Vancouver Maritime Museum art exhibit conveys horror and hope aboard a bride ship

The Girls Are Coming! recalls the harrowing 1862 journey of 60 young women from England to B.C.

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      “Sixty select bundles of crinoline”: that’s how a ship’s manifest referred to the group of girls shipped from England to Victoria, B.C., in 1862. And if those words make them sound more like fragile cargo than human beings, in many ways that’s how they were seen. They were held below deck for the terrible journey, and even tracked in an invoice. The Tynemouth brought them here to be married off to the miners and other men settling the West Coast. Many were poor or orphans; some were as young as 12.

      Artist Tracy McMenemy has given creative voice to the description in one of her artworks in the new exhibit The Girls Are Coming! A Visual Voyage of Bride Ship Tynemouth opening soon at the Vancouver Maritime Museum. A group of puffy white bundles of tulle lie prettily packaged on an old oak pallet, each tied neatly with a red satin bow.

      “I thought they’d probably be wearing ribbons in their hair,” says McMenemy, standing in the gallery by the piece that hangs upright on the wall. “It reflects the invoices and the girls being cargo.”

      A multimedia installation with reworked archival photographs, paintings rendered from the smoke of old oil lamps, and even a film that scrolls the 60 girls’ names on antique sailcloth, The Girls Are Coming! is not the typical show you get to see at a maritime museum. And that’s exactly the point.

      For this story of forgotten girls, there weren’t traditional artifacts to display. “One of the things we’ve been trying to focus on is the museum as a meeting place for conversations,” says Vancouver Maritime Museum curator Duncan MacLeod. “This is more abstract, which challenges our traditional patronage to think about maritime stories in a different way. Also there’s the ephemeral nature of Tracy’s work. A lot of this history is hard to grasp, and representing it in this way is really powerful.”

      The idea started when MacLeod expressed interest in creating a show about women and the sea. That led McMenemy to the local and B.C. archives and the discovery of this dark and little-known part of B.C. history. Four ships were sent here from Britain, which had an overpopulation of women and the kind of grinding poverty that fuelled Charles Dickens’s novels.

      The Tynemouth’s 99-day journey was gruelling. The young women travelled in the dark, without fresh water or sanitation. A girl died en route, and there were two mutinies, food shortages, several storms, and even a hurricane.

      “It was horrific,” says McMenemy. “Because the brides were locked down in the hold, and this was a steamship, there were thick layers of soot.”

      LifeSaver by Tracy McMenemy, one of the works on view in The Girls Are Coming!.

      Several of McMenemy’s artworks refer to that soot. She’s come up with a way of painting with the smoke of an 1860s oil lamp, calling it fumage, and creating cameo-style portraits of the women on glass. In one piece called Breaking the Seams, the old white sailcloth takes the form of a wedding-dress bodice that’s tarnished with soot.

      Painstakingly creating the pieces took an emotional toll on the empathetic artist. “I had my bad days in the studio, especially because I have a daughter,” says McMenemy. “The first few months were really dark. But then the further I got into it, I started thinking about the hope. Part of them really did want to find a better place.”

      A work called LifeSaver channels that hope—but it’s also one of the show’s most unsettling installations. McMenemy has wrapped a bunch of mannequin heads in worn sailcloth, a symbol of their lack of voice and their inability to see in the dark belly of the ship. But she has placed them under a glass case in a circle—a sign, she says, of the strength they had as a group, with one disembodied hand reaching up from the middle in aspiration.

      The installation that McMenemy is perhaps most proud of is the one with video projections of the girls’ names—Jane, Janet, Mary, Emily, and other monikers familiar from the era. McMenemy had longed to put names to the women, but was unable to find them on any documents. And then, on her last day of research at the B.C. archives, she struck gold. Found on the bottom of a box, the scrolling passenger list, now set to the wedding march over video of a crashing sea, gives, if not faces, at least some memorial to those bundles of crinoline. And now that the multimedia artist has gotten to know the forgotten girls, she’s not eager to leave them.

      “There are 15 pieces here and 25 more at my studio,” she says. “I would love it to tour. I feel like I’ve just started.”

      The Girls Are Coming! A Visual Voyage of Bride Ship Tynemouth is at the Vancouver Maritime Museum from Saturday (March 9) to June 16.