Museum stories
Desire, love, identity: exploring LGBTQ histories

Last year the UK saw an impressive range of programming across the cultural sector to mark the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminilsation of homosexuality in England and Wales. It seems likely that more Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) themed projects took place last year than in any year since the passing of the Sexual Offences Act in July 1967. Although the anniversary year is now behind us, work is ongoing at many organisations, including the British Museum, to ensure that these temporary projects leave a lasting, permanent legacy.

The objects in this blog post featured in our Desire, love, identity: exploring LGBTQ histories special display and trail in 2017. With this, we highlighted some particularly important objects in the Museum’s collection that provide glimpses into what the English novelist E M Forster described as a ‘great unrecorded history.’ Here we take a look at some of the objects from the trail that feature in our new audio commentary tour and the Desire, love, identity: exploring LGBTQ histories touring exhibition, which will be visiting venues around the UK from this August.

Vase depicting Sappho

Greek water-jar (hydria). c. 450 BC.

Evidence of real female sexuality is difficult to find in ancient Greek and Roman objects as they usually reflect male perspectives. In ancient Greece women were generally excluded from public life and politics, but they did take part in domestic and religious rituals. The poet Sappho (630–570 BC), who lived on the isle of Lesbos, gave a voice to women and female desire that has resonated throughout history. She is probably the seated figure on this water jar.  By the 19th century her poetry had made the word for an inhabitant of Lesbos a term for a woman who loves women. Little is known for certain about Sappho’s life but her poetry has been an inspiration to many women living in later eras.

This vase can be seen in Room 69.

A Maya ruler

Cast of Stela H from The Great Plaza, Copan, Honduras. Cast made by Lorenzo Giuntini 1881-1894, copied from an original dating from 730 AD.

This image of a male Maya ruler was once assumed to be female, as he is wearing a netted jade skirt worn by elite Maya women. He is, in fact, dressed as a youthful maize god whose gender can be both male and female. When gender is being read cross-culturally, there can be confusion or misunderstandings. There are many instances of early European explorers, researchers and collectors initially being unable, or perhaps unwilling, to make sense of values that differed from their own.

This plaster cast can be found on the ground floor of the East Stairs (between Room 1 and Room 27).

The Warren Cup

The Warren Cup. Roman, c. 10 AD

Decorated with two scenes of male lovers, this Roman wine cup couldn’t be displayed publicly for most of the 20th century. Homosexuality was illegal in England and Wales until July 1967. However explicit sexual images were not unusual in the Roman world. Relationships between men were part of Greek and Roman culture, from slaves to emperors, most famously the emperor Hadrian and his lover, Antinous. Today such ancient images remind us that the way societies view sexuality can differ widely. The Warren Cup was acquired by the Museum in 1999 and, with the exception of short periods of time when it has been loaned to other institutions, has been on display ever since.

The cup can be found in Room 70.

Native American ‘winter count’ 

North American ‘winter count’.

‘Winter counts’ were kept as historical records by some North American plains tribes. This is one of many surviving versions of a Sioux count showing events for the winters of 1785-6 to 1901-02. The year 1891 includes an image representing the suicide of a winkte, a Dakota word literally meaning ‘wants to be a woman.’ Among some Native American tribes such individuals were considered to be endowed with special spiritual powers because they bridged gender differences. Among the Dakota Sioux there were, at any given time, up to ten recorded individuals belonging to this class of people in the same tribe. The arrival of Anglo-Americans led to repression of cross-dressing by such individuals. Today there has been a revival of this tradition among younger generations of LGBTQ Native Americans.

This object is not currently on display but will be part of the UK touring exhibition Desire, love, identity; exploring LGBTQ histories.

N’domo mask from Mali

N’domo mask. Mali, early 20th century.

In many African cultures gender and gendered roles are fixed through rituals. N’domo masks are used by the Bamana people of Mali. They are worn by men but the masks can be male, female or androgynous. The number of horns is significant – male masks have 3 or 6 horns, female masks have 4 or 8, and androgynous masks have 2, 5 or 7.

Gender and sexual diversity was often suppressed by colonial administrators in Africa and this has sometimes been forgotten, creating the impression that it never existed. Partly as a result of this colonial history and the introduction of Christianity, ‘homosexuality’ was made illegal in many African countries. Anti-apartheid and civil rights movements have often run parallel to those for LGBTQ people around the world. In 2012 Archbishop Tutu commented: ‘I have no doubt in the future, the laws that criminalise so many forms of love and human commitment will look the way apartheid laws do to us now – so obviously wrong.’

This mask is currently displayed in Room 25 and it will be part of the UK touring exhibition Desire, love, identity; exploring LGBTQ histories.

The Ladies of Llangollen

Chocolate cups and saucers. 1779-81 and 1790.

Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby fled Ireland together in 1778. They set up home in North Wales, challenging the conventions of the era and living the life of their choice for 50 years. Eleanor’s diary gives us an insight to their lifestyle. She writes on Thursday 22 September 1785:

Up at Seven. Dark Morning, all the Mountains enveloped in mist. Thick Rain. A fire in the Library, delightfully comfortable, Breakfasted at half past Eight. From nine ‘till one writing. My Beloved drawing Pembroke Castle – from one to three read to her – after dinner Went hastily around the gardens. Rain’d without interruption the entire day – from Four ‘till Ten reading to my Sally – She drawing – from ten ‘till Eleven Sat over the Fire Conversing with My beloved. A Silent, happy Day.

This pair of chocolate cups belonged to Eleanor and Sarah. The ladies acquired a celebrity-like status and the Museum also has several prints depicting them in its collection.

The cups are on display in Room 47. One of the cups will be part of the UK touring exhibition Desire, love, identity; exploring LGBTQ histories.

Statue of Ganymede

Statue of Ganymede. Roman, 100-200 AD.

In Greek myth the god Zeus (Jupiter to the Romans) was overcome by desire for the beautiful youth Ganymede. He took the form of an eagle to abduct Ganymede, who later became the god’s cupbearer. There are many depictions of Ganymede in the Museum’s collection – this particular one is Roman. Ancient Greece exerted a heavy influence over Rome, including an acceptance of sexual relationships between men within certain boundaries. The adoption of Christianity marked a significant change in attitudes. During the medieval period the term Ganymede became a term of abuse. The Renaissance led to a renewed interest in classical mythology, including subjects that offered a legitimate way to depict sexual stories. Statues such as this were popular with wealthy European collectors during the 1700s and 1800s.

You can see this statue in Room 1.

Following the trail and the exhibition in 2017, we wanted to find a find a way to ensure these objects’ stories were still told when the interpretation was removed. In response to feedback from visitors, we have created a Desire, love, identity: exploring LGBTQ histories audio commentary, narrated by Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw, which you can listen to at the museum or from home. There’s also a new downloadable map, which will help you find the objects in the museum. It should take between 75–90 minutes to visit all the objects and listen to the commentary. You can download the commentaries or stream them via iTunes, Google Play Music, and Spotify. Follow the links here or search ‘Desire, love, identity: exploring LGBTQ histories’.

In 2019 we will also be introducing volunteer-led LGBTQ gallery talks that delve into even more detail and look at objects that aren’t in the audio commentaries. If you’re interested in participating and helping shape and/or deliver these tours, and be part of our incredible team of volunteers, please check the volunteer section of the Museum’s website for further details, which will be released soon.

The national touring exhibition, Desire, love, identity: exploring LGBTQ histories, will visit the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (25 September – 2 December 2018), the National Justice Museum, Nottingham (14 December 2018 – 3 March 2019), Bolton Library & Museum Service (14 March – 26 May 2019), and Norwich Millennium Library (8 June – 31 August 2019).

I want to thank all the incredibly generous people who have contributed to these projects. The LGBTQ activity that has taken place to date would not have been possible without Professor Richard Parkinson (Oxford University), Camden LGBT Forum, Gendered Intelligence, LGBT History Month, London Metropolitan Archives, the Network, Schools Out and Untold London. I’d also like to thank Dan Vo and his colleagues at the V&A for generously and enthusiastically sharing their experiences of developing volunteer-led LGBTQ tours with us.

A Little Gay History: desire and diversity across the world by Richard Parkinson is available from the Museum shops.

Image caption: The Warren Cup. Roman, c. 10 AD