Rock the Vote, Mock the Boat

One of the roles of museums and other informal learning venues is to get people excited about their content. Among the many ways that museums try to engage audiences in the age of social media, sites with living collections have used online polls to let folks vote on names for the newborn additions to those living collections.

At the National Zoo, baby animals such as pandas are named by vote, with an invitation to the public to choose among a short list of pre-selected name options. When two bald eagles hatched at the National Arboretum, the United States Department of Agriculture, which maintains the Arboretum, solicited submissions of name ideas from the public. (The USDA would ultimately choose the names.)

The United Kingdom’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), specifically its British Antarctic Survey (BAS), researches Antarctica, a place that isn’t aiming to attract everyday museum visitors and tourists in the same way as, say, the National Zoo in DC. Nevertheless, the agency uses outreach and technology to educate audiences about its scientific work. For example, you can play this online game in which you adjust snowfall and temperatures to reach optimal ice flow for hungry penguins.

Another attempt at reaching virtual audiences occurred in March 2016, when NERC invited individuals to suggest, and vote on, names for a new research ship. Former BBC reporter James Hand suggested, in jest, Boaty McBoatface, and interest in the name soared. Insofar as the naming campaign’s goal was to get people aware and engaged, the name Boaty McBoatface made headlines and propelled the as-yet-unnamed boat into the news, including on this side of the pond.

Writers (in the UK, who would know better than I) have written that Boaty McBoatface is a prime example of irreverent, subversive British humor humour. Dominic Utton wrote, “what this fleeting saga beautifully highlights is the British sense of humour at its very finest. It shows our unique ability to reduce serious situations to silliness; and to use a rebellious sort of facetiousness to prick pomposity and celebrate the surreal.”

Hand, the reporter who first suggested the name, “apologised profusely” for the transgression of submitting a name not worthy of the majestic ship.

In the end, Boaty McBoatface won in an avalanche, but the winning entry was not chosen by NERC.  The official name of the polar research ship is RRS Sir David Attenborough. As a sort of consolation prize (participation trophy?), NERC announced that one of the ship’s remotely operated submarines would be Boaty McBoatface.

The voting Internet public was not on board with this decision. “Let’s have a public vote.. then disregard the winner because we don’t like it.. because that’s fair,” tweeted one disappointed Boaty-supporter.  Though the fine print on NERC’s website had said that ultimately NERC would choose the moniker, voters had been under the impression that they would be naming the boat by majority rule.

A few months later, in June 2016, the United Kingdom again held a vote. The referendum on whether to leave the European Union – Brexit – has been compared to the Boaty fiasco.

Called a farce by some, the Leave votes carried the day – and led to a spike in Google searches within the UK the day after the election on what the EU is and what happens if the UK leaves. Two new portmanteaus, Bregret and Regrexit, emerged to describe the regret that Leave voters felt when they actually won. As one voter stated, “I’m shocked that we voted for Leave, I didn’t think that was going to happen. I didn’t think my vote was going to matter too much because I thought we were just going to remain.”

Amid all the desire to backtrack the Leave votes, a petition for a second referendum gained more than 4 million signatures, and Member of Parliament Paul Flynn wrote that Brexit should be given as much respect as Boaty: “Referendums should no longer trap governments….Wales is already regretting its decision to vote Leave.”

All the regret in the world did not change the fact that, unlike the #NameOurShip campaign, the Brexit vote was one in which the majority ruled. (While it was not technically legally binding, when Parliament debated the petition for a second referendum, their response read in part, “The Prime Minister and Government have been clear that this was a once in a generation vote and, as the Prime Minister has said, the decision must be respected.”) No doubt, the Remain voters must have found it surreal to have lost to people who were now coming forward to say they never meant to win, that it was just a “protest vote.”

Brexit, fueled in part by themes of nationalism and anti-immigration sentiment, was posited as a warning to the United States, with our own major election coming up four and a half months later. Donald Trump secured enough delegates for the Republican presidential nomination in May 2016 (on my birthday, no less), and officially accepted the nomination at the Republican National Convention in July.

Trump had been considered a joke or a farce for years. During Barack Obama’s presidency, I was mostly aware of Trump as a fringe figure, a reality TV host who insisted on dragging out his bizarre birther accusations for years. He briefly entered the crowded contest for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, eliciting such reactions as these words from Karl Rove in a Fox News interview:

“[H]is full embrace of the birther issue means that he’s off there in the nutty right and is now an inconsequential candidate….The American people aren’t going to be hiring him, and certainly, the Republicans are not going to be hiring him in the Republican primary.”

Rove’s prediction proved only to be correct for the 2012 primary. By 2015, Trump was again officially vying for the nomination. Again, he was not taken seriously, within or outside his party. Immediately after joining the race, a Salon article, criticizing both Trump and the Republican Party as a whole, predicted, “He won’t win the nomination, but that’s not his goal, nor is it the goal of most of the field.”

In August 2015, two months after announcing his campaign, a column in U.S. News and World Report described him as a “bad joke” and continued to say:

“the American people will get the joke: Donald Trump is not emotionally or substantively fit to be president of the United States….He may be appealing as a protest figure….But, ultimately, we are electing a president…”

Even as Trump blindsided everyone by taking the Republican nomination, despite an ever-growing list of major members of his own party disavowing him, he continued not to be seriously considered a possibility. The Democratic Party’s candidate, Hillary Clinton, was expected to win in a landslide.

To the shock of the watching world, Clinton did not win by a landslide, but amassed around 3 million more votes than Trump (winning the popular vote, but not by what I would call a landslide, though CNN called it a swamp). Meanwhile, Trump won the electoral vote and thus the presidency. Like the name Boaty McBoatface, Clinton did not prevail despite being chosen by the highest number of people. Clinton was expected to win with a mandate; instead, Trump won with a technicality.

Writers on the Brexit debacle had warned of the risks of voting to make a protest or statement. Voters who did support Trump offered reasons such as:

  • “I can deal with a somewhat low four years, but I couldn’t deal with a supreme court that swings liberal and I couldn’t deal with losing gun rights. I hope the years fly by and that he will do as little damage as possible. I am deeply saddened by these options and I am not proud of our president in the least.”
  • “I hope for a sincere shake-up and a breath of fresh air. Trump is a slimy scumbag, who wears it like a badge of honour….Countries may be laughing at us but it took some balls to elect Trump last night. I don’t think a single person who casted a vote for him felt good about it.”
  • “Trump is a self-made man. Regardless of getting a hefty loan from his father, he used that money to make a name and legacy for himself.” (Note: An analysis by Fortune concluded that Trump would have an additional $10 billion if he’d simply invested what he started with in index funds.)

For what it’s worth, polls show that most Trump voters do not regret their votes. Nevertheless, enough Trump voters publicly voiced regret – beginning many weeks before he took office – to spur the creation of the Trumpgrets Twitter and Tumblr.

In the days between November 9, 2016 and January 20, 2017, there were efforts to undo the outcome of the election in the form of the Hamilton Electors and their supporters among the citizenry. The argument was that the very reason for having an electoral rather than a popular vote was to give the electors a last-ditch opportunity to save the country from disastrous results. (I did not subscribe to this argument, and held no belief that it would lead anywhere, but I did find this early form of resistance fascinating.)

The argument of the Hamilton Electors was, in a way, similar to the reasoning behind NERC not choosing Boaty McBoatface for its stately research vessel: the people had spoken, but their decision simply would not do for such a serious situation.

Now it’s May, more than six months since the election, and the resistance continues. So do the Trumpgrets (I didn’t think my husband would be deported, I didn’t think my access to healthcare under the Affordable Care Act would be taken away, I didn’t think leopards would eat my face, as the meme goes).

The UK is preparing to begin Brexit negotiations on June 19, just about one year after voting for this outcome.

And Boaty McBoatface, the little yellow submarine, has begun exploring oceanic depths near the South Pole – and in another twist, there are actually three little yellow submarines named Boaty McBoatface.  RSS Sir David Attenborough is still being built.

After the British boats were named in 2016, Parliament and NERC found themselves in discussions on whether #NameOurShip was a success, and how to keep the interest going in polar research. Atlantic writer Uri Friedman quipped, “What’s the point of getting people involved if their involvement stops at voting in an online poll? It’s a bit like asking someone on a date without gaming out what you’ll do if you get a ‘yes.’” While it sounds like the results of these initial discussions were a bit nebulous, today the National Oceanography Centre is harnessing the cartoonish-ness of Boaty and using inflatable models to teach young audiences about Antarctic research expeditions.

It is a challenge for those promoting civic engagement: how do we get people to vote? (Note that only 60% of eligible voters voted in the 2016 American presidential election.) How do we get everyday people interested in science, climate change, the environment, museums and parks? Would a boat or a Boaty by any other name enjoy as much fame?

The big red boat (once constructed) and the little yellow submarine(s) will live exciting nautical lives exploring the farthest reaches of the world, after an online vote that probably could have been handled better by the officials running it. But votes on who should lead a nation or whether a nation should be part of a larger union have much more serious consequences, which will continue to unfold over the next months and years.

About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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