, they’ve been much fewer though. Only four negative emails, which are much smaller than, you know, the hundreds of positive received. And then, we also had one negative phone call. We knew to expect this, of course. So what we did to prepare for this, and this was kind of in lead up to our announcement was we kind of anticipated the generic responses that we might expect in terms of, of negative responses and then, we kind of prepared a bit of a chart of what our response to that negative feedback would be. So that way when it inevitably came in, we were ready to deal with it, right from the get-go. And we had already reflected on what we wanted our response as a full organization as a whole to be so that’s been helpful. And I mean, each email that we’ve received has been slightly different, so, like I’ll modify a response accordingly and write you know, an individualized response. So that way the person feels like they’re not just getting a form letter back that  we are seeing, uh, responses to these.


We put a lot of reflection into how to respond to this prior to, and that’s really helped us to,  kind of get back  to these people, in an efficient manner. So that way, you know, nothing kind of festers and we make our stance as an organization, really clear that this is something we are moving ahead with, and that we will not tolerate discrimination of any kind related to this exhibit.


Luckily too. I always kind of follow up in our database and try and look to see  are these people connected with us? You know, have they served as a volunteer in the past? Are they a current donor or a member? And so far all the people who have sent negative responses have not been connected to the museum in any way in the past.


So that also kind of tells me that the people who are invested in us as an organization, do agree with what we’re doing and do support the work that we’re doing. And so that’s been really encouraging as well. While it’s, you know, never fun to deal with the homophobia, we try and see the positives in it of which, first of all, it’s definitely the minority.


And then second of all, there’s much stronger support and encouragement from the community for us to do this exhibit. So yeah, what we’ll do, cause we do know and we do,  expect that, once we open the exhibit we’ll get negative remarks, in person from people coming in.


So, uh, we’re currently working on really expanding that kind of chart that we’ve got for negative responses in order to accommodate those in-person interactions that we can expect to face. And I think just kind of being prepared for that will help us deal with it right from the beginning and will also help to keep everyone in the organization on the same page, because  of course staff changes throughout the week.


So who is at the front desk will change. We also have volunteers who help cover our front desk and we want to make sure that they are prepared.  And we also want to of course, make sure that we as an organization, that everyone knows what our stance is and no one kind of goes rogue.Yeah, being prepared with that has been key to dealing with those negative responses. 


DH: I think that sounds like a great approach. And,  just really empowering to employees to know that  no matter what people on all levels are supportive.  And I think that alone is really helpful for employees who might not necessarily know how to navigate that.  And there can be potentially in some cases, you know, I mean, there can be an invitation in. I don’t think a lot of folks necessarily take us up on those, but, maybe they’ll feel invited in.  


BV: It’s interesting you say that actually. Cause ya one of the, one of the negative responses I got by email, I did my whole thing, responded to the person according to our response chart and individualized it of course.


And, um, the next day I had an email back from him and he was saying that he has reconsidered. Uh, he actually said that it had also started a conversation within his family. And his daughter and his girlfriend were really unhappy with how he had responded initially, because in his email initially to me, he was saying that he would not come to see the exhibit and he was telling others to not come as well.


And so he has, he had since said, I take that back, my family’s basically reemed me out and he’s like, I can see this now and I will come to the exhibit and I’m looking forward to it. So that was really, really encouraging. And you know, as frustrating as it was initially, of course, to receive the negative response, it was actually just really encouraging, to just see that someone could have a change of heart.


And, you know, even that quickly after, you know, just a simple email interaction. And to me too, that just kind of spoke to one of the reasons of why we are doing this exhibit, um, which is just to raise awareness that there are queer people working in the maritime industries. And cause, one of his things was, you know I’ve spent, decades working and  I’ve never worked with anyone who’s been gay…That you know of.


TP: Yeah. It’s so true. Like sometimes you can’t really change someone’s opinion through logic or a reason, but a personal story will do that and it’s kind of the key to cracking the code. So that’s an interesting way, or a great way of doing it and airing that out.


JP: A very good point. 


TP: Thanks for sharing that. So, if you had, do you have any advice for other museums or galleries and institutions, if they’re wanting to do something like this, or better engage with their own 2SLGBTQ plus communities or artists or curators and do something similar or,  in a different path, what advice would you give?  


BV: So I guess I would say I think it all kind of depends on each organization, I mean, everyone’s got their own community that they serve. And so I think, consider the community in which you’re in and just kind of going back to some of the early things that, you know, Jelena was mentioning, which is just working with relationships that you might already have established.


And you might not even think of these relationships much, but, just, yeah, considering what,  what relationships are already there. And I think one of the  really important things before starting this work is just making sure the key people in the organization are involved and are onboard with it. Because you don’t want to be trying to do something like this and then facing internal opposition at all. So I think just making sure everyone’s on board and ready to work together. And then from there, yeah, consider the relationships you already have established and reach out to those and consider what ways  you can meaningfully engage in the context of your organization.


JP: Yeah. That’s so true. Well put Brittany. And you know, the kind of bottom line is, if what you want to do is, like I said earlier,  honestly reflect your community, then when you’re doing something like this, you know you’re coming from a place of doing it because it’s the right thing to do. And so that energy in itself, just grows. It’s such a strong flame that grows. And so all your interactions come from that. And they fuel this engagement that’s a really positive and excited and a great energy to be around that draws other people to it. I think that, without that, I think things fall flat. If you really, at the core level, don’t believe that it’s the right thing that you’re doing then that’s where things go sideways, but if you do then, then it just it blossoms. 


BV: Yeah, kind of going back to one of those logistical challenges of the time, making sure you’ve got the time to do this kind of engagement work in a meaningful way. Cause if you don’t then it’ll just be a challenge and it won’t be the enriching experience that it should be for your community. So just, yeah, setting aside the time and accepting that it will take time and it might even take something that, you know, is years to build and that’s okay. 


DH: Mhm meaningful and intentional. I think that all sounds like really valuable and great advice. And so I guess shifting gears just a little bit for our last question. I’m curious,  if you have a wish or hope or just vision for the future of, queering museums or, queer exhibits or,   just envisioning a future.


BV: I hope that we’ll see more of this and that  this kind of exhibit that we’re doing won’t be such  an abnormal thing that it becomes more and more of the norm. At least for our organization we’re talking about ways that we can use this exhibit as a bit of a turning point to make sure our exhibits are engaging the community more. So yeah, I guess just, I just wish for more. 


JP: Agreed. There’s so many stories that just need the platform to shine. They’re rich and they’re diverse and they are long standing like these, these are long routes, right? They’re not just recent. And so, it’s just time to open up those doors so they can come forward and present themselves, because I think they will, like, they will no doubt. When I used to work on the coast or even in my recreational sailing either way, like, you know, pull into some small little cove somewhere and there’s a tug flying a pride flag, this was in the early nineties.


Which isn’t that long ago really, but, the fact that they were there just doing their work.  Sometimes it’s invisible to the rest of the world. I mean, in that case, they’re flying a pride flag. So it was pretty significant, but, um, their stories are alive. They just need to come forward and giving the platform makes that happen.


TP: And it’s happening more and more for sure. Thank you so much for being here and for sharing all of your amazing insights. It’s been such a pleasure to chat and to learn more about this.  I really look forward to the exhibit.