LGBT+ History Month 2019
Peace, Reconciliation and Activism
February is LGBT History Month, and 2019 marks its 15th year. This year’s theme is all about claiming our past, celebrating our present and creating our future.
“It is crucial that the struggles and fights of others, to give us the lives we have today, are recognised. It is also so important that we understand the fights that are still continuing to happen, and still need to happen, to give folk liberation and peace.”
It is particularly fitting that claiming the past resonates with similar conversations currently being considered here at Manchester Museum around gender and identity in response to the assumed heteronormativity in the collection, unless specifically exploring themes of gender or sexuality. Acknowledging the existence of alternative interpretations opens up a wealth of opportunities to think about museums and their objects in different ways.
In this week’s Story from the Museum Floor we take a look back at last summer’s collaboration between Manchester Museum and Manchester-based drag collective, Family Gorgeous, which brought queer storytelling to museum objects in an afternoon of tours and performance.
We have all kinds of events coming up at the museum over the next few months, so check out our Events Calendar to find out what’s on!
An Afternoon with the Family Gorgeous and friends
During the summer of 2018, some of Manchester’s most creative drag queens disrupted over one hundred years of tradition and expectation in an afternoon of queer storytelling and cabaret…
Using drag as a medium for artistic response, the performances reinterpreted some of the objects from Manchester Museum’s collection, within the context of gender and identity to appeal to both family and LGBTQ+ audiences. This was a chance to challenge the traditional museum narratives, and to tell new stories about old objects and to tell old stories in new ways. But importantly, this was the start of a new conversation…
Unpicking old stories
A museum is a performance space (in this case, quite literally!). It is a place where history and nature are performed and received, and the past actors are not only those people who made and used the objects displayed, but also the collectors, the keepers and curators – those who have made choices, conscious or otherwise, about how the collection is presented. These choices, the objects and their told-stories have become part of our museum-habit.
A Victorian collection. Manchester Museum’s Egyptology gallery c.1912. (Source)
It is well and truly time to start unpicking the stories that tell us more about the power, politics and the position of knowledge in the nineteenth and twentieth century than they do about the objects they are representing…
The re-gender agenda
Back in March 2018, Manchester Museum contributed a programme of talks, tours and blog posts to the Wonder Women Festival, showcasing some of the women who shaped Manchester Museum and the University of Manchester. The point of the Wonder Women project was to re-gender the popular histories that have been built upon out-dated, socially constructed narratives – to highlight pioneers and history-makers and to create role models.
Some of the women we celebrated during the Wonder Women Festival.
But we also wanted to avoid re-stating difference, aiming rather to trouble the gender binary. Therefore, one of the key purposes of the whole ‘re-gender’ project, of which An Afternoon with the Family Gorgeous was a part, is to expose the cultural and institutional mechanisms behind pretty displays in glass cases. And to disrupt the traditional, male, heteronormative lens through which the objects have been interpreted and consequently received.
Queering the collection
In the summer, coinciding with Manchester Pride, we were keen to deconstruct the privileges that have been afforded to some objects and their stories over others and to explore the object-histories that may have been marginalised within museum culture.
Two words… Drag queens. What better way to trouble the gender binary?
In a way, all drag is political. As a living artistic form, drag brings into sharp perspective the constructed nature of gender – gender as ‘doing’ rather than ‘being’ – and the subversive and unexpected nature of drag has the potential to disrupt the gender roles that have become normalised by habit.
“I think all people who play with gender and play with this kind of expression and being there in a kind of extravagant OTT way are involved in a form of activism. When you put your body on display in that way and when you exist for people in a way that challenges something about them you are doing something political, you are challenging something, and I think that there is an important part of drag that is unavoidably also activism as well as art.”
Protest and activism – drag queens and kings marching against trump in the summer of 2018 (Source)
Through gallery and store tours, across 3 days, Manchester Museum’s curators worked with the drag queens, revealing hidden histories, and challenging assumptions and privileges based on gender.
Campbell Price, Curator of Egypt and Sudan, and Stephen Welsh, Curator of Living Cultures revealing hidden histories and queer stories in the Museum stores, with drag queens Cheddar Gorgeous and Liquorice Black.
The drag queens (themselves part of Manchester’s LGBTQ+ community) selected museum objects predominantly collected by white, middle class Victorian men. They each produced the text which would become part of that object’s (hi)story. Their (re)interpretation through the lens of gender and identity was the starting point for their artistic response. The drag queens were given free rein to decide on how they would interpret and present the object.
Liquorice Black and Cheddar Gorgeous exploring the private lives of plants and animals with Rachel Webster, Curator of Botany, and Phil Rispin, Curatorial Assistant (Entomology).
Although less visible than the performance itself, this represents a significant shift in the way that museums are beginning to think about objects and people, and the multiple stories that they can tell, and can be told about them. And while the performance was about moments and experience, this was a way of producing a tangible legacy that will last after the clouds of hairspray and glitter have dissipated.
The text panels were displayed with the objects for the performance, then remained in place until the objects came off display when the work started on our exciting hello future transformation.
A very queer afternoon…
A very queer afternoon at the museum… Liquorice Black, Eva Serration, Donna Trump, Venus Vienna, Anna Phylactic and Cheddar Gorgeous.
We were keen to make sure that we approached LGBTQ+ history and inclusion in a way that wasn’t ‘adult only’, challenging narratives of sexuality that may have been previously considered as taboo. The afternoon event ensured that we very visibly disrupted tradition and invited both new and existing audience of all ages to be a part of this conversation.
A Lovely Time
The performance saw more than 420 visitors of all ages, from multiple backgrounds, guided on a fabulous journey of queer exploration through the museum’s diverse collections of history and nature.
For many of these visitors, this was their first visit to the museum, accessing the collection specifically for the performance and its queer narrative. The engagement with regular return visitors demonstrates a real resonance with the values of the museum’s family audience. Mapping digital reach, the visibility of the University of Manchester’s commitment to social responsibility was highlighted through well over 5,000 interactions on social media during and immediately following the event.
There is a strong sense of importance that this kind of event is happening, specifically here in Manchester.
Here’s what people were saying…
“As a parent, it made my heart want to burst! They should be doing these performances in schools. We need more of this kind of thing to inspire and empower our kids.”
“Brill. Very good day. Deffo come again. Laughed so hard.”
“I have learnt more in this afternoon about museums than I have in my entire Museum Studies Course!”
Continuing the conversation
An Afternoon with the Family Gorgeous was a visually and conceptually spectacular way to increase the museum’s visibility as a safe place that encourages exploration and reflection. This event is only one step (admittedly a ridiculously glittery high-heeled step) on a journey to becoming a place where nobody feels excluded. And this is just the start of a conversation where we can actively listen and respond to multiple voices and advocate for social change and inclusion across Manchester and beyond.
Michelle Scott and Deborah Ward
With very special thanks to Cheddar Gorgeous, Anna Phylactic, Liquorice Black, Eva Serration, Venus Vienna and Donna Trump for their time, energy, creativity and care which made this such a special experience for our visitors.
Many thanks also to curators, Stephen Welsh, Campbell Price, Rachel Webster, and Phil Rispin for the providing the inspiration, tireless enthusiasm and expertise, and for bringing the collection to life, and to the Visitor Team and volunteers, without whom events like this could not happen.
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Cover photo: Magnus Hastings