The Oceans Apart exhibition at MMU Special Collections Library was curated by Dr John Gibbons from his personal collection of items and manuscripts relating to transatlantic crossings between 1870 and 1940. John kindly met with me last week to talk me through his exhibition and how his collection came about.

Gibbons’ collection originated from documents from his grandfather’s family business as an emigration agent, within Westport, County Mayo in Ireland. His grandfather, also named John Gibbons, helped local people emigrate to the USA and Canada, undertaking paperwork, making applications and booking crossings. They would make the journey from Westport, for example to Liverpool, then Liverpool via ocean liner to New York.

Much of the exhibition is formed from his inherited collection of ledgers, letters, books from the family business and promotional material for the White Star Line shipping company. Numerous emigration agents across Ireland had important social roles to play as they wrote letters supporting applications for emigration, explaining personal and family circumstances. The majority of Irish emigrants were women. In the case of those going to Canada, there were restrictions on women travelling alone and they needed to be sponsored by a family member.

In response to this mass exodus of young, abled persons leaving Ireland for a more prosperous life, there was some anti-emigration sentiment. Often discussed in newspapers, anti-emigration societies campaigned against constant departures to the Americas in fear of a reduced population and anxieties about the future of Ireland’s prosperity.

Gibbons has continued to accumulate items relating to transatlantic crossings via ocean liners, and his collection purchased mainly via auction over the years is extensive and fascinating. The exhibition Oceans Apart displays a wide range of shipping posters and promotional material from dominant shipping companies such as Cunard and White Star Line.

Until 1924 when emigration laws were tightened considerably in the United States, the dominant customers of transatlantic crossings were the emigrant, apart from First Class travel. After this threshold, the shipping companies needed to rebrand transatlantic routes, and higher-end clientele were marketed to heavily in the 1930s for travel and tourism.

During the 1930s, there was a new brand of ocean liner with modern design which represented national cultural innovation. Liners such as the Queen Mary, 1934, and the French Lines liner, Normandie, 1935, led the way with modern design and interiors. During and after this period, shipping companies also appealed to former European emigrants to North America with transatlantic journeys to ‘Return to The Old Country’ as a tourist.

After World War II, transatlantic travel became more accessible by air and emigration lessened. In the present day, transatlantic crossings are offered to the high-end markets by Cunard, and Cruise lines are very popular across many parts of the globe.

Oceans ApartOceans Apart highlights the routes taken by masses of emigrants across the Atlantic Ocean, as well as suggesting how their lives developed in North America, and the poor living circumstances which catapulted them to move abroad.

John gave me a copy of his speech at the Private View on the 3rd May, which I sadly missed.  Within the speech, he contextualises this period of transatlantic crossings from Europe to America, to later emigrations such as the ‘Windrush’ generation and the subsequent poor treatment of these individuals who came from Commonwealth countries to fill post-war labour shortages. He also references a recent report from the United Nations on International Migration (2017) which identified that 283 million live in a country other than where they were born.  In a quote by John Berger, he alludes to our assumption that the migrant is sometimes ‘the other’, ‘to consider his life- its material circumstances and inner feelings – is to be brought face to face with the fundamental nature of our present societies and their histories. The migrant is not on the margin of modern experience- (but).. absolutely central to it’..


John Berger and Jean Mohr (2010) A Seventh Man: A Book of Images and words about the experiences of Migrant workers. 2nd Edition. London: Verso, p9.[i]


I was very lucky this year to receive an A-n bursary to extend my current research into mid war coastal architecture and begin my project, ‘The Maiden Voyage’. My work since 2013 has mainly responded to 1930s seafront architecture. This research began with a project looking at examples in North England and Scotland. The location choice was for various reasons – because it is where I live and where I am from so more accessible, and sites in this area, such as The Midland and Rothesay Pavilion are less documented than those ‘down south’. I was fortunate to then be able to extend this research to Miami Beach last year to research the most highly concentrated area of mid-war seafront architecture internationally in the preserved ‘art deco’ area on South Beach.

This A-n artist bursary will enable me to return to Miami Beach to explore more examples of seafront architecture in depth and re-visit more collections in the Wolfsonian archive. The Wolfsonian is a museum, library and archive situated on Miami Beach and holds a large collection of art and design objects from 1850-1950.

The bursary will also enable me to visit New York for the first time in 18 years! On the visit, I will view the first examples of modernist architecture, or as we now call this particular period, ‘art deco’ architecture in New York. After these impressive and expensive buildings, such as the Chrysler and New Yorker were first built in the late 1920s, the style further trickled down in a cheaper style to Miami Beach in the 1930s.

The modernist style of architecture and design was first viewed by US president Calvin Coolidge on an ocean liner journey to Paris Industrial Arts Exposition in 1925. Following this visit, he encouraged construction of this forward-thinking architecture in New York using their advanced engineering skills. Whilst in New York, I will visit as many examples as I can of this mid-war architecture constructed in this style, intended to impress with expensive and gilded materials. I will also be visiting the Museum of New York archive to explore the history of New York as an ocean liner port. I am interested in how the design of the Ocean Liners that carried the new people to the USA correlated to the new architecture constructed there during the mid-war period, mimicking its curved shapes, elongated lines and details such as portholes.

I have been lucky that it is very timely that the Ocean Liners Speed and Style exhibition opened this Spring at the Victoria and Albert Museum and runs until the 17th June. It is a blockbuster exhibition and ran previously at the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, Massachusetts, who partnered on the exhibition. Speed and Style will also be the first exhibition at the Dundee V&A, opening later this year, which is fitting as its design by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma is reminiscent of a ship on land with its curved, tiered walls on its riverside location.

I visited Ocean Liners – Speed and Style a few weeks ago.  Prior to visiting I had read the book accompanying the exhibition cover to cover, which I suppose spoiled the viewing of the exhibit in some aspects as I had seen and read about 70% of the artefacts before. The exhibition follows a similar structure to the book, grouping together aspects of this transatlantic travel into numerous areas such as Advertising the Ocean Liner, Inter-War Liners (a special interest of mine) and Fashion and Spectacle on Board.

The exhibition shows a wide range of materials, ephemera, interior design objects and films, both historical and fictional (of course Titanic) about the history of Ocean Liners. The breadth of information was at times difficult to take in as the exhibition was so incredibly busy, even on an early mid-week morning. It was difficult to linger with objects as there was always a queue of 3-4 people behind you waiting to view the display after you. Such is the appeal of a V&A blockbuster which I am not quite used to of late living up North!

The artefacts in the exhibition which I particularly enjoyed were the architect and designers illustrations of the ship’s interiors and on deck relaxing, the clothing worn on board such as bathing suits and interior furniture and fittings.

As at the seaside, I am drawn to the idea of people performing roles on the Ocean Liners. The environment was set up in a particular manner, with segregated areas for different classes, although there are some accounts of Ocean Liners that this was the floating island on the sea where classes collided and intermingled. The mid-war artefacts and illustration that I most clearly identified with were from the 1930s when there was a real social emphasis on wellbeing, health and relaxation. The clothing and its style were interesting as it is an area I would like to explore more.


I was delighted to see another Ocean Liner exhibition planned in my city, ‘Oceans Apart’ opened earlier this month at Manchester Metropolitan Special Collections. On this occasion, despite the advertising, I had very little knowledge of the exact content of the exhibition, so the contents of this exhibition was a very welcome and interesting surprise.

Oceans Apart is curated by Dr John Gibbons, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of History, Politics and Philosophy. The exhibition is mainly comprised of his personal collection of ephemera relating to mainly ocean liners, and also cruise liners.

Gibbons’ collection is immense, and it is very tightly packed in the special collections display areas, at first glance it could occupy a much larger gallery.

Similar to the current V&A Speed& Style exhibition, the displays are sectioned into different aspects of transatlantic travel by ocean liner- such as ‘Advantages of Emigrating’ and ‘Emigrant Lives’. Whereas Speed & Style focused more on the design of higher-end travel, this exhibition also shares the details of the process of applying to emigrate, the very poor conditions in steerage and third class. Artefacts also touch upon the kind of lives emigrants may lead in the North Americas, and how they may return as tourists to Europe. There are some incredible items such as a passengers suitcase and cash register.

The collection highlights the multi-tiered process of applying for emigration and the business that surrounded it with numerous agents on either side of the transatlantic ocean. Documentation showed how women could not emigrate to the USA without a male sponsor.

Although the exhibition was deep in material to reflect on, the most intriguing ephemera was the information design such as the posters and brochures advertising the transatlantic journeys and emigration to a new land. As expected, the design ethos focuses on creating a positive, utopian experience on board, and in a new much more potentially profitable land.