The indelible influence of piracy on the public consumption of maritime history and contemplating what historians can learn from literature and film to write for the layman.
“Look, it’s a pirate ship!” Anyone who has ever worked on board a sailing vessel will recognise this phrase. It is usually the first thing everyone shouts out upon seeing you tied up to the dock. It’s a testament to the sheer cultural power the idea of piracy holds in our collective minds, because piracy, strictly speaking, doesn’t leave many artefacts. Even here in the UK, with its long and illustrious maritime tradition, it is the pirate who holds pride of place. My brief sojourn working front of house at the National Maritime Museum gave me a privileged view into the way the public conceives of Britain’s interactions with the sea. I witnessed first-hand which objects in the collection elicited the imaginative leap into the past which marks a truly evocative display. It was fascinating to watch as parents brought their children up close to the glass, and after reading the placards, would spontaneously embroider a tale I knew was but loosely inspired by the carefully curated display.
I find this impulse fascinating, with such a rich tapestry of history laid out before them, parents time and again reverted to the legends of piracy. The Museum itself occasionally bows down to the cultural currency of the piratical figure to drum up interest and invite families to take part in the subject matter of the museum. Regularly holding Pirate Days; where children dress up in costume to visit the museum, and special school sessions where children are taught to consider piracy with greater historical accuracy. Even the website has a section devoted to this most ignoble of professions. Indeed, the staff were under the same spell, frequent conversations took place among my co-workers regarding the best subjects to choose for the next exhibition, and piracy was the most frequently proposed.
This tension is difficult to navigate, for few subjects hold so much sway in the public consciousness, and yet are so little likely to be satisfied by museum displays. I often wonder what the ‘piracy’ of other fields might be; for criminology, perhaps it’s the spectre of Jack the Ripper; anthropology, the Indiana Jones films; medievalists are fighting the combined powers of King Arthur and Game of Thrones. Topics like this are difficult to approach, they are wonderful for igniting interest in the subject matter, and yet incredibly difficult to compete with once they take hold. The lurid details of piracy shine out far more clearly in the imagination than the ‘dull’ lives of ordinary and hardworking British sailors. So, how to use these ‘story hooks’ to the profession’s advantage, without doing equal or greater damage?
When history itself is a story, the power of the pirate to dominate our understanding of the maritime profession appears somewhat puzzling. As a recent blog post on Age of Revolutions argues, it is the part of the historian to pick the plot: comedy or tragedy (ironically history is not an option), by selecting, like the film director, not only what to put in front of the camera and what to leave out of frame, but also when and where to begin and end the story. So, it is sometimes odd to see that the fantasy produced by the academic profession, albeit rigorously researched and meticulously footnoted, shines so dimly in the collective imagination when compared to the works produced by another kind of imagination. This is not an attack on the academic project, merely a rephrasing of the oft quoted, “truth is stranger than fiction”. Historians are privileged to hold the artefacts and documents in their hands, to feel their weight and texture, and we watch as the people we research come to life in the archives. It is a magical experience that the books we write and the museum exhibitions we curate attempt to recreate for the elusive and fickle public. While I’m certain that writing for academia and writing for public consumption are two, equally important, skills required of the historian, I do not believe that the quality of writing is to blame for the disconnect between historians and the public consciousness. Nor do I believe it is the obscurity or niche qualities of our areas of interest. In fact, I believe it is that very quality that sometimes works to help spark curiosity and to provide the frisson of the ‘secret’ to obscured knowledge now laid bare. And so, along that line, I wonder sometimes if what is missing in the ‘life’ of the academic history or the museum exhibition, is the ‘life’ that transfers from us to an object through the act of discovery. How might one go about trying to recreate something so elusive and so personal in their own work?
 I must here emphasise that these discussions were mere speculation based on personal preference and not in reference to study of the museum collections or based on any decision-making ability in that regard.
 Perl-Rosenthal, Nathan. 2017. Plotting Revolution, Part II: Politics of the Past. 11 Jan. Accessed Jan 13, 2017. http://bit.ly/2jt4EEu.