The theme of sexuality is underrepresented at the Museum of London, but there are good signs of change on the horizon to mainstream gender in all its varying aspects (not just heterosexual identities). A recent Capital Concerns exhibition ingeniously called Pride and Prejudice is one of the mainstays here, but unfortunately most of the items were on loan and no proper record remains of the exhibition to inform future practice.
It is a shame and a waste that excellent work done in the past cannot be built upon simply because the project was not sufficiently monitored and recorded for posterity. Effective monitoring also circumvents the problem of ‘reinventing the wheel’. If exhibitions have a limited shelf-life, there is an even stronger case to make sure that their details are recorded – from research, to realisation, to evaluations and legacies.
The publicity for Pride and Prejudice highlights social and legal prejudice against homosexuality, campaigns to fight injustice, and charts the growth of the cultural and economic power of gay men and lesbians in London:
'In 1988, Section 28 of the Local Government Act banned the 'promotion' of homosexuality by local authorities. This was the first piece of anti-gay legislation to be passed for 103 years, and the first to legislate against lesbians. The Museum of London is risking prosecution under Section 28 by putting on this exhibition in which it aims to celebrate the diversity of lesbian and gay life in London, to examine the enduring appeal of London to lesbians and gay men from around the UK and the world, and to explore the systems of oppression that lesbians and gays face.'
Such bold initiatives taken by the museum are only to be encouraged.
LGBT identities have also been incorporated into a number of temporary exhibitions, particularly in terms of dress with The London Look exhibition (and the significant input of the Costumes and Decorative Arts collection). Some of the people involved however chose not to be identified through their sexuality; others were keen to foreground their sexual identity.
Currently, a collections framework is being developed at the Museum to reflect the LGBT communities in the projected Modern London galleries. It is to be informed and driven by LGBT communities – by their views on events, issues, and spotlighting people that they consider important. This is not an easy task – for several differences in opinion could emerge, not least to say those based on age difference.
The framework is likely to be more informed by older LGBT community members, who are more concerned about their history and heritage than young LGBT people who, amongst other activities, are interested in clubbing. Considering that London has a high percentage of youth, it is important to draw this younger audience to museums. Popular culture may be seen as disposable today but it its the stuff which defines the spirit of our age which will be of interest to audiences of the future, not least to those from today.
There is a remarkable collection pertaining to LGBT issues from the 1980s at the Museum which reveals many crossovers with other groups of people, thereby defying the notion that gay/lesbian people only live their lives by foregrounding their sexuality. Plans are afoot to make some of this information available online. They include printed matter relating to campaigning and raising awareness: about tackling heterosexism and discrimination, AIDS, anti-Criminal Justice Act campaigns and t-shirts.
There are also some health leaflets about steroid abuse and sexual disease. There is printed media such as Capital Gay, Gay News, and several books exploring gay and lesbian politics. Some of these items were collected with the active participation of London’s LGBT communities as part of the Collecting 2000 project.
There is also paraphernalia to do with clubs and festivals such as Lesbian and Gay Pride and the Brockwell Park festival. There are some occasional quirky items such as cards and place settings for a Star Trek Banquet by the Deep Space Dykes, paraphernalia from the London Gay Men’s Chorus, and the gay vegetarians and so forth.
Other significant developments in the collections include the recognition of the cross-fertilisation of identities through Big-Up, a voluntary organisation delivering advice on HIV and AIDS to black men, Gemma, a self-help group of disabled and non-disabled lesbians, the Naz Project posters showing Asian couples at a wedding, Gay lib supporting women’s lib leaflets. Also there is the Lesbian and Gay Christian movement. In addition, oral history recordings exist about gay people’s lives to complement this collection.
Material about well-known gay people features in the collections, including a coin depicting Edward II from the early fourteenth century, an eighteenth century print of Charlotte Charke, an actress and writer who was renowned for cross-dressing and living with a woman, and a portrait of Oscar Wilde in a nineteenth century issue of Vanity Fair.
These are just the known variables. There are a number of sources lying in the photographic archives or residing in the imagery of urban scenes, and other material objects hitherto unexplored or for which there is insufficient contextual material. No object would be specifically described as 'gay', ‘lesbian’, ‘bisexual’ or ‘transgendered’ in early catalogues.
Further research is required to revisit the collections, in order to highlight the potential of pre-twentieth collections already extant, for such themes. These may include items in the collections linked to ancient cults, the nature of Roman households and sexuality, and satirical representations, and so forth. Knowing what there already is in the collections informs a clearly-defined strategy for pro-active collecting in order to fill in the gaps.
The question now is how to utilise this material. Specifically, there is potential to think about how sexuality was conceived and practised in earlier times; what characterised masculinity, femininity and other transgendered identities? Was family life in Roman times centred around heterosexual monogamy alone? How did people reveal their identities (if at all) in the wider public arena? If they did not, why not? Such questions can inform further research and debate.
They can also form the ingredients for stimulating exhibitions exploring sexuality throughout the ages and across cultures. Furthermore, they can be integrated into exhibitions whose main focus is on other subjects and where LGBT people are not sidelined. A focus, for instance, on marriage ceremonies and families could ‘mainstream’ numerous diverse identities across eras and cultures.
Another strategy would be to highlight particular objects in the collections as a means of raising questions about the norms and expectations of gender. There is, for instance, an intriguing oak bracket in the Museum’s Stuart gallery from around 1610-20, collected from Albert House in Garratt Lane, Wandsworth. The bracket shows what is conceivably a male face with a long moustache and beard, and then a pair of very circular breasts belonging to what could only be described as a hermaphrodite figure. Even if there is no further context for this particular object, it is in itself a potent image with which to begin a discussion that interrogates norms and conventions about gender and sexuality.
Other examples which defy assumptions about manhood and womanhood in fact, fiction and fantasy are extremely provocative themes through which to engage a variety of audiences.
An inventory of these items with diverse identities created at the Museum is a promising start with which to identify possibilities for the future both in terms of collection strategies and exhibitions. But what seems to be required from contemporary collecting is not to focus solely on links between LGBT lives and sexual disease, particularly now that AIDS is probably more of a heterosexual blight.
A focus on the uniqueness of individual and ordinary lives as opposed to those ordered through organisations could also be invaluable. More could also be collected on costume to do with LGBT identities (aside from the t-shirt with slogans of which there are plenty).
Work also seems to be required to bring a feminist focus to LGBT issues. There are, for instance, 24 Ethel Smyth related objects on Multi Mimsy, including a book, leaflets, and music score, written by her, relating to the treatment of suffragettes. Further research is required to corroborate the nature of Smyth’s sexual identity, and artefacts associated with her could be used to pursue questions about the role, position and challenges of women across time (12).
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