Queering collections: Lessons from Leprechauns, Liverpool and London

Given this month’s GLAM blog club theme of collect, I thought I would take the opportunity to share some lessons I learned for queering collections from the National Leprechaun Museum, Liverpool and London. There is quite a lot of excellent material online which I have linked to below so you won’t have to go all the way to the UK and Ireland to join in. They all very much demonstrate that Museums Are Not Neutral (in case anyone needs reminding)!

National Leprechaun Museum

Whilst not explicitly queer, the National Leprechaun Museum did include a lot of rainbows and really set the scene for my later adventures in queering Museums in London and Liverpool. It’s a great example of a museum-based around intangible heritage – myths and legends- of a particular place. It was a wonderful mix of storytelling, theatre, digital maps, rainbows and play. It was such a joy to enter the world they created with this museum. I accidentally came across it on my way to the Chester Beatty Library and I’m not 100% convinced that it really exists outside of my imagination nor that the free rainbow pencil I got won’t disappear some day in the spirit of leprechaun gold.

Queer and Now at Tate Britain

The main part of Queer and Now at Tate Britain I attended was What Does a Queer Museum Look Like?

A discussion featuring E-J Scott, Curator of the Museum of Transology in an open conversation with queer curators, Dan Vo (Museum Detox), Ju Gosling (Regard), Surat-Shaan Knan (Rainbow Pilgrims), Topher Campbell (rukus!), Damien Arness-Dalton (Queerseum), Joe Galliano (CEO, Queer Britain), Rachael Lennon (Programme Curator, Prejudice and Pride, National Trust), Sean Curran (Community Learning Manager, Sutton House, National Trust) and Zorian Clayton (Curator of Prints and chair of the LGBTQ working group at the V&A).

E-J Scott asked all participants, including panelists, to sit on the floor as a brilliant way to “break down the hierarchy of expertise within the museum that separates the experts from people with lived experience”, to create a “peaceful protest through occupation” and also to indicate that “creating change is uncomfortable”. I loved how they brought together people who had been queering museums and/or history in different ways – queering history from the grassroots and agitating for change within institutions and beyond them, queering history with institutional support and leadership, setting up queer archives, exhibitions and LGBT History Month, and even creating a physical Queer Museum. They made an impressive effort to include LGBTIQ+ People of Colour and disabled people on the panel. I had attended a panel discussion on queer history in Melbourne hosted by the National Trust of Victoria just before I left which was more of a manel with white gay men and it was still fresh in my mind. It was a big step for the National Trust of Victoria to be hosting a panel about queer heritage, and the chair from the National Trust and panelist Nick Henderson did acknowledge that it wasn’t a representative panel and made an effort to talk about more diverse histories, but we still have a very long way to go, and the National Trust in the UK appear to be further ahead. Although we did hear about some challenges they had experienced in their attempts to queer history there in the recent past, so there’s definitely hope for us in Victoria. The discussion mentioned that when an institution relies on the public record as ‘proof’ of queer history, this really limits what kinds of queer histories are told and which ones are further marginalised, so we need to be more imaginative and creative to collect and tell diverse queer histories.

This made me think of the National Leprechaun Museum’s approach to talking about histories – there are not really any objective facts about nor ‘proof’ of leprechauns, but lots of stories, myths and legends to share and ways that the stories, myths, and legends has entered the real world to highlight too – for example: a motorway entered up being built around a faerie tree in County Clare following a public campaign.

Someone at the discussion also mentioned the importance of making an institution’s values really explicit to help you reach out to communities and show them that you care about LGBTIQ+ inclusion. The importance of building trust by ensuring that the institution won’t censor or alter LGBTIQ+ histories also came up.

I took a quite a lot of notes, but wrote them in rainbow pencil, which has made them particularly hard to decipher! Luckily, the discussion was recorded so you can watch it below:

V&A Museum LGBT tour

I had heard quite a lot about the work that the V&A Museum has done with LGBT+ communities via Dan Vo on Twitter and from Dan and Zorian Clayton in real life at the Queer and Now discussion. I also always regretted not having made it to the V&A last time I was in London, so I was very keen to go and attend an LGBT tour this time. There is a lot of material in the V&A that is connected to LGBT+ communities and Dan mentioned that there is enough for each volunteer tour guide to tell different queer histories, so you could attend multiple tours and learn different things each time. I love that volunteers are given ownership and are able to put their own spin on the tour. I also loved that Dan’s tour highlighted a number of objects related to Australian LGBT histories (he is from Melbourne ) as well as many related to LGBT+ People of Colour. I think the V&A’s work in this space seemed to be a good example of both queering collections from below or from the grassroots with volunteers like Dan and queering collections at the institutional level or with institutional support via their LGBT+ working group. Particularly in light of the discussion at the Tate (in the above video), I really think there is a need for both approaches, and it is nice to see them in action in the one place.

VAQ

Nicely illustrating how excellent Dan is and how many queer objects there are in the V&A, Dan recently finished showcasing one object for every day of the year – check out the #QueerVAM moment

Pride and Prejudice: Bringing stories out of the closet

The  Pride and Prejudice research project led to an online collection of LGBT+ objects from across different National Museums Liverpool art and social history collections, an LGBT+ trail of items on display, resources and toolkits, and a number of physical exhibitions across the museums and galleries – a few of which I was lucky to see. I had heard about National Museums Liverpool in the MuseoPunks interview with David Fleming, their former director, on ‘Institutional bravery’, or “about the social impact of museum work, advocacy as a strategic objective, and what it means for a museum service to be openly political”, so I expected great things. In fact, it is one of the reasons I decided to go to Liverpool. They very much lived up to my expectations.

Liverpool Museums LGBT+ Trail

This LGBT+ trail was created as part of the Liverpool Museums Pride and Prejudice research project to highlight LGBT+ collection items on display at the Museum of Liverpool, the Walker Art Gallery, Lady Lever Art Gallery, and Sudley House. I only managed to make it to the Walker Art Gallery and Museum of Liverpool which had the most items on the display and they were both excellent.

Zines, colouring in, picture books, fashion and community at Walker Art Gallery

This was the first place I went in Liverpool and not only did it have a small exhibition on Fashion Icons: Celebrating gay designers , it also had an excellent queer exhibition and chill out space with colouring in, LGBT+ zines from their collection, and picture books on display.

The LGBT+ trail items were clearly labelled with the Pride and Prejudice research project logo and an often quite detailed description of their connection to LGBT+ communities, which was really helpful. Often I’ve noticed LGBT+ content is more hidden in the physical museum space and more evident online.

Although not LGBT+, I was also impressed by the way in which the gallery acknowledged Liverpool’s history of slavery throughout the space, and it is further evidence of institutional bravery and the social justice work that museum workers can do.

Tales from the city at the Museum of Liverpool

The Museum of Liverpool was one of the most inclusive and accessible museums I have entered and their LGBT+ ‘Tales from the City’ exhibition made it even more inclusive and accessible. There was an accessible single stall toilet near the exhibition with a sign saying ‘This toilet can be used by everyone” (one of my favourite toilet signs!). Many of the labels I noticed had brail, many videos had British Sign Language, and a lot of audio-visual content (particularly for the LGBT+ exhibition) also had transcripts in fairly large print. The Tales of the City exhibition was quite small but it was more representative across LGBT+ communities than other larger exhibitions I have seen. In particular, I feel like it had more trans representation than I’ve seen. They also used memory maps which I loved and hadn’t really come across before. It seemed like a great way to capture and display peoples’ relationships to a particular place and a way for communities to engage with content creation for an exhibition and/or contribute to the collection. I helped capture and showcase intangible queer heritage which complemented the more tangible objects on display.

Hello Sailor! at the Merseyside Maritime Museum

Above the Merseyside Maritime Museum, you will find the International Museum of Slavery, below it you will find the Seized: The Border and Customs uncovered gallery, and in between their was an exhibition about Liverpool’s connection to the Titanic, so it was very moving and quite grim… But then I came across the Hello Sailor! Gay life on the ocean wave exhibition tucked away in a corner like a little queer oasis. It was actually about how life at sea was something like an oasis for gay sailors in “a sea of hostility”. They could learn and play in foreign ports (and access literature that wasn’t available in England) and were more free to be themselves at sea, but experienced homophobia upon their return home. They also used memory maps and one of them had a connection to Sydney, Australia.

Shelf help and prescription books at Liverpool Central Library

This wasn’t explicitly queer, but I really loved the Liverpool Central library. I particularly liked that they had a ‘Shelf Help’/prescription books display near the entrance connected to other bibliotherapy initiatives. There is a lot of potential for this to include LGBTIQ+ related recommended reading for people who are struggling with coming out, people who are transitioning, people who are struggling to reconcile their faith and sexuality, parents who want to better understand and help their child, and so on. In fact, I tried to advocate for something similar on campus at MPOW last year, but haven’t had the energy to advocate for it as strongly as I would like to do.

Queer(y)ing the Science Museum

Back in London, I enjoyed a sneak peek of the Queering the Science Museum tour at the Science Museum Lates pride edition. It was unaffiliated with the Science Museum and therefore quite different from my other experiences queering museums. I feel like this tour did a lot more queerying of the museum than others did, which I loved as it resonated with some of my feelings expressed earlier this year. I imagine there is also probably more freedom to queery a museum when you’re doing a tour that is unaffiliated with said museum. It turned out there was quite a lot to queery and critique (biases, gender binaries, representations, silences, biological determinism and more) and tour guide Ellie did it well. It was a little like a GLAMorous LGBTIQ+ inclusive practice workshop that I’ve done but even more fun! I had queeried the Pioneer plaque in this workshop and knew about Alan Turing, but quite a lot was new to me and it was the perfect gaytway to the Science Museum. I liked that they very consciously did not want to make it just about celebrating scientists who were gay or trans or rumoured to be gay or trans, and also tried to find diverse stories to tell and queeries to ask. I recommend checking out the podcast Ellie co-hosts with Claire Mead – Transit Spectra : “a digital repository exploring the interaction of science and art in uncovering new visions around gender, sexuality, ecologies and affect”.

SMQ

Desire, love, identity: exploring LGBTQ histories at the British Museum

I queeried the British Museum with the aide of this podcast/audio guide which was very well produced and had excellent and relatively diverse stories about objects that can be found at the British Museum which are connected to LGBTQ histories. I like the idea of being able to listen to podcast about LGBTQ histories without anyone having any idea what you were listening to as it could be particularly great for people who are questioning their sexuality or gender identity and/or anyone who is not yet out. It also seemed like a good option for introverts! However, I did find some of the items a little difficult to find and sometimes got lost given that the museum is so large, so perhaps some sort of digital or physical map to complement the podcast would have helped… (Maybe there was one and I missed it!) Or maybe they could have more prominent labels like the Walker Art Gallery. I also found it quite isolating compared to the tours which had a nice collective buzz and sense of pride. In addition to the podcast, they have an online exhibition on Google Arts & Culture which is great. Their online LGBTQ presence and visibility is strong, but it definitely could be stronger in the physical space. On that note, it is very promising that the British Museum’s physical Desire, Love and Identity exhibition from 2017 will be touring museums around the UK later this year and beyond it.

BMQ

Fish out of water at the Royal Maritime Museum

I was actually sadly back in Melbourne by the time this Fish Out of Water event rolled around but Sacha Coward, the mermaid hunter/museum worker behind it, recently co-wrote an article about it and his work queering the Royal Maritime Museum and discovering queer histories of mermaids, and it sounds like he took the National Leprechaun Museum spirit to queering the museum.

You can also hear from him in this video:

Are leprechauns my mermaids?

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