Welcome to the Sackler Library blog!
This, our first post in our ‘LIKE @ SAC!’ series, marks LGBT History Month 2018 and highlights a favourite item in the Sackler Library’s collections:
R. B. Parkinson
A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity Across the World
(London: British Museum, 2013)
“All too often, written history is monolithic and not multiple, and it quietly suppresses aspects of life that are not considered ‘normal’ by the governing culture.” (Parkinson, 2013, p. 118).
My choice of ‘LIKE @ SAC’ item in the Sackler Library is Richard Bruce Parkinson’s A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity Across the World. Published by the British Museum, where Parkinson was a a curator in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the time, this book is one element of a wider project to make LGBTQ objects and histories more accessible at the British Museum. A trail aimed at uncovering LGBTQ stories and interpretations relating to objects housed at the Museum was launched eight years ago, during LGBT History Month 2009. It drew attention not only to objects with obvious, or explicit, links to LGBTQ history, but also to those whose connections are more implicit or unrecorded. Since then, items have been coming out of the closet and into the display cabinets, marking a change in the practice of locking such objects away, such as was practised by the British Museum until the 1950s.
Parkinson’s book highlights objects from c.9000 BCE to 2000 CE, taking into account cultures ranging from Japan to Greece, and including objects in the British Museum’s collections as well as elsewhere. Starting with a Sculpted figurine of two lovers (10000BCE, approx.), excavated near Bethlehem, Parkinson, now Professor of Egyptology, University of Oxford, highlights the assumptions that are made when interpreting the past. Why do we assume that the sculpted figures are male and female, instead of showing same-sex desire?
I am particularly drawn to busts of Hadrian and Antinous, both represented on the book’s front cover. A Newcastle native, I have a natural interest in Hadrian and his nearby, eponymous Wall. In our school history lessons, however, we never covered the effect of the death of Antinous on Hadrian, the subsequent deification of Antinous, and the founding of a city, Antinopolis, in his honour.
Crucially, this book also includes more recent objects from LGBTQ culture, with artworks and badges from Pride marches and campaigns, giving an insight, perhaps, into what future curators will look at when considering the histories of the current era.
For me it is important to celebrate not only the objects themselves, but the changing heritage discourse this book represents. Museums are reflecting on their roles in representing and constructing society, and adapting their displays and policies accordingly. John Vincent (2014) discusses the importance of the LGBTQ community in seeing themselves reflected in museum and heritage collections. The work that has gone into exploring and elaborating on LGBTQ identities shows an important shift in the cultures of participation and inclusion of under-represented communities. Sandell (2017) highlights the role museums can play in countering prejudice. As LGBT History Month becomes more widely known, there is also an emerging interest in recognising and noting LGBTQ histories. The V&A, the National Trust and the British Museum have all held recent LGBTQ exhibitions. In addition, a major funder, the Heritage Lottery Fund, is currently seeking proposals based on LGBTQ histories (Heritage Lottery Fund, 2017).
A Little Gay History has inspired further projects exploring LGBTQ histories. After hearing Parkinson deliver Oxford University’s LGBT History Month Lecture in 2016, Beth Asbury was inspired to apply for funding to put together an LGBTQ Trail across Oxford’s Gardens, Libraries and Museums (also known as ‘GLAM’). The result of this was the Out in Oxford Trail, launched during LGBT History Month 2017. The Trail celebrates the diversity of Oxford’s collections, and uncovers queer stories associated with these objects. This project continues today with a recently launched app.
A Little Gay History represents an important shift in the cultural heritage establishment, not just because of the objects highlighted within it, but also because it illustrates the important step in the study, inclusion and representation of LGBTQ identities as an essential part of our culture. Our history is no longer closeted, our stories are no longer hidden.
“We are (always have been, always will be) integral parts of human history: and so our histories must not be marginal.” (Parkinson, 2012, para. 16.)
Archaeology & Tyler Anthropology Librarian
Heritage Lottery Fund, 2017. South East England focus on LGBT+ heritage – tell us your story! [online] Available at: https://www.hlf.org.uk/about-us/news-features/south-east-england-focus-lgbt-heritage-–-tell-us-your-story [Accessed: 05/02/2018]
Parkinson, R. 2012. A ‘Great Unrecorded History’: Presenting LGBT History in a Museum for the World. [online] Available at: http://lgbtialms2012.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/richard-parkinson-british-museum-london.html [Accessed: 05/02/2018]
Parkinson, R.B., Smith, K. & Carocci, M., 2013. A little gay history: desire and diversity across the world, London.
Sandell, R. 2017. Making heritage part of society’s conversations about equality. [online] Available at https://www.hlf.org.uk/about-us/news-features/making-heritage-part-society%E2%80%99s-conversations-about-equality [Accessed: 05/02/2018]
Vincent, J., 2014. LGBT people and the UK cultural sector : the response of libraries, museums, archives and heritage since 1950, Farnham.