George Oates from Flickr looks at the Museum’s historic photographs
George Oates, from the photo-sharing website Flickr, has come to the Museum to search through the stores. Lucinda Donnachie finds out about the historic photographs that George has found.
Lucinda: Hi, I’m Lucinda Donnachie. This September, the National Maritime Museum published a selection of its historic photographs to Flickr Commons. Now for those who are not familiar with Flickr, it’s a popular photo-sharing website, with over 3 billion photographs. Flickr Commons is a special area on Flickr where museums invite the public to help describe their historic photographs. So looking forward to our next foray onto The Commons, we invited George Oates, the leader of the Flickr Commons project, to join us at the Museum for a week to rummage through the stores.
Hi George, so what’s it been like going behind the scenes in a Museum store?
Oh, it’s been wonderful actually. It’s helped me realise just how useful archivists and librarians actually are. If you give them a very vague description of something, they will often be able to just retrieve stuff that matches it.
It has also been fun just fossicking at random, just being in the space where all the stuff is. I found a hilarious series of shots from passenger ships in the ’60s that had food and Christmas and buffets and all these great costume parties and stuff like that, just really weird, esoteric stuff.
So what have you been up to here at the Museum and what have you enjoyed the most?
Well, I was invited here to have a look around in the archives to see what a normal human would find in them, without particularly having any preconceptions or particular knowledge about the collection. That, for me, was a huge opportunity just to explore.
So for a couple of days I spent time in the Historic Photographs and Ship Plans Archive down in Woolwich with the archivists there. I basically said to Jerry, who leads the charge, ‘I’m looking for pictures of people – life on board, so to speak.’ He was able to retrieve, I think, about 10 boxes from the archives, each with about 100 pictures in them.
So I just spent a couple of days just trawling through those and really just picking pictures for their aesthetic appeal to me personally, not particularly because they had any merit. I ended up finding about 100 pictures that I just like. We will pop them up on the Commons on Flickr.
So what images have you discovered and are there any favourites among them?
Yes, there are definitely favorites. There are a couple of different photographers, Alan Villiers, who is actually an Australian born in Melbourne and a woman called Ann Stanley, who I think is British but I’m not sure. They were both photographing at about the same time in the late ’30s, early ’40s.
Basically, they would just jump on a voyage and take lots of pictures of it – photos of the architecture of the ship, if that’s the right word, various photos of sails etc. But also, particularly Villiers had some lovely stuff around the ‘foreign lands’ of the time.
In his exploration they would often jump on land and explore the places like Kuwait and that area of the world. So I have a few different favourites in there. It has just been really lovely to see first hand, I guess, or second hand how hard the work of sailors is. That was something I had not really appreciated before, just how lonely and physical and hard it is to be a sailor, especially on those long voyages. So that was really interesting to see.
There is a collection of photos on a ship called the Aurora, which was taken somewhere around 1918, I think, 1917. So there is this naval, military ship with sailors who did, I think, a variety of testing of various things, but the story isn’t quite clear.
That is one thing I realise actually. I would have loved to have had more time just to explore the stories in more depth. So those are the three main collections of stuff. The Villiers and the Stanley are similar in style. Then the stuff that was about 30 years before had a fairly tight focus on naval life.
Are there any surprises in the pictures that you have selected?
I hope so. To me there are lots. On the Aurora in 1918 or whenever it was, how much people napped. There were several photos of sailors just napping casually in these big old leather chairs. They even had, I think it was, a magpie as a pet in a cage. The magpie was called Napper. I was surprised at how much they snoozed.
So why should we add historic photographs to Flickr?
Well, Flickr for the last five years has been about personal photography. I think it was only last week where we had our three billionth photo uploaded to Flickr. So there is a huge foundation of a deep appreciation of photography, but also just a huge archive and a big audience.
I think a lot of museums and libraries have done great work to get their collections online. But it’s all in a very isolated place. You have to come to the Maritime Museum website and then do a search to find some pictures. Whereas on Flickr, I think, firstly that’s where a lot of people already are so it’s like you just put your photos in the flow of people. Also, it’s a specialised system that’s built to search and browse photographs.
In the last nine or 10 months that the Common has been alive we have seen there are also people who are members of Flickr who are deeply interested and generous in their information that they can share about the photos.
So what kind of historic images work well on Flickr?
I think, broadly speaking, photos of people and their lives are possibly more approachable than the more documentary style stuff. Photos of people, you can relate to more easily than photos of an object or a place that you don’t know anything about. You can always create stories in your mind about a human face but you might not be able to do that about other things.
Historic events, I think, are also interesting to lots of people. We just did a release for Armistice Day on November 11th, where we asked all the participating members as well as two new institutions to share photos about World War I. Remembrance Day, at least in the Western world, is a pretty global day that lots of people observe. I think that was an example of putting stuff up that had a pretty broad general interest.
Lucinda: If you would like to further explore the images that George has chosen then you can view them at www.Flickr.com/commons.