What makes an object LGBTQ?

Pride Flag above the British Museum
Pride Flag above the British Museum

With the Pride flag flying high over the British Museum during London Pride 2017, what better time for the museum to host a discussion about the LGBTQ objects in its 8 million strong collection.  If objects are like people, then there’s a very good chance that 10% of these objects are gay.

But objects aren’t people? True, but objects are made by people. They reflect the society that created them. So, where are the 800,000 or so LGBTQ objects in the British Museum?

Here’s the thing about LGBTQ history – it’s often hidden and hard to uncover. Societal issues aside (remember, homosexuality was only decriminialised in the UK in 1957), one has to contend with all sorts of museological issues which could further obscure an artefact’s LGBTQ heritage: the interpretive lens, a collection bias, lack of understanding or research could all lead, intentionally or not, to an object’s true story being obscured.

There is a badge in the Desire, Love, Identity exhibition that simply says: Assume Nothing.

This is a good place to start.

The panel for the discussion included the author of A Little Gay History,  representatives from Camden LGBT Forum, LGBT History Month and the Museum of Transology. A veritable LGBTQ Justice League!

An Introduction to Greek Art and A Little Gay History
An Introduction to Greek Art and A Little Gay History

Richard Parker, author of A Little Gay History, addressed how tricky it can be to pinpoint something as being actually LGBTQ instead of just appearing to be so. Just because something looks gay to us, doesn’t mean it was to the original culture that produced it. His academic rigour has led to him being accused of “not being gay enough” (what does that even mean?) but means that the proper questions are asked.

Some objects have gained an queer identity over time. Parker claims that, for him, the queerest objects in the British Museum are the Assyrian Lions. His reason: Maurice.

“Every object is potentially queer” he says, “Just a kiss in front of it could do it.”

For an object to be LGBTQ, it needs to have a connection to LGBTQ history – to people who identify as LGBTQ.

The maker, the owner, the collector, or even the viewer (think about those lions again).could make an object LGBTQ if the connection is strong enough. The objects don’t have to be impressive impressions of imperial Romans (looking at you Hadrian) or massively expensive items like the Warren Cup (which came with a £1.8 million price tag).

LGBTQ history isn’t always as spectacular as all that.

In fact, E-J Scott, the curator of the Museum of Transology, has turned nothing away from the museum’s collectiion to de-spectacularise the trans experience. In doing so, the Museum of Transology does a powerful job of reminding us how our everyday ephemera packs a powerful punch. 

So, after all of this, how does one identify an LGBTQ object? When dealing with the ancient past, with a great deal of difficulty. When dealing with the present, much more easily.

But bear in mind,  a pleasing #MuseumBum, doesn’t make an LGBTQ object.


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