The V&A’s LGBTQ Tours are essential. As one of the UK’s biggest museums, it sees a startling number of visitors each year. I’d go from time to time if there was an exhibition that caught my eye, but it was a place that I never felt quite at home in. The stuff in there was nice enough but nothing I could really connect with.
As I said earlier, the V&A’s LGBTQ tours are essential. I went on one, so I can verify, they are. Now, I have a whole new outlook on the V&A.
February is LGBTQ History Month in the UK, and it seems like the perfect opportunity to catch up with Dan Vo, the person behind these ground-breaking tours.
Q)How long have you been with the V&A and what is your role there?
A) I’ve been a volunteer Ambassador at the V&A since 2013, and am a member of the museum’s LGBTQ Working Group. I’ve worked in radio production for over a decade, and have been speaking on queer history for about the same amount of time.
One of my proudest moments was being invited to speak at the museum for LGBT History Month about the queer history of Vietnam. It’s where my parents are from, so that was a pretty special occasion for me.
Q) How long have the tours been running? How many people have been on them? I think I saw you recently hit 1000 people?
It’s a great honour to be able to bring queer fabulousness to the museum, and be involved with events where the V&A is willing – and very proud – to literally fly the rainbow flag from the top of the museum.
In 2015 I helped found the permanent LGBTQ Tour at the museum which has gone on to win two major awards, and the team of volunteer guides are currently designated Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Ambassadors of the Year.
We’ve seen more than fifteen hundred people on the tours so far. Visitors can come on the last Saturday of each month at 4pm (free, drop-in) or book a private tour for a small group, which we’ve done for several LGBTQ+ groups and societies.
Q) What was the inspiration behind the tours?
A) A great debt of gratitude is owed to Richard B Parkinson for A Little Gay History, published by the British Museum. If he hadn’t made that first move, I don’t think I would have had the audacity to suggest running LGBTQ tours at the V&A.
Our first generation of guides also relied on Out on Display, a booklet which detailed 20 queer objects from the V&A collections. So thanks also to the co-chairs of the LGBTQ Working Group Dawn Hoskin and Zorian Clayton.
Q) How did you go about setting them up?
A) We started with a soft launch to coincide with a queer themed Friday Late in February 2015. It wasn’t terribly successful in terms of audience numbers, but I certainly learnt quite a lot about getting the story across, as well as shepherding!
Before the hard launch in April 2015, a blog post (http://www.vam.ac.uk/blog/va-faces/why-the-va-gay-and-lesbian-tour-is-essential) was shared via widely on social media. I expected a dozen people on the first tour – we had more than 100. One person said it was like being on Old Compton Street during London Pride!
It’s a volunteer run operation and peer-based training is crucial to making it work. The first generation of guides trained the second lot. We started with 3 guides and now we have 8. Soon enough we’ll see a third wave of guides.
Q) How do you go about uncovering hidden histories? Have any stories really lept out at you?
A) Queer stories have always existed in the museum and the tour allows them to be shared by exploring the presence of LGBTQ individuals and communities within different periods and cultures.
Objects range geographically from all over the world and span centuries. Guides can also choose objects for their own tours to play to their strengths, meaning you can return each month and get a very different and personal experience each time.
An object that is a highlight of many tours is an earthenware vase by Grayson Perry entitled My Heroes that includes images of April Ashley and Aubrey Beardsley. In one object alone there is much to be discussed in terms of sexuality and gender.
Q) Do you have a favourite object?
A) I can’t help but have several! While my Australian twang doesn’t come through in print, it certainly does on the tours. Dame Edna’s hat in the shape of the Sydney Opera House and Leigh Bowery’s pink sequined codpiece are two notable mentions.
I’m also always thrilled to show people gay icon Kylie Minogue’s wardrobe from Showgirl, including the dressing room mirror on which her sister Dannii has scrawled, in red lipstick, the most Australian expression of good luck – “chookas!”
There’s so many different objects to discover, and there’s seven and a half miles of museum to see. Even if I can’t show you an object you like, at least you’ll have a great workout. So skip the gym for an afternoon and come to the LGBTQ Tour instead.
Q) The tours recently won a big award (congrats again!) – what do you think has been the impact of that?
A) I cheekily refer to them as the multi-award winning tours actually! We’ve won two and we’re nominated for a few more. Fingers crossed right? What the awards do is they give recognition and endorsement.
For us – a small but very dedicated team of volunteers – it’s a great honour to be recognised for the hundreds of hours we put in, but also to have the way we present queer narratives within a museum context celebrated.
I want us to create a safe space for everyone – I believe in diverse and inclusive arts for all. The tours are a constant reminder to LGBTQ+ audiences you are accepted, respected and celebrated – you are welcome at the V&A.
Q) What would your ideal next steps be?
A) Diversity and inclusion is at the very heart of what we do. It’s not a checkbox exercise but we work hard to ensure there is fair representation of LGBTQ and BAME in our objects on the tours.
If you consider the team – one of our guides is an ally, and the rest of us identify as L, G, B or Q. The team has a degree of BAME representation and is composed of 50% male and 50% female. Yet, we can still do more to improve diversity in our team.
That will be my focus. I mean, if there’s going to be any team at the museum that can really lead by example – to show that we can truly reflect the diverse communities we serve – by golly, I want that to be outstanding team to be our team!