Stories for equality
In the UK almost 50 years ago – on 27 July 1967 – the Sexual Offences Act received royal assent. This important legislation partially decriminalised homosexuality in England and Wales and represents an important milestone in the campaign for equality. This anniversary is being marked by many museums, galleries, libraries and archives in the UK (I’ve highlighted a few of these initiatives below if you’d like to find out more).
In Desire, love, identity: exploring LGBTQ histories we’ve taken a uniquely long and broad view by offering glimpses into global LGBTQ histories from very ancient times to the present day. Same-sex love and desire and gender diversity are integral to human experience; the way that they have been expressed culturally has varied widely across the world and over time.
The display builds on former British Museum Curator Richard Parkinson’s award-winning book A Little Gay History and is co-curated by Laura Phillips, Head of Community Partnerships, and me. However, developing the exhibition has been a collaborative process involving countless colleagues from across the organisation. The Museum’s longstanding relationships with LGBTQ organisations have also been key, with many individuals sharing their expertise and experiences to help shape the final displays.
A small sculpture found at Ain Sakhri, near Bethlehem, is the oldest object in the display and the first object that visitors encounter. Dating from around 9000 BC, it represents the earliest known depiction of a couple having sex. The lovers are usually interpreted as a heterosexual couple. However on close inspection, the sculpture poses the question, should we make that assumption so easily? The genders of both figures are ambiguous, and the sculpture itself overall has a phallic character. The sculpture reminds us that we should not impose heterosexuality – or our own attitudes – unquestioningly onto the past.
The Museum’s collection does not represent all perspectives and experiences equally. This partly reflects biases within cultures and societies, what has survived and what has been collected. However, it also reflects the way objects were catalogued by previous generations. Inevitably many of the objects in the Museum’s collection, particularly those from the more distant past, lack direct connections with specific people; most evoke the lives of people whose names are lost to us, but who collectively represent what the novelist E M Forster memorably described as a ‘great unrecorded history.’ There are some notable exceptions.
The relationship between the Roman emperor Hadrian (AD 76–138) and Antinous is now comparatively well known, partly thanks to the Museum’s 2008 exhibition Hadrian: Empire and Conflict. Although sexual relationships between men were not unusual in the Roman world, Hadrian’s outpouring of grief after Antinous drowned in the Nile in AD 130 was unprecedented.
The coin of the beardless Antinous reproduced here and displayed in the exhibition was issued after his death by a provincial city keen, perhaps, to curry favour with the grieving emperor.
The exhibition includes a small section of work that reflects modern global and contemporary perspectives. These all represent recent acquisitions. Some of these works were produced by artists at a time when homosexuality was still illegal; others after decriminilisation. Drag Queen Deck by the Japanese artist and activist Ōtsuka Takashi (b. 1948) is one of the most vibrant and colourful works included in the display. Each of the playing cards depicts a different individual creating a sense of community. The pack recalls, in a playful, humorous way, the theatrical traditions of classical Japanese culture.
The Museum’s impressive collection of LGBTQ campaign badges from the UK from the 1970s onwards provide a rich record of more recent social history. We felt it was essential to include some current campaign badges including those produced for Amnesty International and the United Nations’ Free & Equal Campaign. These help highlight the ongoing efforts to counter prejudice and discrimination, and to save lives, in the UK and around the world.
We hope that the exhibition provides a gateway into exploring LGBTQ histories in the permanent displays and the wider collection. A trail highlighting 14 key objects in the permanent galleries is an integral part of the display, creating an exhibition that is actually dispersed throughout the Museum building rather than being contained in one location. The trail includes star objects like the Warren Cup, as well as lesser known objects such as chocolate cups and saucers belonging to the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’. We’ve developed a graphic approach for these objects that give us enough space to be able to tell these objects’ stories meaningfully. Can’t make it to the Museum? You can explore a digital version of the trail here.
The objects highlighted in the exhibition and trail have been included because the subject, maker or owner has an LGBTQ connection or has been adopted by the LGBTQ community. There are numerous other objects that we could have included and many other selections and juxtapositions are possible. Our main aim with the trail objects was to make a selection that most people would be able to visit during a single one-off visit, one that wasn’t too challenging in terms of navigating across the Museum site, and one that was as representative as it is possible to be with only 14 objects.
Can’t visit the Museum? Explore the trail online virtually by watching the video below.
Our research is ongoing. We’re continuing to look for – and to identify – other objects in the collection with previously unrecorded LGBTQ histories. You can help us with this endeavour by sharing with us your own selection of objects from the Museum’s collection that you feel have an LGBTQ connection on social media using #LGBTQ_BM
Desire love identity: exploring LGBTQ histories is on display in Room 69a, 11 May – 15 October 2017.
Supported by Stephen and Julie Fitzgerald.
You can buy Richard Parkinson’s award-winning book A little Gay History here.
Pride and Prejudice, National Museums Liverpool
Queer British Art, Tate Britain
Pride of Place, Historic England
Prejudice and Pride, National Trust
Never Going Underground, People’s History Museum Manchester