Queer Tales: Myths and Monsters

February is LGBT+ History Month and we are celebrating LGBTQ+ people in all their rich diversity. However, our celebration extends far beyond just one month, with events and activities that are part of ongoing programmes, and the launch of new programmes which will continue all year round.

Storytelling is an important way in which we connect with each other, share information, traditions and ideas, and also a way that we can shape new possibilities, together. But whose stories do museums tell? And who is it that’s doing the telling?

In August 2020, in the middle of a global pandemic, Queer Tales: Myths and Monsters put LGBTQ+ voices at the heart of some of the most imaginative storytelling bringing a spark of joy when we all needed it most…

Find out more about our about our LGBTQ+ programming on Queering Manchester Museum.

Queer Tales

“Oh yes, this will be a very different tour of the collection. A tour of stories less well trodden. Stories of monsters and magic. Stories often consigned to the mythical, the contested, and the imagined.”

Cheddar Gorgeous

In celebration of Manchester Pride last summer, and as part of an ongoing programme of online, digital and download activities, it was a great pleasure to collaborate once again with Cheddar Gorgeous, co-curating and co-producing a spellbinding digital show, Queer Tales: Myths and Monsters.

Cheddar self-describes as a drag artist, academic and unicorn, and otherworldly mother of drag family, The Family Gorgeous. Cheddar founded the Manchester club night Cha Cha Boudoir, and in Channel 4’s Drag SOS, brought the transformational power of drag to communities across the UK.

Our creative partnership began in 2018 with An Afternoon with the Family Gorgeous, followed by The Museum Menagerie in 2019. These were spectacular family-friendly live performances in the museum’s galleries. In 2020, despite – and in spite of – the challenges of COVID-19, Cheddar and I were determined once again to bring a bit of fabulousness to the museum and its collections, when we all needed it most!

Email, Zoom and WhatsApp replaced in-person curator-led store tours and coffee catch ups. And in the deserted galleries, which would normally have been filled with the excited chatter of summer holiday visitors, for an audience of no one but echoes, Cheddar filmed a magical tour of the museum, introducing artistic responses to the collection…

“Some stories you may know, some stories stand proudly adorning the cabinets around me, whilst others persist between the lines of the composed passages and sanctioned narratives of the institution.”

Cheddar Gorgeous

Myths and Monsters – Queering the Narrative

The theme was deliberately broad and intended as a generative space for each artist to respond personally and meaningfully to the Museum’s collections. However, underpinning all the performances was the idea of the power of myth as a special type of storytelling which creates a shared experience and creates a sense of kinship and belonging.

Historically, and sadly still for many today, LGBTQ+ people have been made to feel like their bodies and their experiences are in some way ‘unnatural’. However, mythologies are punctuated with stories in which humans and other creatures transcend boundaries of gender; in which difference represents power and beauty. Unsurprisingly, then, mythical creatures have become a mainstay of the queer imagination and the reclamation of the monstrous has become a site of power. Therefore, myth, like drag, is a medium which can disrupt the reflective surface of traditional modes of representation.

Drag is a dramatic, visual medium through which artists embody and express many ideas, including creativity, identity and protest. Each of the Queer Tales performances brought a museum object to life. Each talked in different ways about queerness, lived-experience, the challenges of representation and the drive for acceptance and belonging, as well as the possibilities of transformation and becoming.

‘The White Widow Spider’ by Lill

In a mesmerising short film, Lill takes us on an otherworldly journey through a familiar narrative of Mary Howitt’s The Spider and the Fly, which she transforms and reveals to us through a queer lens.

The story tells of a cunning spider who entraps a fly into its web through the use of seduction and manipulation. I think this especially apt for this kind of spider, who apparently has many different partners shares them with her mates and sometimes eats them!

Lill

Illustration of the White Widow Spider, Latrodectus pallidus, from the Beauty and the Beasts exhibition at Manchester Museum. ©Vladimir Timokhanov

Spiders have appeared in myth, folklore and popular fiction from antiquity to the modern day. Feared by some and cast as a monster, while in other traditions, the spinner and weaver was the creator of worlds. This makes an interesting interplay between traditional gender roles.

Though the words remain the same, Lill’s performance sexualises the narrative of the spider and the fly, evoking elements of danger, narcissism, seduction and desire.

‘The Horned God’ by Cheddar Gorgeous

In a magnificent imagining of Oscar Wilde’s Pan — Double Villanelle using Björk’s Pagan Poetry and Cosmic Love by Florence + the Machine, Cheddar playfully troubles the normalised institutional narratives that exclude the voices of the marginalised.

I’ve always been fascinated with horned gods. They appear in different cultures all over the world, associated with nature, mischief and uncertainty. They usually predate the pantheons and stories in which they appear, yet are often recast as villains or minor cameos. This performance was a response to a poem by Oscar Wilde that begged for the return of the Greek god Pan. In it I imagine a horned god waking up to a world that has no place for wildness or ambiguity.

Cheddar Gorgeous

Red figure vessel depicting the god Pan, from Manchester Museum’s Collection.

Myths have been entwined with people’s lives, ideas and beliefs for millennia. They can be an explanation of origins and endings, and a way of negotiating fear. But myths are never static, and they are not sacred. Since antiquity, mythologies have been rewritten, reframed and reinvented within the framework of contemporary ideologies. And today, reworking myths and monsters from marginalised perspectives is far more than a reminder that queer people have always existed, it is a powerful mechanism to dismantle patriarchal narratives and to celebrate the queer body and the queer experience.

‘Writing Myself in History’ by Adam Lowe / Beyoncé Holes

Adam Lowe is a poet and performs as the drag queen, Beyoncé Holes. Adam’s poem, Writing Myself in History paired with Beyoncé Holes’ performance of Us by Regina Spektor poignantly refuse to disentangle the intersectional narratives of queer people and people of colour and not only asks whose stories museums are telling, but also who is it that is doing the telling?

So today, I have shared two things with you. One was my poem ‘Writing myself in history’, which is an act of reclamation; imagining myself in the history books and changing the history to suit me, and to tell the story that I want to tell. And to contrast that, my performance was ‘Us’ by Regina Spektor. I think there are a lot of parallels between the two. The song is obviously about statues being made of these two people who are in love, it’s kind of idolising them. And it made me think of how people of colour and queer people have often been exhibits in museums but not necessarily the people telling the stories themselves and it’s just interesting to think about how we can be held up like these statues without it actually telling our story.

Adam Lowe

Ibeji figure, Manchester Museum’s Collection.

Increasingly, museums are challenging the colonial narratives on which they were founded and confronting the decontextualisation, objectification and exotification of cultural objects.

While there is a validation in seeing yourself represented in narratives of the past, especially for those who have been marginalised within mainstream culture, this performance unsettles the institutional narrative which puts queerness on display. It highlights the importance of not only including the stories which have so often been overlooked in the traditional, patriarchal telling of history, but empowering people to reclaim these spaces and tell their own stories.

‘Metamorphosis’ by The Vicar’s Daughter

Using Transylvanian Lullaby by Erutan and Fist full of Love by Anthony and the Johnsons, The Vicar’s Daughter captures the pathos of the Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis as a reading of the queer body, with narratives of body image, transformation and shame.

If I had to choose my favourite bug I would choose a Beetle. When I see one scuttle by I think of Franz Kafka’s story The Metamorphosis. I think of poor Gregor Samsa, with so much responsibility and expectation weighing on him he wakes one morning and finds himself transformed into a giant insect. When they discover his fate his family are disgusted and fearful of his transformation. Those whom he though would love him unconditionally, treat him cruelly and hide him away in shame.

The Vicar’s Daughter

Violet Click Beetle, Limoniscus violaceus, from Manchester Museum Collection. Part of the Beauty and the Beasts exhibition.

Belonging is part of human existence, and all too often LGBTQ+ people are made to feel like they do not belong and that their bodies, feelings and experiences are ‘unnatural’. While LGBTQ+ people have been viewed as ‘monsters’ and queerness vilified by mainstream culture, it is perhaps unsurprising that queer people often feel affinity with the villain or monster (from ancient myths to comic books), and this in itself exposes the prejudices and social inequalities of contemporary society. However, this identification can also provide a site of empowerment. At a time of uncertainly and political distrust while LGBT rights are threatened, young people are increasingly drawing strength from societies’ countercultures, and those people and creatures who defy and challenge the institutional norms.

Between the ancient and modern imaginations

As sociable bodies, we all look for ourselves to be represented, both in the world around us and in the histories that we tell and remember. The visibility of LGBTQ+ people and their stories, both in the present and the past is an important part of constructing identity and finding validation. By reframing mythologies, Queer Tales enabled us to explore the intersection between the ancient and modern imaginations and the idea that queerness – and its acceptance – has historical precedents and is not a new phenomenon.

Co-curation remains at the heart of this collaborative journey as we continue to bring new voices to museum objects and build meaningful connections with LGBTQ+ people and those exploring their gender and identity.

Michelle Scott

With very special thanks to Cheddar Gorgeous, Lill, Adam Lowe and The Vicar’s Daughter for their creativity, care and imagination.

Many thanks also to the Curators and Curatorial Assistants for their enthusiasm and collections knowledge, and to everyone who has supported this project.

Find out more about our about our LGBTQ+ programming on Queering Manchester Museum.

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