Queer Museums

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Alice Tofts explains how museums are challenging heteronormativity through their exhibitions. Alice is a member of TEDxUCLWomen’s curation team and is working towards a Masters in Museum Studies at UCL. She is passionate about museums, inclusion and identity. Her work often focuses on how museums today can challenge their past narratives and practices that exclude and promote negative ideas concerning race and sexuality.

Desire, love, identity: exploring LGBTQ histories exhibition at the British Museum (authors own)

It’s been hard to ignore the cultural presence of Pride in London this summer. The Gay Pride flag was hung at full mast at iconic buildings such as the Bank of London and the British Museum. The Houses of Parliament was lit up in the rainbow colours for the first time. All of these gestures create an overwhelming sense of support for what has been a long and challenging fight for gay equality. Gay Pride acquired even more significance this year, as it is the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Diversity, expression, love and acceptance filled the streets as people walked through London in the Gay Pride Parade, free to show their world who they were without fear of stigmatisation and prejudice.

Support on the streets has also been reflected in public institutional support with a number of museums and galleries hosting exhibitions, talks and displays about LGBTQ issues. This representation suggests that cultural institutions feel that representing LGBTQ histories is socially acceptable and socially valuable. This is, however, a recent phenomenon.

Museums can still remember a time when fear and even illegality prevented them from tackling such issues. Due to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and increased hostility towards gay men, the government amended Section 28 to include the prohibition of local authorities from intentionally promoting homosexuality. This was eventually appealed in 2003, granting local authorities more freedom to explore lesbian and gay histories. However, fear, ignorance and a supposed lack of LGBTQ related material have often prevented museums from displaying and exploring the subject.

Busts of Hadrian and Antinous, part of the Desire, love, identity trail at the British Museum, author’s own.

Yet museums’ hostility towards representing sex, sexuality and in particular non-heterosexuality by museums spans back centuries. Most national museums and their collections were developed in the 19th Century by white heterosexual men. These men were eager to collect the curiosities of the world and order them according to scientific racism and their views of nationalism, imperialism and citizenship. Traditional displays aimed to inform visitors about normalcy and deviancy. According to 19th Century beliefs surrounding sexuality, any reference to sex and queerness was concealed. Thus a history of heterosexual desire and illicit sexuality has been communicated through museum’s narratives. Until the 1960s the British Museum even had a special designated Secretum or Secret Museum where all objects deemed obscene were placed. Objects from ancient civilisations that celebrated sex and fertility or represented homoerotic desire were all locked away from public eyes.

Mostly, these LGBTQ exhibitions mark the anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Gay UK, Love, Law, Liberty at the British Library uses the Sexual Offences Act 1967 as a reference point from which to explore what has been achieved for gay rights and the challenges for the future. LGBTQ exhibitions also offer an opportunity to challenge heteronormativity by exposing the diversity of attitudes towards and expressions of sexual and gender identities that have existed throughout time.

The British Museum’s current exhibition Desire, love, identity: exploring LGBTQ histories and its accompanying trail throughout the museum displays some of these objects, demonstrating that sex and indeed same-sex relationships have not always been linked to sin and obscenity. Objects such as The Warren Cup displayed on the trail reveal a man and a youth having sex. This Cup, dating back from Ancient Greek society, reveals the existence of homoerotic acts.

Prior to 2017 and the anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality, many museums have been acknowledging that the way they approach sexuality and gender is rooted in deep-seated biases surrounding what is considered normal. The changes made to how museums collect and display objects can challenge these biases.

Practices such as placing two male statues next to each other as done in Desire, love, identity’s trail, counter the tendency for curators to place male and female objects together. By placing two male statues together, visitors are encouraged to question the assumptions about historical heterosexual relationships.

Although previously a pejorative term, the word ‘queer’ has been reclaimed by some LGBT people as an umbrella term for non-heterosexual and cis-gender identities. In the dictionary, it is defined as odd or peculiar. To represent queerness in a museum suggests that it has entered the mainstream, thereby challenging its core definition. Yet queer people remain marginalised. Though some exhibitions have done well to highlight that despite important progress in the fight for LGBTQ equality, significant challenges remain.

Exhibitions such as Gay Uk and Desire, love, identity highlight that the battle is not won for LGBTQ people. For example Desire, love, identity displays a map showing the countries (most of which are in Africa) where same-sex relations remain criminalised. Gay UK discusses the current fractures within the LGBTQ community and how the umbrella term can sometimes disregard intersectional factors that influence lived experience. The exhibitions state that this anniversary is an ‘opportunity to re-interpret the past and, in doing so, see ourselves differently.’ By witnessing the struggles and achievements made by gay rights activists, and challenging the views surrounding the history and current experience of queer people, we can begin to recognise that ideas of heteronormativity are historically deceptive.

Doing justice to the diversity of queer identities and experiences is challenging. However, the quantity of cultural material in both the media and culture should empower and instill confidence in others that this is a subject that should be discussed, challenged and represented. With so many museums actively reflecting on and reevaluating how they approach and represent queerness, they can contribute to promoting LGBTQ equality. These exhibitions are only temporary, but with adequate resources, museums are working towards tagging their collections so that the queer meanings of exhibits can be researched and documented. These are important steps in communicating to the public that our history is saturated with queer desires.

Current LGBTQ related exhibitions:

Queer British Art 1861-1967 at Tate Britain until 1 October 2017; Desire, love, identity exploring LGBTQ histories at the British Museum until 15 October 2017; Gay UK: Love, Law, Liberty at the British Library until 19 September 2017; Coming Out at the Walker Gallery until 5 November 2017; Queer Talk: Homosexuality in Britten’s Britain at The Red House until 28 October 2017.


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