Many UK museums and galleries are marking the 50 years since the decriminalization of homosexuality with exhibitions, events, and projects, the British Museum’s Desire, Love, Identity: Exploring LGBTQ Histories created a model that could (and hopefully will) be used in the future to incorporate LGBTQA+ and other marginalized and repressed group histories into the permanent displays of museums. This exhibition highlights that museum narratives have overwhelmingly represented the dominant culture’s interpretation of history, and I was also excited to see that it acknowledged the importance of the symbolic meaning of an object – what it comes to mean to a group of people.
A Treasure Hunt
I stumbled across Desire, Love, Identity: Exploring LGBTQ Histories in the Enlightenment Gallery. A purple, white, and orange text panel stood out from the dark wood and 18th century aesthetics of the gallery, highlighting a Maori carving depicting sexual acts between two male figures. The panel directed the visitor to other objects highlighted along a trail throughout the museum’s permanent displays and could either begin or culminate in a small exhibition space that neatly unified the themes.
I enjoyed the self-conscious style and tone of the exhibition because it reflected on its own process, including a clear definition of the terminology and parameters they used and listing the many LGBTQ groups involved in the project. The exhibition avoided anachronistic labels by using the term “same-sex love and desire” instead. And I deeply appreciated that they were clear about the gaps in the British Museum’s collection and representation:
“The British Museum’s collection does not represent all perspectives and experiences equally. This is partly due to what survives and is available to collect, but it also reflects the way objects were catalogued by previous generations”
All museum collections are quirky beasts, since they were formed by different individuals, different time periods, different interests, and many different donors all with different ideas about what should be preserved for future generations. Victorian collections like the British Museum are particularly guilty of ignoring the perspectives of marginalized groups, and any gaps represent the communities and cultures that were overlooked. Primarily, the exhibition explains, the stories of “extraordinary” individuals (usually the very rich or infamous) were the ones that escaped this version of censorship.
The bright side is that many museums now have initiatives seeking to acquire objects that fill and flesh out these underrepresented human experiences. The Warren Cup is a recent acquisition the British Museum made, for not only does it represent same-sex male desire in Ancient Greece, it was from the personal collection of Edward Perry Warren, who jokingly called the cup his holy grail. At a time when homosexuality was a criminal act in the UK, this cup was a private view into a culture that admired same-sex desire.
One of the last panels in the exhibition asks, “What makes an object LGBT or Q?” I think their definition was wonderfully broad, allowing them to draw in objects that confront heteronormative interpretations of history. The central case focused on this ambiguous prehistoric sculpture of a couple making love and challenged the visitor whether there is anything inherent to the figures that suggests they are male and female.
This definition – including objects that “have been adopted by” LGBTQ communities like the discus thrower featured in E.M. Forster’s Maurice – also begins to address the problem that there are multiple histories, each one privileging and legitimizing their own sociocultural norms. A museum object’s meaning or significance is spread across multiple networks of associations, relationships, and systems of symbols, which means there are as many meaningful meanings as there are people to look at an object.
The need now isn’t to point out exceptions, but to normalize LGBTQ in museums – so while one off exhibitions like the many on display for the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality in England are positive moves towards increasing representation, incorporating these marginalized histories into the everyday work of the museum should be the focus going forward.
“If a mainstream cultural organisation doesn’t try to promote marginalised voices it will inevitably add to the oppression, unwittingly or otherwise […] Absence or silence adds to the further marginalisation of LGBTQ people, despite the gains we have made in the past half century.” – Jude Woods
I would like to see if some aspects of this exhibition remain on display even after it formally closes October 15th, and for other museums to experiment with using small identifying markers to highlight the unrecognized, overlooked and underrepresented stories in their permanent collections, rewriting text labels, highlighting different objects, and, most importantly, handing over control and encouraging insider participation during the process and the product.
The Song of Achilles
The exhibition and trail had a heavy focus on Ancient Greek life – due partly to their collections and partly to the subject matter, as the Ancient Greek world became an alternative to the dominant Christian morality. Whether by coincidence or design, the entrance to the exhibition room was flanked by a wall of vases depicting the life of Achilles and scenes from the Iliad. It was seeing them juxtaposed with Desire, Love, and Identity that pushed me to finally pull The Song of Achilles off my “to read” shelf.
Madeline Miller was inspired by the story of Achilles, Hero of the Trojan war, and his closest friend, Patroclus, and the interpretation (popular amongst groups we would now identify as LGBTQ from Plato’s time onwards) that their relationship was a romantic one. She used Homer’s own words to create a moving and intimate story about friendship and love.
“There is a lot of support for their relationship in the text of the Iliad itself, though Homer never makes it explicit. For me, the most compelling piece of evidence, aside from the depth of Achilles’ grief, is how he grieves: Achilles refuses to burn Patroclus’ body, insisting instead on keeping the corpse in his tent, where he constantly weeps and embraces it—despite the horrified reactions of those around him. That sense of physical devastation spoke deeply to me of a true and total intimacy between the two men.” – Madeline Miller
Like the exhibition, Madeleine Miller’s retelling of the Iliad provided a “queered” history, an alternative to the heteronormative interpretation of history. Books and exhibitions like these contribute to the effort of normalizing and mainstreaming LGBTQ perspectives, and there will hopefully come a point when history is truly impartial and museums truly represent all the groups they aim to serve.