Exploring LGBTQ Histories at the British Museum

A bust of Antinous from the British Museum
A bust of Antinous from the British Museum

I’m back at the British Museum, this time exploring their LGBTQ Histories in a new display in room 69a, Desire, Love, Identity. The exhibition draws on a couple of projects the British Museum has undertaken to unearth some of the hidden histories in its 8 million strong collection. We are seeing quite a bit of this kind of work at the moment, with the V&A leading the charge with their unmissable LGBTQ tours, and it is utterly fascinating to see all these stories come to light.

So let’s begin.

Desire, Love, Identity revolves around one central sculpture; the Ain Sakhri figurine. We can see desire and love in the way the two figures are embracing, but what about identity?

A sculpture showing two lovers.
The world’s oldest lovers?

A Little Gay History, the book on which this exhibition is based, tells us that “The sculpture’s ambiguity is a reminder that we should not project our assumptions onto the past.” The Ain Sakri figurine is indeed ambiguous; we can’t tell who the lovers are. Is it a heterosexual couple? A gay one? A lesbian couple? Does it matter? Love is love.

We get the narrative about Hadrian and Antinous, because no LGBTQ exhibition would be complete without them being mentioned somewhere. We also get a glimpse into the habits of museum curators of days gone by…

Sexually charged objects have often been kept away from the public’s eye, for fear of moral corruption, no doubt (of course, serious scholars immune to such things could access them if they tried hard enough). The British Museum had a ‘Secret Museum’ of its own from around 1830-1953, after which these objects started to make their way into the main collection.

A fragment of a tomb painting showing male lovers
A fragment of a tomb painting showing male lovers

This tomb fragment was one such object that found its way into the British Museum’s ‘Secret Museum.’ The piece was once part of a larger canvass, but was cut away and placed in this hidden museum. It speaks volumes that curators, whose job it is to conserve objects, were willing to mutilate an artefact in their care because it showed something … a bit dirty? If that was the general mindset, it is astounding that objects like this Greek Vase depicting a homosexual scene survived [mostly] intact.

As it happens, this separation led to the fragment’s survival. The rest, the more respectable(?) part of the canvass has since been lost. I wonder what happened there? Alas, text panels can only reveal so much.

A lamp showing a sexual scene between two women
A lamp showing a sexual scene between two women

A terracotta lamp from Roman Turkey gives a rare glimpse of two women together. It is part of the LGBTQ narrative because it clearly represents the L aspect of that acronym, but, who would have seen or used this lamp? Is it a celebration of physical love between two women, or was it something intended to be used, viewed and subjected to the male gaze, and the male gaze alone?

Male dominated society; still causing problems *centuries* down the line.

Desire, Love, Identity is not the end of the exploration of the LGBTQ Histories at the British Museum. To accompany the exhibition, there’s a trail to follow around the rest of the museum.

LGBTQ Trails at the British Museum
LGBTQ Trails at the British Museum

This isn’t the first time the British Museum has done this, a few years ago,  they worked with Untold London to explore the queer histories behind their objects. This new trail has, thankfully, a few new objects to explore.

I don’t know about you, but I want to find out more about that ‘Secret Museum’ now…


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