Is the Scottish Maritime Museum right to introduce gender neutral terms for ships?

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 01.05.2019
Museum to drop female pronouns after signs are vandalised
The Scottish Maritime Museum in Irvine, Ayrshire, has been in the news in recent days because of its decision to introduce gender neutral terminology for ships and boats.

The museum was prompted to make the change after a visitor scratched out the words “she” and “her” on an information plaque – the second time this year the museum’s signage has been targeted. The museum says it will now gradually phase in the introduction of “it” and “its” on its signage in place of female pronouns.

In a statement, the museum’s director, David Mann, said: “For the second time this year, the museum has been targeted by a vandal, who has destroyed one of the interpretation signs which follow the universally adopted and centuries-old maritime tradition of referring to vessels as female.

“Like other maritime museums and institutions, we recognise the changes in society and are committed to introducing gender neutral interpretation.

“As a small charity, however, we are doing this in a phased way so that we are not taking our limited funds away from important preservation activity, introducing gender neutral signs when new interpretation is required.”

The decision has been criticised by the museum’s followers on social media, with one commentator accusing it of trying to “erase history”. Another said the person who defaced the sign “displayed a lack of maritime knowledge, a disrespect for tradition and a tendency to vandalism”.

The move has also caused controversy in the maritime sector. In a phonecall to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Alan West, an admiral and former sea-lord of the Royal Navy, said the museum’s decision was “stark-staring bonkers” and “an insult to generations of sailors”.

Opinion is divided among some feminists on the issue. Ella Tennant from Keele University’s Language Centre told the Guardian that the tradition of labelling inanimate objects as feminine could be interpreted as “slightly derogatory and patronising”. The same article quoted Lissy Lovett, the editor of feminist magazine The F Word, as saying she “just can’t see this as a big issue” given the other challenges women face.


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09.05.2019, 15:18
As a service which has a museum bang in the middle of a thriving fishing port which also has a very rich whaling and fishing heritage, I think if we attempted to do something like this we would be keelhauled by the community. Fishing vessels here and other boats/ships are very much 'she', as is the centuries-old tradition. To deny the word is to deny the history and the reasons for the gender choice. Perhaps if the Maritime Museum stopped being so scared of one person's vandalism, they could investigate the reasons for the choice of gender for vessels and even do an exhibition regarding the tradition, and then let audiences make up their minds. Then they could take it from there.