Polari‘s editor talks to curator R.B. Parkinson about the remarkable publication A Little Gay History and how a heritage of same-sex stories is an integral part of the British Museum.
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The great revelation in A Little Gay History is that stories of same-sex desire are woven into the very fabric of the British Museum. From Mesopotamian iconography dated 1750 BCE through to the Japanese playing cards Drag Queen Deck from 1997 CE, there is a trail that shows homosexuality entwined into a multiplicity of cultures.
A Little Gay History sets out to reinstate the visibility of this rich heritage. Queer history is, by necessity, an act of detective work. It is, as the British Museum has shown, a series of boxes hidden inside other boxes, and more often than not the stories are merely hinted at rather than unambiguously told. The book provides a starting point for exploring the Museum’s artefacts and, as R.B. Parkinson states in his introduction, raises “awareness of the history of some often overlooked aspects of the human condition”. This is a guide to artefacts that remain in their timeline rather than being isolated in a special interest exhibition.
I first went on an LGBT tour of the British Museum in 2011 with Kate Smith and Babs Guthrie from Untold London. The story of the book A Little Gay History, in fact, started with Kate Smith back in 2007, as Richard Parkinson told me as we looked down onto the Great Court of the British Museum from his office.
“Kate Smith’s idea of a trail was perfect,” he said. “You can target it at certain audience and it doesn’t disrupt all the other stories the galleries have to tell. What we now need to do is make sure that when galleries are planned people think of LGBT relevance as an area of inclusion.”
The artefacts remain enmeshed in the narrative of each gallery. The point of the book, as well as the web trail on the British Museum website, is to provide a guide for those interested in the LGBT objects while at the same time leaving them in place for every museum visitor to see.
“The reason there isn’t a special exhibition is that what interested me was not getting something special and temporary, but something that was completely embedded into the permanent displays.”
With the objects in their original timeline, heritage and context are established. “People who won’t go to a special gay exhibition will walk past the Warren Cup and look. By normalising it you stop people reacting badly to it.”
The Warren Cup, which the British Museum purchased in 1999, depicts male homosexual sex. It is of Roman origin and dated c. 10 CE. It is named for the American art collector Edward Perry Warren.
The Warren Cup is one of the principal artefacts in the collection. “It’s the most explicit and the most glamorous,” Richard comments. “It’s the one where nobody has any doubt about what is going on. There are no difficulties of interpretation.”
Interpretation is, of course, essential in piecing together stories that were hidden and sometimes only known because of criminal proceedings. As the introduction to A Little Gay History observes. “It is hard to assess actual lived experiences even from legal records, since laws present a rather simplified view of society.”
The book and the trail are about searching out the hints and bringing them into the light. This means it is an experiment that is fluid, and always changing.
The Museum recommends that a visitor should download the online web trails, which contain the most current information. “One is thematic, and a reduced version of the book, and one is an object trail that will tell people which galleries have which objects. We used to have a paper trail devised by Untold London but that’s been phased out as objects have moved. Objects move, they’re taken off display, and so we encourage people to go to the website and download the trail from there.”
That does mean that there are many objects in the collection not on display, yet because the British Museum has a policy of total access it is possible for a visitor to see any and every artefact.
Funerary Papyrus of Henuttawy, depicting mythical scenes including autofellatio
“Absolutely anybody can see absolutely anything, as long as they make an appointment to do so. What you need for that is the object number, and the department, which are available online from the collections database. Some departments get a lot of enquiries, such as prints and drawings, but others have more restricted opening hours.”
The book has involved all departments of the British Museum and has been years in the making. “Kate Smith was the impetus for the first trail in 2007,” Richard said of its evolution, “then in 2009 LGBT History Month wanted its prelaunch at the Museum.” The success of the updated object trail then led to the idea of an illustrated book. “We decided to take the trail, research it more deeply, expand it and put it on the website. At that point I approached the British Museum press and suggested expanding it into a book.”
The process was, from the start, a collaborative one. “Specialist colleagues helped choose the objects. With help from Kate Smith and Max Caroci, who is an anthropologist, the text was drafted and then signed off by specialists. That way we could have a unified tone, but it would not have been possible without so many specialists from across the Museum. That was invaluable.”
The title A Little Gay History is as controversial as the objects it contains. The introduction makes an interesting and persuasive case for why the word ‘gay’ was used instead of a more politically charged term such as queer, of LGBT+.
“When we created the web trail we used the term ‘same-sex desire’. My preference would have been for that because when you’re talking about Ancient Egypt to say ‘gay’ or ‘queer’ is entirely meaningless. Same-sex desire avoids the issues with terminology. It’s neutral and not anachronistic.”
And yet it is not called A Little Same-Sex Desire History. “When it came to the book the obvious word was ‘gay’ as it was the most transparent. Queer would have offended some people. The Museum wouldn’t have worried about it but would have been more problematic. LGBT was a non-starter because the Press felt it would only be understood by the community. We felt that it had to be aimed not a community but at every museum visitor. We felt we had to go for something instantly transparent.”
A title for a book such as this one is always going to be politically charged, and I find the idea of transparency a persuasive one in this case, even though the word ‘gay’ has started to date. Yet it is worth remembering that the book does have a subtitle: Desire and Diversity Across the World. And that desire is same-sex desire. The content of the book is diverse, and far beyond anything a single title could possibly suggest.
The cover of the book, which features the statues of the Emperor Hadrian and his lover Antinous, is the start of the story. “It’s one of the earliest documented relationships. We wanted the book to be about romance relationships as well as about people having sex.”
Another option for the cover was the Hockney picture In The Dull Village. “But then it would have looked like just another book about gay art. What we wanted to do was base it around the museum collection and base it around objects not just another selection of images. There was a danger that it would just be pictures of sexual activity and again we wanted to get away from that stereotype. And to be frank we don’t have that many depictions of sexual activity between men or between women.”
Therefore the story starts with Hadrian and Antinous. “It’s what people expect from a museum. It’s what people recognise as gay because it’s classical and once you have that attention you can remind people that there are lots of other cultures, other relationships, and other objects that are relevant.”