Sunday, 8 September 2013

Heritage Spotlight - LGBT Museums in the UK

It is my dream to open a permanent lgbt museum. This weekend Britain holds the annual Heritage Open Days, when many museums, galleries and tourist sites open free of charge, and otherwise private historical houses and sites open their doors specially for this weekend. Today I put a spotlight on something that doesn’t exist, the thing I dream about – an lgbt museum in the UK.

There have been, and still are, lots of lgbt exhibitions but nothing permanent. There are also lots of local lgbt history projects, including the one I co-founded (Nottinghamshire’s Rainbow Heritage). Several other lgbt history projects funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund have expressed desires for a permanent museum in their own areas, but nothing has emerged.

In the US there are several lgbt museums, including some of specialist interest like the Leather Museum. Some lgbt people have museums dedicated to them alone, both here and around the world (e.g. Andy Warhol), and many memorials (e.g. London’s Blue Plaques, lgbt Holocaust memorials), and plenty of archives and collections, but no actual museum.

There have been major advances in the recognition of items in museums and collections of lgbt interest, especially since the introduction of LGBT History Month in the UK. Museums have compiled guides especially for the month in question. They are this guide to the special Egyptology collection at the small Petrie Museum. The British Museum has also produced a guide. I went down in June when the guide was reissued for London Pride weekend, but I had to ask for a copy at the desk rather than pick one up where all the other guides were on display. The reason, perhaps, was because of pressure and protests by Christian Voice that they were promoting sodomy to school children. Christian Voice had demonstrated outside the museum when they previewed LGBT History Month in 2010.

Activists and academics have been calling for a museum for years. The activist Peter Tatchell made an appeal in The Guardian newspaper in 2004. He first thought about a museum way back in the early 1970s when he campaigned with the Gay Liberation Front. In those days most activists were more interested in the present and the future, and in politics and campaigning, than the past. What research had been done in lgbt history was “hidden away” in universities (in the days before things could be put online) and any artefacts were generally in private collections, many of which were probably discarded or split up on the owners’ deaths.

In the words of Peter Tatchell from 2004, “Queers were people without any sense of a collective past”. Fortunately, he and some fellow history buffs looked for information in every museum, library and archive they had access to. From their research emerged many stories, and also recollections of gay victims of the Holocaust which, Tatchell pointed out, was when they adopted the Pink Triangle as an emblem by German gay rights groups.

And yet, with all the researching, discovering and rescuing of our heritage, no-one was prepared to commit themselves (or their money) to a museum. Even at the turn of the century Tatchell couldn’t find anyone ready to back a museum in London. He even proposed a site – the old Bow Street Police Station where Oscar Wilde was locked up after his arrest in 1895.

Perhaps the UK is more attuned to general museums and collections than specialised ones. Most specialised museums are created on specific sites associated with themes. Military museums are often on old military sites, museums to famous people are at their homes. That could be the problem in the UK – lgbt heritage doesn’t have a single national site to focus on.

The call for established museums to make more of the items of lgbt interest and make them more visible is the focus of the work of people like Professor Richard Sandell of the University of Leicester. For the past few years he has been speaking at conferences on just this subject, and travels the world looking at other museums to see how this can be done and encouraged.

In 2011 Prof. Sandell told a conference in Brighton that not enough was being done to acknowledge the lgbt community in UK collections, despite the fact that the law requires museums to actively acknowledge and display diversity in the community. The success of many lgbt exhibitions held around the UK in recent years clearly shows there is public interest. In the economic climate of recent years museums were, perhaps, not keen to spend money.

Two years later, and the “excuse” of expense is still putting people off. In January a very successful exhibition opened at the Leicester LGBT Centre. Because of it’s success the Centre renewed calls for a permanent museum to be located in the city. The Project Officer, Denis Bradley, recognises that the economic climate is still a stumbling block, but he is hopeful.

An alternative to a one-site museum could be a touring pop-up museum. This concept is growing in popularity. Many city centres have unused shop and business premises which they hire out on a short-time basis to artists, businesses or charities. A pop-up museum is working well in the US. Could this be the most effective solution in the UK? It’s something which needs more discussion or, even better, action.

In the meantime I hope that many more temporary exhibitions continue to be produced. Even now I am planning my next annual display at Nottinghamshire County Hall in February, and looking at the possibility of a producing a pop-up exhibition in the city centre.

I’ll end with these optimistic comments made to me by Professor Sandell: “It seems to me like an exciting – and critical – time for lgbt communities keen to have their lives, art and culture represented in the public sphere. There have been more lgbt themed exhibitions in the last 10 years than in the previous 50. But these are often temporary and more needs to be done to represent sexual and gender diversity as we move forward.”

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