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In this post, we chat to Dr Sophia Nicolov about the Charismatic Encounters project and why collaborating with projects like Hull Maritime is so important.

As part of our new pop-up display programme, Hull Maritime have partnered with the Charismatic Encounters project in a new exhibition exploring the legacies of whaling for Hull’s heritage, arts, and culture.

On display in Princes Quay Shopping Centre, 12-26 April, the first in our pop-up series, A-Fishing-For-The-Whale, features three textile works by artist Caroline Hack, as well as an artist talk and film screening on 19 April.

First things first, can you tell us – in a nutshell – what the Charismatic Encounters project is all about?

Charismatic Encounters is a multidisciplinary research project at the University of Leeds in collaboration with the University of Paris Nanterre, and partnered with the UK-based NGO the World Cetacean Alliance. It focuses on the role of cetaceans, the collective name for whales, dolphins and porpoises, in the coastal and maritime heritage of two regions: the Yorkshire coast in England and the transnational Basque Country.

The project is led by Professor Graham Huggan in the School of English, University of Leeds, which is also where I’m based and working as the postdoctoral researcher focused on the Yorkshire context.

The English side of the project highlights the changing and enduring role whales and other cetaceans have had in Yorkshire’s local history, heritage and culture for more than 400 years. I’ve been focused on the histories and heritage of whaling, museum displays, conservation efforts, and whale watching.

From the advent of Yorkshire’s whaling industry, which began in Hull at the beginning of the seventeenth century, through to today’s opportunities to see whales off this diverse stretch of coastline, the project highlights the different ways that cetaceans have shaped culture, society, economy and even politics across the centuries.

What are the interconnections between these different forms of encounter? How should we engage with this history and heritage in the context of contemporary understandings of and interactions with cetaceans?

A key part of the Charismatic Encounters project has been to work with regional organisations which steward engagement with the history, heritage and the living animals today, including Hull Maritime.

You mentioned a focus on the role of whales and other cetaceans - how important are they to understanding how we think about our heritage here in Hull and on the Yorkshire Coast?

While Yorkshire’s historic whaling represents a very different set of relationships to today’s focus on conservation and wildlife watching, what’s clear is that cetaceans have been an important part of the coastal and maritime lives of people in this region at different points across centuries.

Since the mid-twentieth century in Britain, we’ve rightly condemned whaling for the suffering inflicted on the animals and the ecological harm it caused. However, these values are not the same as those that existed during Yorkshire’s whaling era.

The industry, which targeted bowhead whales in the Arctic, really flourished from the 1750s, generating employment and wealth in Hull and Whitby. Alongside fishing, ship building and other maritime trades, whaling represented an opportunity to make money in societies that were already equipped with skills that could be turned to hunting whales off Greenland. The industry, and the whales themselves, helped shaped both the physical and cultural landscape.

Whales and whaling inspired and, in many cases, even provided the animal remains for (bones, baleen) visual and material culture which manifested in paintings, cartography, craftwork, tools and equipment, everyday household items and much more. Although whaling from Yorkshire ended in the mid-nineteenth century, it’s still a part of both Hull and Whitby’s local heritage and cultural identity.

This important period in Hull’s maritime history has been preserved and displayed by at various sites during the last two centuries: the nineteenth-century Hull Literary and Philosophical Society’s Museum in the Assembly Rooms on Kingston Square (Herman Melville’s ‘Leviathanic Museum’ in Moby-Dick), the Municipal Museum on Albion Street, the Museum of Fisheries and Shipping in Pickering Park, and Hull Maritime Museum today. These sites and the people within them have been vital to keeping that connection and heritage alive!

And layered on top of this enduring whaling heritage now is the ever-growing significance and changing presence of living cetaceans out here on the coast. Since the early 2000s, there have been whale watching initiatives and lots of land-based opportunities and efforts to see cetacean species which include minke whales, bottlenose dolphins, white-beaked dolphins and harbour porpoises. The public can learn about whaling through Hull Maritime and other sites and then go out on wildlife watching trips and see living cetaceans just off the coast here. Holding these together can enrich understandings and experiences.

Scrimshaw on whale bone depicting whaling of bowheads © Hull Maritime

We love the way that your project brings together our maritime past, present and future in really interesting and important ways. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

I think that these different temporal layers intersect in dynamic ways and this heritage is simultaneously as much about the past as it is about the present and future. What makes it extra captivating is that it consists of simultaneously cultural and environmental heritage, tangible and intangible heritage, and, significantly, living heritage.

While bringing forth and re-engaging with the history, it’s also something that’s very much in motion today and further about securing these different forms of heritage into the future in positive and sustainable ways that benefit both humans and animals on this coast.

My research highlights the fluctuating presence of cetaceans both physically and metaphysically and also the adaptations of coastal and maritime communities in response to changing dynamics and conditions. In the past, this was a pivot to whaling which drew on existing maritime skills and infrastructure, while today local fishers are offering whale and other wildlife watching trips as pressures of a changing fishing industry are felt.

In Yorkshire, there’s a rich intermingling between whaling objects (including those actually made from whales) in museums, heritage sites like the whale jawbone arch in Whitby, whaling songs that are still performed today, and folk memory generated through tales retold generationally.

These sit alongside and intersect with the encounters a whole range of people have with living whales and other cetaceans off Yorkshire today.

I think that more can be made of this, highlighting the evolution of that relationship and the value placed on them in life as opposed to in death. While for some there are economic opportunities of sustainable tourism, for others, the presence of these animals offers joy, inspiration, pride and awe. It’s a truly remarkable experience seeing a minke whale just off Whitby or a pod of bottlenose dolphins in Scarborough’s North Bay.

Minke whale off the Yorkshire coast © Richard Baines / Yorkshire Coast Nature

Our artist talk/filming screening event on 19 April and the pop-up exhibition in Princes Quay are a collaboration between Charismatic Encounters, Hull Maritime, and Caroline Hack. How important are collaborative partnerships to your work?

As I briefly mentioned, we’ve really tried to engage with the brilliant organisations and individuals in the region and beyond who are actively involved in this heritage, be it curation, conservation or running wildlife trips. I think that some of the most exciting work comes from these types of dynamic collaborations because they draw together different skills, expertise, knowledge and resources.

It opens more avenues to explore, exposes you to different ideas and approaches, and it helps you to tap into new audiences. These partnerships can result in rich insights and different forms of outputs on both sides.

Collaboration also means that academic projects can respond to the interests and needs of the broader community. For me personally, it’s important that my academic research is accessible and ultimately tries to make a social, cultural and environmental impact by reaching diverse groups and engaging with the public. It’s hard to achieve that without collaboration, be it academic or non-academic, at individual or institutional level.

The museum and heritage sector is particularly important to connect with because of its unique role straddling the intersections of public engagement and specialist knowledge and research.

Sound fantastic, working in partnership has been really important to us too – allowing us to think about the legacies and heritage of whaling in different and creative ways. What other events and partnerships are happening during Whale Week 2023?

Alongside our installation and event in Hull, there are two other events – one taking place in person in Whitby and the other virtually. On Tuesday 18 April, we’re hosting an event with Yorkshire Coast Nature (YCN) called Fins and Feathers: Seabirds & Whales on the Yorkshire Coast at RNLI Lifeboat Station Whitby.

YCN Director and ecologist Richard Baines and local skipper Sean Baxter will be sharing stories of whale watching in Staithes, North Yorkshire, and other unique insights into Yorkshire's coastal heritage. YCN is a small, independent eco-tourism company, and Richard and Sean joined forces in 2014 to start running guided seabird and whale watching trips from the fishing village of Staithes where minke whales and other cetaceans can be seen.

Richard will be speaking about the amazing marine species on the coast through stories, ecology and his incredible photography. Sean will share his reflections on a fascinating lifetime in fishing at Staithes and overseas, and how it led to whale watching and life today. Whitby RNLI is one of the oldest lifeboat stations in the country, active for more than 200 years, and hosting the event as this historic maritime location at the heart of the old whaling port ties some of the themes I’ve been exploring together nicely. Register here.

The other event is happening online and brings together some of the Charismatic Encounters project researchers on both sides of the channel to reflect on fieldwork activities during the research. Chaired by the World Cetacean Alliance CEO Harry Eckman, the event is called Whaling to Watching: Charismatic Encounters on Yorkshire & Basque coasts.

I’ll be speaking about oral histories I’ve been collecting on the Yorkshire coast, and how these can shed light on the role of whales, dolphins and porpoises in Yorkshire's marine environment and heritage. Dr Fabien Clouette & Dr Jérémie Brugidou (LESC University Paris Nanterre/Les plans du Pélican) will reflect on the research and creation process for their feature-length documentary Le feu de la baleine (Whale Fire) which meditates on the whale in the heritage of the Basque coast. They conducted ethnographic film fieldwork to ask what relationship exists between the first European whalers and these charismatic animals today. Register here.

Thanks so much for taking the time to chat to us. Finally, what’s one thing you’d really like people to take away from this installation?

Underneath all these complex and rich layers of history, heritage, interpretations and representations is the hugely profound impact of whales on humans historically and continuing today.

Whales and whaling have been shaping art, music, heritage, history, folk memory, emotions and imaginations for centuries in Yorkshire. The whaling era is a powerful part of the maritime and folk tradition here in Hull. Hull Maritime’s whaling collection is crucial to contemporary engagement with both the history and the impact on the natural world.

Caroline Hack’s work is a great example of how the collections continues to reinvigorate contemporary artistic practice; Caroline explicitly draws on images from and has been influenced by the Museum’s iconic whaling galleries and collection. Artworks and museum artefacts form a core part in transmitting and engaging people with this history and heritage.

I think that our screening of the 1966 BBC documentary Travelling for a Living about the Hull folk music icons The Watersons captures that interplay between past, present and future I mentioned earlier.

The documentary includes a performance of the old Arctic whaling song, ‘The Greenland Fishery’ in front of whaling artefacts in the previous Maritime Museum. It highlights the connection felt by those in Hull to the industry that helped shape their city and culture. The visual inheritance and folk memory of the whaling trade in Hull influenced The Watersons’ creative practice more than a century after its end; in the twenty-first century,

Caroline’s work returns, once again, to those old songs for inspiration. Our own event approaches whaling through multiple creative interpretations: Caroline’s creative practice and The Watersons’ 1960s interpretation. For me, that captures those different temporal layers so perfectly and Hull’s whaling will continue to provoke and be a catalyst for creativity for generations to come.

Still from Travelling for a Living (with thanks to the BFI)