Richard Parkinson, British Museum, London, UK: A ‘Great Unrecorded History’: Presenting LGBT History in a Museum for the World

Warren Cup

At the LGBTI ALMS 2012 Conference, Richard Parkinson of the British Museum in London held a key note speach on day 3, in which he told how the British Museum's LGBT history web-trail came about. He also made some observations about collaborations with heritage institutions, and explained his future plans.

Click on read more, to read Richard Parkinson's key note speach!

I’m here to represent some activities by the British Museum, and to tell you how the museum’s LGBT history web-trail came about, to make some observations about collaborations with heritage institutions, and also explain our future plans.

As background: the British Museum has over the past decade put on various relevant exhibitions, in particular about the famous ‘Warren cup’. This was acquired in 1999 and has been on permanent display ever since, and was the centre of a short temporary special exhibition on sex and society in 2006. This explored ancient attitudes to male sexuality, and linked them with modern attitudes, juxtaposing the cup with image from Brokeback Mountain. And the Roman emperor Hadrian’s relationship with Antinous was celebrated in the blockbuster special exhibition 2008. And, of course, Neil Macgregor’s History of the World in a Hundred Objects included the cup and also a Hockney etching illustrating a Cavafy poem. Anyway, in 2007 Kate Smith wanted to write an LGBT web-trail around the museum for the Culture 24 web-site. The museum press office put her in touch with me and I helped her to liaise with colleagues as she wrote the trail. A few years later, the organisers of LGBT History Month approached the museum’s community officer as a venue for their annual pre-launch, and I suggested that we revised and extended the trail and put it on the museum web-site as part of our contribution to LGBT history month. And so, in 2009 a ‘same-sex desire and gender identity’ trail joined other themes there. These all explore fundamental cross-cultural subjects as time, a means of encouraging people to investigate the full diversity of the collections and the cultures that produced them. The trail was written by the in-house web-team, and my colleague Max Carocci advised on the anthropological aspects. We included some objects that are not on permanent public display (due to conservation concerns and not censorship), but we hoped that the trail would be actively used in the galleries as well as online, as it has been.

I myself am not historian of sexuality, but simply a gay Egyptologist who specialises in Middle Kingdom literature from 1850 BC, but the earliest known chat up line in human history is one between two men that is preserved in this corpus (‘What a lovely backside you have’), and from this work I became involved in the controversy about the ‘first gay kiss’: near Cairo, there is a tomb shared by two men who are shown embracing, and this has been interpreted as a socially sanctioned same-sex partnership. However, I regret to say, they are almost certainly twins; but such ancient images pose the basic questions about the extent to which gay identity and same sex desire can be identified in the historical record; issues that are not exclusively ancient but appear in, for example, 19th century American photos. I’ve also worked a little on how some striking scenes of sex acts are in their cultural context religious iconography and not pornography. Even an erection is a cultural construct.

We chose about twenty objects, as wide-ranging as possible, to show how different cultures construct love, sexuality and gender in many different ways, and I wanted to exemplify the uncertainties of the historical process, rather than offering any black and white claims that might distract from the sheer depth of our history. The key aim was to remind people that same-sex desire is not a recent phenomenon as is often claimed. So we discussed whether Gilgamesh and Enkiku in the great Mesopotamian epic poem might be ‘friend friend’s or ‘euphemism friends’ in Harvey Fierstein’s phrase? And were the two ancient Egyptians who commemorated themselves together as ‘brothers’ on this funerary monument a pair of twins or lovers (Again, I regret to say that it is in my opinion a question of twins). In a permanent gallery in the museum there is simply not space to address this question, but a web-trail based on the permanent displays allows more to be explored, and the museum’s online database of the collections allows a fuller treatment of the objects than a label.

Desire leaves very few archaeological traces, and we wanted to remind visitors that our presence in history may not always be as immediately obvious or explicit, but it is nevertheless there and is in part recoverable. The relevance of one simple quilt lies in an anecdote told to the scholar who collected it, that it was made by a hijra. Due to the partial and biased nature of the historical record, men predominate, and women’s desire is often less visible in the museum’s objects, despite some famous figures such as Sappho, and some glimpses on domestic items. Nevertheless, the range of images as a whole is a reminder that there are many different ways of being LGBT. The trail is thematically structured, and one theme is changing attitudes, from the persecutions suffered in early modern Europe—including Amsterdam I fear—to establishment figures connected with the museum’s history, such as the 19th century collector William Bankes who fled the country after being caught with a soldier. The final item we chose was, of course a badge, for the 2010 History month.

The trail sits as a permanent feature in a fairly rich site, and was one of the most visited after those about money and animals, but it’s still easy to miss. So Kate Smith of Untold London suggested that we produced a paper version of the trail that could be distributed to specific target audiences. Untold London is a Museum of London project to discover LGBT histories across London, and was founded in 2007 (http://untoldlondon.org.uk/). This was an ideal collaboration, since the style of the paper trail could be freer than the Museum’s rather classical house-style. Note, for example the change from the neutral term ‘same-sex desire’ to ‘LGBT’, a phrase that was considered simply not transparent enough for most audiences of the web-site version. The new paper trail was also addressed primarily at an LGBT audience, and was distributed to venues such as Gay’s the Word in London, and publicised in QX magazine (http://www.qxmagazine.com/feature/a-history-of-the-gay-world-in-10-objects/). It was a great success, with 10,000 printed and 1000 given away at London Gay Pride free, and copies are still available on request at the Great Court Information desk at the museum. The great thing was that the two institutions complemented each other and produced a sustainable collaboration. The museum now takes part in the annual Write Queer London festival, administered by Untold London, with a lecture and workshop (the 2012 lecture is published as audio on the museum’s web-site. These activities are now firmly embedded in the museum’s calendar of events, as a productive model for other institutions to follow suit. One measure of how things have changed over the past decades is the simplicity with which we can now say on a museum label for everyone that Antinous was Hadrian’s ‘lover’. And for example, the Victoria & Albert Museum has a LGBTQ working group and related web-pages on its site; such changes are hopefully irreversible, but they have not necessarily always been easy.

Sustainable collaborations also lay strategic foundations for further growth: the success of the collaboration, and in particular of the paper trail, encouraged me to suggest to British Museum Press that there was a need for a book, and they have commissioned A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the World. This will expand on the trail in both depth and range, arranged not thematically but in chronological order. The aim is to be a short and accessible introduction to key issues about history and identity, in a well illustrated and engaging format, for as wide a readership as possible.. As Kate Smith remarked at an early stage in planning, the book should be something that a young person who was coming out could read, and could also give to their grandmother (although many of the images remain explicit, for the purely academic reason that scenes of sex provide the least ambiguous images of same-sex desire). Many of our histories concern silence, oppression and persecution, but I wanted to follow the more positive lead given by E. M. Forster, when he remarked of his Egyptian lover, Mohammed el-Adl:
When I am with him, smoking or talking quietly ahead, or whatever it may be, I see, beyond my own happiness and intimacy, occasional glimpses of the happiness of 1000s of others whose names I shall never hear, and know that there is a great unrecorded history.[1]
Within a single museum it is hard to be utterly comprehensive. Some cultures, such as the Edo period Japan, have given same-sex desire prominence in art forms that have been valued and collected; others have not. Some objects have been valued, some suppressed, some simply not collected by the museum, but the modern history of many objects says much about contemporary cultural attitudes (as well as shaping the surviving data for modern historians). It will be a partial, fragmented history, only occasional glimpses, but such is the nature of our evidence.

With some periods we have explored the collections in more depth, as with Gilgamesh and Enkidu, shown on one cylinder seal as butch heroes. Visual art and texts predominate, as these can record desire more directly than many other sorts of object. But occasionally, objects give us the irreplaceable ‘touch of the real’, that texts alone cannot: on a sheet of Michelangelo’s, the combination of the superb drawing of the fall of Phaethon and the elegantly written note to his young friend protesting it is just a sketch, embodies an infatuated self-humiliating eagerness to impress a young man in a way that is instantly recognisable. We have tried to include, where possible, contemporaneous quotes from original voices to evoke how the original actors perceived their lives, and to evoke specific experiences rather than generalised historical views.

Despite the uncertainties of historical identity, we felt it was still useful to remind people of the ‘great and good’ historical LGBT figures, and so some are well-known, such as Shakespeare, or the cross-dressing Chevalier d’Eon. Others, however, are less well known, and three ceramic figures will I think be published for the first time. They are by the expressionist German potter Augusta Kaiser, around 1924–5, and were kept by her life-partner Hedwig Marquardt after her death. Two are domestic images of women made by a woman and treasured by a woman; a reminder that LGBT identity can be shaped by concerns of domesticity. Another theme that will emerge is how cultural traditions can shape modern identities (as with a native American commemorative quilt) and so we’ll also reflect on the museum’s role in this history, with Greek art most famously acting as touchstones for European gay identity and rights, and we will also include some of the great love stories set in the museum, such as E. M. Forster’s Maurice. Also, self-reflexively, we can note that Lord Wolfenden of report fame was the director of the British Museum during the years when Gay Pride started. The more modern parts of LGBT history are strong in some of the museum’s collections; in particular badges can bring us to the present day, as do prints of the Australian artist David McDiarmid’s ‘Rainbow aphorisms’, and the witty drag queen pack of cards, by the Japanese artist and activist Ōtsuka Takashi. Even within a single museum’s collections, we want to show that there were and are many different ways of being LGBT (and not all of them dead and serious).

A short epilogue will review Marguerite Yourcenar’s heroic recreation of the Hadrian’s life in her famous novel as a model for how we envisage our history for ourselves: we’ll use the manuscript for her great and profoundly queer Memoirs of Hadrian, which was displayed in the Hadrian exhibition, but we will also include an image of Hadrian's villa by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, partly because it inspired her, but also because a print of it hung over the fireplace of the house she shared with her life partner Grace Frick in Maine.

This illustrated book does not aim to embody the full academic range of queer studies or of museology studies. Its aims are more practical: to be of some use in increasing public awareness of the diversity of desire and identity, and to move some readers beyond the usual stereotypes, reminding them that LGBT can be defined not only by sex but also by domesticity. Perhaps, despite the title, it will end up slightly post-gay. The book is planned to be published next year, and it will be accompanied by a revised and expanded version of the web-trail, and will also be published as an e-book and a series of podcasts.

We’re grateful to many colleagues: these days it seems that everyone has to do more, so people have been asked to help us with the project on top of their normal duties. Many of the objects have been the results of conversations with helpful colleagues in the staff canteen (usually requests to find me some more historical lesbians). Much has depended on personal contacts rather than mission statements; personal respect remains one key factor. Looking back on the history of the project so far, I would make some observations about collaboration with heritage institutions, which are purely personal, specific, and make no claim to general relevance. I’m surprised not to see more museum colleagues here, and I don’t want to speak unwarrantedly on their behalf. Museums are usually very (self)-aware of their own audiences, and they often have house-styles. While these may not meet all the desires of queer history, they usually exist for very good reasons. Untold London was a joy to work with: we could assess together the best way to achieve something permanent, and Kate was respectful of what I thought was or what was not compatible with my institution’s house-style. I personally would always aim for a long term relationship between organisation, and not just a quick special exhibition or intervention. Going into a museum to ‘queering’ a collection briefly can have great impact, but embedding our histories into the permanent displays is I think also a priority. A quick burst of combative and striking publicity is great, but we should also think in the long term about sustainable relationships and legacies. A good collaboration can achieve more than what either party could have achieved alone.

Specialist museums are invaluable, but international institutions have inevitably more and other priorities. My own personal sense is that the more world-wide a museum aims to be, the less easy it is for it to focus exclusively on specific communities. No matter how ethical and committed to human rights a heritage organisation is, there are always going to many different agendas and audiences that demand attention, and that do not always run parallel to our particular history. Especially in an age of austerity, there are also the issues of sponsors, patrons, and relationships with source communities and governments, who might not all be as fully supportive of LGBT history as we would like. It is a hard fact to face, but support for us is not always without risks for a organisations, and we must be prepared for acknowledge that.

What an international museum can give, beyond lending their supposed brand and authority to the cause, is the sheer range of their audiences, and I would end by noting that our histories often seem to be aimed at our own community—where they are undoubtedly most needed. But we should also remember that for our histories to be truly queer, they should not only be radical but also perhaps accessible, inclusive, multiple and not monolithic. In preparing the book, I have been shocked that some supportive heterosexual people have simply not got why we should feel we need our history so much: we really do need to address everybody. Love, desire and gender in all their diversity are never minority concerns, and having to speak to the whole world is not such a bad thing. All too often, we are told that we are hidden from history and are marginal, but taking a longer view that is not really the case, as Yourcenar remarked while sitting under that Piranesi: we are as much part of the centre as anyone. We are (always have been, always will be) integral parts of human history: and so our histories must not be marginal.

[1] E. M. Forster  (ed. M. Lago and P. N. Furbank), Selected Letters of E. M. Forster I: 1879–1920 (London 1983),  269.


  1. For your consideration.

  2. Thank you. It is very useful. I am trying to locate a manuscript written by Richard Parkinson the Anthropologist around 5th of April 1902. Written about the piece of Land called 'Etavoka. It was a piece of land on the St. Mathias group of Island that parked almost a trouble fight in this part of the world and Richard was able to settled the ownership.I would appreciate if you can assist in finding this manuscript

    Thank you
    Edward Kenas


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