“There are around 4,000 LGBTQ objects in the V&A’s collection” my volunteer tour guide told me and the rest of the group as we were about to embark on the V&A’s ground-breaking LGBTQ tour. “Don’t worry,” she reassured us, with a smile as our feet began to ache with the thought of all that walking “We won’t be visiting all of them.”
Considering the V&A looks after about 3 million objects I have a sneaking suspicion that there’s a vast swathe of the collection with as yet uncovered LGBTQ connections. It is still fairly early days for these tours, so there’s still plenty of time to find the rest. Moreover, looking at collections to uncover the oft covered-up queerness of objects is still in its infancy.
In a blog post “Why the V&A Gay and Lesbian Tour is essential” Dan Vo, an active member of the V&A’s LGBTQ working group asks Dawn Hoskins, an assistant curator and co-chair of the group if previous efforts to highlight these histories for special occasions is enough. She replied ‘As museums do more to recognise LGBTQ histories, I feel the previous lack of content and recognition becomes even more glaringly apparent and disappointing.’
These tours are a regular part of the programming, and are doing a lot of important work to highlight these histories. Already, this work is paying off, as they have have shown over 1000 people around the V&A and have won an important award celebrating their work. Hopefully we will see more and more places uncover their LGBTQ stories as a result.
— V&A (@V_and_A) September 7, 2016
Now, I can’t believe it has taken me this long to go on a tour (work, as it often does, got in the way. The joys of working weekends!) but yesterday I was lucky enough to go on one. Lucky is the right word in more ways than one. Not only did the ongoing train disruption make my journey more stressful than it needed to be, the colossal V&A was at maximum capacity! FOH dealt with the situation admirably, and the volunteers from the LGBTQ tour came out to the queue to let us know what was going on with them and to reassure those interested that we wouldn’t miss out.
Excellent visitor management – I doff my cap!
The tour took a cross-section approach to the collection, showing us how an Ancient Indian statue, a 20th Century chair, modern ceramics, 1980s photography and a ballet poster all contributed to the LGBTQ story.
As we set off, our guide jokingly warned us “We are going to see a lot of bums, boobs and willies,” as if that has ever put anyone off a tour ;).
Our first stop was Shiva as Ardhanisvgara, the Lord Who is Half Woman. In this case, that interpretation was literal, as the small statue had both male and female features. As the object has sacred connections, it was interesting to consider gender fluidity in a relgious context.
From here, we make the unlikely journey to a deck-chair inspired piece of furniture. Designed by Eileen GrayEileen Gray, the attention was more on Gray than her chair. It’s refreshing to focus on the maker, who can be forgotten, unknown or over-shadowed by their creation.
Speaking of makers, Grayson Perry popped up, as he always does (he’s part of Brighton Museum’s LGBTQ trail too). In a piece celebrating his icons, we focussed on his admiration of April Ashley, a very important figure in Trans history. Her portrait’s placement in a roundel reflects her iconic status. That’s the old-school meaning of iconic. Not whatever Buzzfeed are using it for.
Moving down to photography, we were shown Fani-Kayode’s Nothing to Lose XII. One thing that particularly struck me about this, was our guide telling us that Fani-Kayode said that he “made his work gay on purpose.” It was something that I found incredibly empowering.
Our last official stop was in front of a large poster designed by Jean Cocteau. Our eyes were drawn by the long, dynamic line of the piece – the graceful figure presented to us at odds with the dancer-subject’s natural stockiness. The dancer is Nijinski, the greatest male dancer of the 20th century. His story, as so many LGBTQ ones do, ended in tragedy.
That’s where our tour officially ended, but such was our group’s enthusiasm, our guide added one last stop; a Ganymede. One of many ‘beautiful boys’ that adorn the museum, and one of Zeus’ many lovers/victims.
The V&A’s LGBTQ Tours take place on the last Saturday of the month from 16.00-17.00 and they are free. They are also incredibly important for highlighting histories, stories and connections that have been kept quiet for far too long. Each tour is different, so I’m looking at my calendar to figure out when I can go again.