What Should London’s First LGBTQ Museum Look Like?

Museums and archives dedicated to showcasing the diverse experiences of the LGBTQ community are vitally important for the preservation of often suppressed histories. From Berlin’s Schwules Museum to San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society and New York’s Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, there are a number of spaces indispensable to the illumination of the role queer people have played in shaping global culture, and now, a new national LGBTQ museum in the UK is set to join this small group of institutions.

The Queer Britain museum will chart the progress of LGBTQ rights from the introduction of the Buggery Act in 1533 to the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967 to the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2014, up to today.

This ambitious museum project is set to open in Southwark, South London, by 2021. Over the next two years the team behind Queer Britain, including Chris Smith, the first openly gay British lawmaker, and Lisa Power, co-founder of equality organisation Stonewall, will be touring the country to discover LGBTQ cultural and artistic artifacts to display in the museum.

At a time when LGBTQ bars and clubs are closing at an unprecedented rate in London, the city desperately needs contemporary queer spaces. “Attempts have been made in the past to establish a LGBTQ museum in the UK, but it’s always felt like a struggle to maintain and create queer spaces – a true reflection of having our voices and histories demonized, hidden from view and silenced,” says Damien Arness Dalton, the co-founder of the Queerseum community project, which has campaigned on the grassroots level for a queer museum in London for years.

“A queer museum can be transformative in learning about the past and to be able to see yourself in collections and stories and celebrate your identity. Now is the perfect time to act and build our community up to see the value in our legacy. Story by story, brick by brick, our histories and spaces we occupy deserve stability and solid foundations,” adds Dalton.

Long-term commitment

 

The need for an inclusive queer museum is clear, but far more consideration needs to be given to what exactly this type of institution should look like today and how it will offer a more rounded exploration of LGBTQ history compared to temporary queer-focused exhibitions.

Mainstream British museums have increased their representation of LGBTQ-related artifacts in their exhibitions over the past few years, particularly in the lead up to the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 2017, with Tate Britain’s ‘Queer British Art’ exhibition and the British Museum’s ‘Desire, Love, Identity: Exploring LGBT Histories’ display being two of the most notable examples of this improvement.

It is, of course, a positive development that some of the largest museums and institutions in the country are shedding light on previously unseen LGBTQ stories. Yet, these transient exhibitions are just that – impermanent.

E-J Scott, founder of the Museum of Transology, the largest collection of trans artifacts in the UK, believes that when the majority of these exhibitions came to a close, little trace of them was left behind on the museum walls they were hung on.

“Our queer culture is not a fleeting moment in time, and queer museologists, curators and cultural producers have all established, through robust research, evidence of the existence of our queer heritage embedded in collections across the nation. But they are not necessarily visible in permanent displays,” he says.

LGBTQ-inclusive

 

Just as the vast majority of exhibitions curated by traditional museums have predominantly focused on heterosexual narratives, any proposed LGBTQ museum will have to ensure it does not exclude underrepresented members of the community. Co-founder & CEO of Queer Britain, Joseph Galliano, agrees that marginalized voices should be fully integrated in the museum and told the Museums Association’s Museums Journal when the project was launched:

“It’s not just going to be talking about white male people who look like me. We’ll be putting together a diverse committee to make sure everybody is heard. There is a wealth of untapped resources out there.” 

Representation goes beyond just what is shown on the walls of museums, galleries or cultural institutions, with curators, museum professionals and potential patrons all being expected to have a meaningful voice in the discussions around what goes into the museum.

Starting afresh at a new cultural space will allow for unconventional ideas around curation to be considered that may better suit the needs of the diverse LGBTQ community. “A queer museum has the potential to queer the whole process of collecting, protecting and displaying history,” says Scott.

“It could in fact, be used as a way of rethinking why some communities don’t go to museums, why museums continue to be places that are only really accessed by the elite echelons of society. They are not spaces very often used by trans people, by BAME communities, by the working classes and by the disabled,” he adds.

 

Rich history

 

There is an abundance of iconic artifacts and cultural objects that highlight exactly why a museum with LGBTQ issues at its centre would be able to so effectively showcase forgotten queer histories. From the Warren Cup, a silver drinking cup dated to 5 to 15 CE that depicts men engaged in same-sex activity, to David Hockney’s 1975 etching displaying gay sex, complex representations of LGBTQ people exist throughout history.

Historical archives across London can also provide a strong basis for new museum collections, with specialist queer depositories found at the London School of Economics and Bishopsgate Institute. At the moment, these collections are mainly visited by academics and others with a professional interest, closing off pivotal moments of LGBTQ history to the general public.

An LGBTQ museum will, for the first time in British history, create space for a comprehensive history of the country’s queer community to be displayed. During the creation process of this new institution, it’s essential to keep queerness at the core.

“There is a fear of normalising queerness in a traditional institutionalised museum setting, as history has always been written and presented back to us. We now have an opportunity to dismantle that and profile under-represented groups and create an inclusive dynamic queer space for all. Now is the time we can tell our own stories our way,” says Dalton.


Finbarr Toesland

Finbarr Toesland is a London-based journalist who has been published by NBC News, the BBC and Financial Times' publications.

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