These are verbatim transcripts of interviews, reflecting spoken rather than written language.
INTERVIEWER 1: So it is the 2nd of December, 2021, and we are in Exeter to record a life story interview for the Out and About: Queering the Museum project at RAMM. My name is Jana Funke and I am interviewing Natalie McGrath today so thank you for doing this interview.
PARTICIPANT 1: You’re welcome.
INTERVIEWER 1: We are asking everyone to choose an object from the collections that you connect with. So can you tell us which object you’ve chosen and also describe it to us please?
PARTICIPANT 1: So the object that I’ve chosen are the volumes of pressed and named seaweeds and now I’m going to try and pronounce this correctly, they’re called algae danmonienises and they were published in 1833 by Amelia Warren Griffiths and her companion, Mary Wyatt, so they are objects that are nearly two centuries old so if we imagine they are, so in the public collections at RAMM there are two volumes on display and also they only show a couple of pages and one of them shows some seaweed examples and it’s this beautiful kind of vibrant pink kind of seaweed and one of the things that draws me to it time and time again is the fact that it’s retained that colour and obviously the objects have been taken care of and cared for and are in controlled conditions, but the fact that there’s still this essence of that vibrancy really appeals to me and catches my eye every time and there’s a page or so that has, like the fronts page and it has marine plants and words like British fauna and then it has their names as well and to see their names in print at that time and what it does it is just reminds you of a time before mass print culture and I really love that we’re allowed to enter into that world by seeing them and you can also you can feel the labour of love. I’m not describing the objects anymore but you can, I think it’s important in thinking about something that’s just been handmade, that’s what we see, that’s what I’m trying to describe and that’s what’s on show. But also you know, you and I were able to go and see the other collections in person in storage with the curators where the pages were carefully turned by gloved hands and we were able to see this huge vast range of, I think they noted down and collected over 50 kinds of seaweed, so that really interests me that there are so many, you think there’s just one kind, but no. Yeah. So there’s something really evocative about these big volumes that these two women, they’re quite big to handle and carry and I loved seeing them, so yeah.
INTERVIEWER 1: Thank you for that beautiful description, very sensuous description and I think that is what the object kind of gives you and also that sense of history, something we can touch and smell and that’s very, very present. So can you say a little more about why this object? There are so many objects at RAMM. Why did you choose this object? What drew you to this particularly object?
PARTICIPANT 1: I mean it’s an object of beauty for me and I think there are all those resonances of what you had was, you know, Griffiths was a botanist and a scholar but probably not incredibly well-known, but she would have gained some kind of coverage or accolades for some of her achievements but to have these two women, kind of the thought of them combing the shores of Devon, which has been my home now for over 20 years, and thinking of them on those coastlines and looking and being mindful and taking that time to understand more about that marine plant life, just absolutely fascinates me and Wyatt ran a, sold shells and ran a pressed plant shop in Torquay and had been a servant in the Griffiths household and then they become these companions and businesswomen together and that is a layer of kind of, it start to sort of evolve for me in terms of is there a queer story there? Is there a queer heritage? And it also whilst thinking about the fact that these two women, without, it created something really beautiful together, whether they were in what we would determine and categorise as a lesbian or a sexual or a romantic relationship, it actually doesn’t matter in terms of the context of this labour of love that they created together and that they put a kind of a microscope under this world of you can, of the intertidal zones where the sea covers the sand and then moves back out again and they kind of, you can think about the beat of their lives and that movement and that just really means something to me and being in, I grew up by the seaside and have moved to a place where I can access the coast really easily, you know, either towards Exmouth and along that kind of coast, out to Dawlish and Teighmouth and beyond and down to the Cornish coast and things and it’s such an integral part of my life and what gives me health and well-being that I think that also draws something towards me and thinking about this has made me really fascinated with seaweed and I’ve attempted to try and press some at home, really badly, and have subsequently learned just by observing this object in the museum, how seaweed is so important to sustaining our ecosystems and then that makes me think about how our lives as LGBTQ people, how we kind of break the mould and celebrate and have the potential when we can to celebrate and be joyous about who we are and I know it’s not all about celebration and joy because there’s oppression and difficulties as well, but that that’s essential to humanity, actually, that sense of joy, that we can bring so much vibrancy and difference to the world that we live in and so there’s all those things that are kind of evocative for me with this, with this and then there’s the seaside as well, there’s something about it that it’s such a public space, but you can have a private conversation with somebody and nobody will hear and there’s something very kind of romantic and almost kind of clandestine and queer about that as well and that you can have those, the sound of the ocean can kind of can mute what you are talking about without censorship if you like, and I think there’s something very queer about that, actually. And I mean the other thing, this is kind of a bit off the mark, not off the mark, this is a slightly different way of thinking, when I started thinking about those ecosystems, what’s under the sea and because I love nothing more than walking along the shore with my feet in the water or if it’s warm enough actually getting in the water and swimming as I’ve become more adventurous as a swimmer, just being able to see, I couldn’t believe it, it was last summer, not this year, putting my head in the water and just seeing shoals of fish at Teignmouth, you know, and that was only a few feet off the shore and hadn’t not anticipated and seeing seaweed as something that was alive and not just lying on the beach, that we might kind of mess about with or throw or look at and it started, it reminded, when I was thinking about this, it reminded me of the ecosystem of a club, of a gay club, when I was younger, when I would go to places like Heaven or GAY or other clubs that I now can’t even remember the name of them, but that sense of kind of being submerged into a world and there’s something about that marine world – I don’t know why – that just resonates for me when I think about you go down into the stairs, going into the club and it just being completely for that moment in time, completely separate to anything else that’s going on in your life or to the world and you give yourself over to it and I remember that as something that was very freeing when I was learning about who I was and the freedom of dancing in a club and as a much older, an older person now, that I feel that now when I am in the water and I am swimming, so they are completely different activities but there’s a freedom to both of them that I associate both of, you know, one that was definitely about making a statement about who you were and the other one is about being older and being more comfortable in my body and who I am as a queer person and enjoying that, you know, with the water. The seaweed kind of points to all of those, if that makes any sense?
INTERVIEWER 1: That makes a lot of sense. I mean I love how you’ve taken us from these two nineteenth century women collecting and cataloguing seaweed together to the queer club and I think what cuts across it is a sense of intimacy and freedom and I really, really understand that thing, what you are saying there. I guess one thing that I thought was really interesting in what you are saying is I guess a sense of how your relationship to the sea has changed. I mean you were saying that you were becoming bolder or there was something new opening up. Could you say a little more about that? I guess how that has changed for you across time?
PARTICIPANT 1: Well becoming a competent swimmer and not doing that until my mid-forties, and that now my desire to be, there’s, to be in the sea is really strong and I’m not the most bold of swimmers but I’m working towards, I now will go out of my depth and there’s something I think in terms of being the person who identifies as queer or LGBTQ, however, you know, whatever your choice is in terms of how you want to identify is… that there’s, and I remember it very strongly when I was younger of me just not feeling like I belonged and it could be something that is quite a common narrative for LGBTQIA+ people and how do we belong and finding ways to belong and you know, there are places where I feel a sense of belonging and I think the beach and the sea and that part of being in Devon and actually just standing and maybe being held by water, being held by that rhythm of the ocean which for so long was so terrifying and now it’s thrilling in a way that there’s a sense of… you know, standing in your own, well not standing, but being held in your own identity and just being absolutely who you are and feeling like you belong in that moment that I find and it’s been incredibly liberating and I think alongside that has grown a new liberation with who I am and my identity and the work I do and a boldness in that, in my writing, to and the understanding of the value of the importance of the work I do and things like that that support… narratives about women and LGBTQ people and they are all interconnected and related, they are not separate and I think that’s what I understand now more, how they are so fundamental to feeding each other and it is interesting that that kind of, to kind of articulate this because of being drawn to that book of the seaweed in the museum, that’s quite something, I think. Yeah. I don’t know if I’ve answered your question.
INTERVIEWER 1: Oh, definitely. It’s really beautiful what you are saying about being held by water and I get the sense of being quite alone and free and being alone and yet being connected to something and that kind of ecosystem that you’ve described which can be a natural world but can also be a sense of history that you talk about.
PARTICIPANT 1: And being able to, because I think I really did feel incredibly isolated when I was young and you know, grew up in the eighties and it was a really tricky time. I’m not saying it’s not difficult now. There are new difficulties, particularly for young trans and non-binary people, there is a resurrection of some very problematic narratives in our society that I really feel deeply uncomfortable with because it resonates with growing up at a time that was difficult, where I wasn’t still and I wasn’t perhaps able to just be, whereas I think I can do that now. That’s incredible to say, for me to say that. And that’s very much reflected when I’m in the water. Definitely. Yeah.
INTERVIEWER 1: Thank you. I mean I get a real sense of that feeling and that sensation which is really beautiful. I mean that’s the only word I can really think of, so thinking about I guess connections with other LGBTQ+ people and we’ve been working with a lot of different voices on this project; do you think your relationship to the seaweed collection is quite unique or do you think other LGBTQ+ people might also feel that same sense of being drawn to that object?
PARTICIPANT 1: I mean I think the beauty of it as an object and again I go back to that sense of the vibrancy and the colour and particularly the colour of pink that might just, and all its identifications with LGBTQ culture and things like that, might draw somebody’s eye and in particular I think it might, that sense of the companionship between Wyatt and Griffiths might kind of just spark some curiosity in another LGBTQ person if that’s what they’re looking for in that moment and that time. Because I do think there is something, you know, I’ve said this already, that perhaps their relationship, because we don’t know, there’s a resistance to categorisation, but that in itself presents a kind of queerness all of its own, that their relationship could be identified as a queer relationship because it is unusual and yet also was common I suppose in the Victorian time for women who perhaps needed to, weren’t married, and it was kind of like a system of support, so those things might kind of pique people’s curiosity if they kind of, it’s a reading between the lines, it’s a kind of taking those imaginative leaps that we talk about all the time in terms of thinking about objects in the collection, but yeah. And I think also because of the film Ammonite there are echoes and resonances and I think when you have such a big, cultural kind of moment of a film, because there are so few films and particularly when you have two big stars in it that are like they are in that film, that then it might just make people think well okay, whether that story is true or not that’s told of Mary Anning and her relationship with another woman, just that sense of independence and freedom, those kind of signifiers of what we might look for to think was that person what we would now identify as LGBTQ. Are the clues there? Are there kind of lights flashing up, making some suggestions? Is there another story there? Is there another narrative that we’re not being told? Possibly.
INTERVIEWER 1: Absolutely. [laughs] Definitely after listening to your framing I think it would resonate with a lot of people in a queer way. So thinking about this interview making its way into the installation, how do you feel about in a sense becoming part of the RAMM collections and having your voice represented in the museum?
PARTICIPANT 1: Well I mean I can’t answer this question without sort of stating already a kind of a claim on the project, having been part of its infancy and its thinking and its wider delivery, so it’s actually a bit of an honour to be part of this as well, because I’ve been integral to so many other parts of it and to be alongside all the other incredible human beings that are going to share their stories and their objects with us as well. And it’s a very visible part of the project, it’s part of, it’s a legacy, it’s going to be an actual object, an installation that will be in the museum for a significant amount of time and that’s very new for the museum and for the project, so it’s yeah, so there’s something really joyous about being part of that as well. I hope that talking about seaweed has some collectively and interest or opens up a lens of interest, so yeah, I just think it feels like a kind of a closing point on the work that I’ve been able and enabled to do on this project, so it’s important because of that.
INTERVIEWER 1: Thank you. So thinking about other people listening to your voice as part of the installation; what do you hope people might take away from your story, your framing of this object?
PARTICIPANT 1: I think quite simply that one of the, I think I might have sort of talked about it already is that there’s always more than one story and that we have to move away from those dominant narratives that we keep getting told in terms of who gets to tell history or who gets to choose what goes in a museum or who gets to label it or and what that object could mean, you know? But I also feel really strongly that museums should be spaces for everybody and I think we’re at a point now in time where we have to, we’re attending to how they can be for everybody. So how can it become a safe and democratic space? And my real hope with the installation is that it might just make a young queer, trans or non-binary person feel safe and bold enough to go into that space and say I’ve got something to do with this space, this public space, also can belong to me. So yeah.
INTERVIEWER 1: Thank you. I think that’s a really great way to end this interview unless there’s something you want to add but I think that’s a beautiful conclusion, so thank you so much for being part of this.
PARTICIPANT 1: Thank you.
[00:22:33] End of transcript