Uncovering LGBTQ Artefacts

Sometimes you only have to look at an object to get a feeling that there’s an LGBTQ story just waiting to be uncovered. You gaze at the object longingly, hoping for the story to jump out at you. You examine the label forensically, scouring the limited interpretation text for a little clue to connect the dots, but there’s nothing in the date, maker, medium info that reveals anything more than what you can see in front of you. When this happens to me, I think of it as my ‘gallery gay-dar’ pinging telling me there’s something about a piece that bears closer scrutiny. I’ll admit, the queer spidey-sense is not always 100% accurate, more of a ‘please-be-gay-dar’ at times, but as starting points go, it’s better than nothing.

Let’s take a look at Canova’s Theseus and the Minotaur statue at the V&A. It’s one of those pieces I come back to again and again, enchanted by the way the artist transforms marble into flesh.

Theseus and the Minotaur © Victoria and Albert Museum

Just take a moment and look at it.

There’s definitely something going on.

And so I start my research. One of my first steps in exploring the potential queer history of an object is to look at the life of the maker; were they LGBTQ? Are romantic details forthcoming or shrouded in euphemism and mystery? Biographers of Canova stressed his “modesty, diligence, perseverance and dedication to his art above all else.” Make of that what you will. So let’s look at his circle of friends and contemporaries to see if any insight can be gained there.

Fellow artist Gavin Hamilton suggested that Canova portray Theseus and the Minotaur post fight, battle-spent from their struggle. Hamilton was involved at excavations at Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli and painted subjects like Achilles mourning Patroclus so he was well aware of LGBTQ themes from the ancient world. Hamilton was also well-regarded by Johann Joachim Wincklemann who was known to be gay by his contemporaries and whose queer gaze informed his writing on aesthetics. We can surmise that this piece was informed at least by a queer gaze, and that there is queer DNA in its making.

Why was I looking for LGBTQ objects in the first place? I’m one of the LGBTQ Tour Guides at the V&A, part of the programme that started in 2015 and has continued to be a leading light in sharing LGBTQ histories in our museums. When it comes to researching these histories, we start by asking three key questions:

· Is an object made by someone we might describe as LGBTQ?

· Does it depict someone we might describe as LGBTQ?

· Does it show something that has become important or significant to the LGBTQ community?

These questions are just starting points, and are flexible enough to guide research across different times, cultures and spaces and enable exploration of the whole spectrum of rainbow identities and behaviours. On a V&A tour you might hear about gender-nonconforming artist Gluck, a gay interpretation of the Narcissus myth or hear exactly why Kylie is both an LGBTQ Icon and bona fide ally. LGBTQ tours might appear to be all glitter and sequins from the outside, but the research is as rounded and rigorous as any other information presented to the public.

Beyond the V&A, I’ve uncovered the LGBTQ artefacts in other museums. I worked with the team at the British Museum to uncover more objects with LGBTQ stories to develop the tour programme there, and my research led to the iconic Rosetta Stone being added to the stops on their tour. Here, the object itself isn’t where the LGBTQ story is, but rather with the people who led to us understanding what it says. By including the Rosetta Stone on an LGBTQ tour, we are able to present a deeper understanding of the stone and its history. We are better able to understand why we understand it.

It’s worth noting at this point that there’s more to sharing LGBTQ History than tours. To celebrate LGBT History Month 2021 my co-curator and I have been queering MuseumBums on Twitter and Instagram to create an unexpected place to share LGBTQ stories. We’ve kept true to the joy of MuseumBums; but found a way to go deeper than just the surface interpretation of both the art we share and what our audience might expect of us. One way we particularly enjoy queering an image is to really question the common tropes of art history interpretation of same-sex couples “just being friends”. Again, we investigate the artist and the figures in the work but also look at it through our own curatorial lens and rely on our queer spidey-senses.

Is it hard to find LGBTQ stories?

In short: not always. Some stories are easier to find than others, and once you start this research, those clues that indicate an element of LGBTQ history become easier to spot. Why can it be difficult to locate LGBTQ people in history? Queer lives, queer stories and queer histories have been destroyed, erased, covered up and over-written with euphemism. Vital stories have been lost because queer people were faced with persecution and so burned letters, coded their diaries or otherwise obscured their feelings to stay safe. This persecution of queer people continues today. This does not mean that it is impossible to find traces of the queer past, it means we have to work a bit harder.

Like with most aspects of finding histories in museums, it is easiest to find the stories of middle and upper class white men. It’s harder to find the history of LGBTQ people who are working class, and stories of queer women and harder still to find queerness of colour. To tell an LGBTQ history through our museums, we need to include all aspects of the LGBTQ experience, not just the ones we can most easily find. Museums are “for everyone, forever”, to borrow from the National Trust.

This inclusive approach to LGBTQ histories through artefacts is where the museum can hinder more than help, like with this object; a Bugandan harp. It’s not on display, and there is not even a photo. Yet, this object is key to understanding Bugandan culture and queer history; having belonged to Kabaka Mwanga. Mwanga was the last King of Buganda before it was conquered by British colonising forces, and someone who we might describe as LGBTQ. This object can be a lens through which to explore queer histories, African histories and the effects of colonisation. Uncovering LGBTQ artefacts can challenge us to confront our colonial pasts and tell a fuller, more honest and accurate history.

Uncovering LGBTQ artefacts is the start. What do you do next? Share these artefacts and their stories! It’s important that these histories are shared and become embedded within our understanding of the objects in our care. It adds to the depth and nuance of why these objects are important and why they are worth displaying in a museum. These LGBTQ histories can open up connections that you may not have considered possible before.

February is LGBT History Month in the UK. Pride season kicks off in June. These key dates are a good beginning point to delve into your stores and research these stories. However, only engaging with them during these times reeks of tokenism and box ticking. LGBTQ people are here 365 days a year, our stories will still be part of your collections when the calendar move on to the next date. Keep researching, keep telling those stories!

GLAM at Pride

Jack Shoulder

Jack has been working in museum education since 2010; working on the British Museum’s family learning programme, developing educational content for schools on Culture24’s show.me.uk and specialising in Early Years and community engagement at Towner Art Gallery as well as coordinating their school programme. Nowadays, you can find him working at English Heritage. In his spare time, Jack volunteers for V&A’s LGBTQ tours, Kids in Museums, coordinates the Queer Heritage Forum and gets cheeky as co-curator of MuseumBums.

You can find him on Twitter @jackshoulder

Listen to our conversation with Jack here.

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For Arts' Sake

For Arts' Sake

We give voice to museum people. We do this by sharing stories of museum professional about what they do and what difference museums can make to people’s lives.