Dan Vo examines how the V&A’s new LGBTQ Tour came to be, and why it is needed.
My eye scans down the poster and is drawn to a rather handsome tail on the letter Q. The notice is headed ‘V&A Tours and Talks’, and the line I am reading says, ‘16.00 LGBTQ Tour (last Saturday of each month)’. It is certainly to the point, perhaps a little bland, but I am thrilled. My arms go up in a small victory salute, ‘We’ve done it.’
It is a poignant moment because, ostensibly, it is the first time a major museum in London has added a guided lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) history and objects tour to its permanent schedule.
Introducing the LGBTQ Tour
Glynn Christian always arrives at the museum impeccably dressed. Today he has chosen a sky blue jacket adorned with a Tahitian pearl lapel pin. The former TV chef is one of the first volunteer guides to introduce the tour, and he believes it is a much-needed addition to the regular programme. ‘Anything that gives more people more chances to connect with the V&A is a necessity.
‘These tours will first give a greater sense of identity and ownership to LGBTQ visitors, but then slowly create interest amongst others and then be accepted in the mainstream.’
Dawn Hoskin is Assistant Curator in the Furniture, Textiles and Fashion Department, and takes on additional duties as co-chair of the V&A’s LBGTQ Working Group. She is something of a superhero when it comes to raising awareness for queer narratives in the museum.
‘The public programming the Working Group has been organising in the past few years has built up a dedicated, enthusiastic and diverse following, proving both that providing LGBTQ-themed programming is possible within a museum context and also that there are keen audiences out there wanting to be part of it.’
Dawn describes the permanent tour as a natural step. Queer stories have always existed in the museum, but are sometimes hidden; the tour allows them to be shared. ‘It conveys recognition of LGBTQ communities and individuals as being a valued part of wider societies, and contributing elements of wider social histories, rather than being considered only as a distinct ‘specialist interest’.’
The tour will explore gender and sexual identities through a selection of objects within the museum’s rich collections. Glynn Christian believes the tour will engage, and possibly even surprise.
His energy is infectious as he enthuses over a monumental Florentine sculpture. ‘We only have the big Giambologna because Charles, Prince of Wales, presented it to his boyfriend, the Duke of Buckingham, immediately after being given it by King Philip IV of Spain. Very lèse-majesté!’
Bathed in natural light and taking pride of place in the Medieval and Renaissance Gallery, Giambologna’s Samson Slaying a Philistine is hailed as one of the greatest treasures of the V&A.
As an incoming volunteer two years ago, I was introduced to the marble group, but Glynn’s story comes as a revelation, even to me. Clearly for everyone there is a whole treasure trove waiting to be discovered.
Provoking a Personal Response
In 2014, queer performer Bird la Bird gave a one-off whistle-stop tour called ‘Swoosh Around the V&A’. With megaphone in hand, she rambunctiously rechristened the V&A the People’s Queer Knick-Knack Emporium.
Dawn Hoskin was pleased with the response. ‘Bird’s tour was an inclusive and accessible community event. People were thrilled to be part of a queer group in the museum and to experience the museum in a unique way’
While the delivery from the volunteers for the permanent tour might be a little less in your face than Bird la Bird’s (there won’t, for example, be a call for images of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria to be replaced by those of John Waters and Divine), what the volunteers have to say will be just as thought provoking.
To create the new tour, a team of guides met to select appropriate objects and connect them into trails. Inspiration was found in a booklet co-written by Dawn, entitled ‘Out on Display’, which describes twenty LGBTQ-related objects in the museum’s collections. The various objects date from 118CE to 2014, and originate from Europe, North America and South Asia.
Must see objects for the tours have been agreed, but guides are also able to add their own objects, playing to their strengths, and particular field of expertise. Dawn thinks this is what will make each tour special. ‘As with Bird, I hope the guide’s personal reflections that may feature in these tours will in turn encourage visitors to feel more confident in reading and responding to objects on their own terms.’
As a guide, I start the journey at the foot of Michelangelo’s impressive David, and then we take in more than a dozen stops. Some of the things we see are a charming earthenware vase by Grayson Perry, a set of Tom of Finland stamps with sexually-charged imagery, and an exquisite gold pendant with pearl border depicting Sappho penning an ode to Venus.
Being Australian, my personal additions are objects connected to gay icons from the Antipodes. The showstoppers include an oversized hat in the shape of the Sydney Opera House with encircling diamanté-toothed shark (worn by Dame Edna), Kylie Minogue’s ‘Showgirl’ wardrobe, and a costume by Leigh Bowery with the most fantastical pink-sequin codpiece.
Some objects are obvious choices; others require interpretation to draw out their queer qualities. It was a Kushan sculpture, from South Asia, with intertwined male and female physical attributes, that required sensitive handling. It took much effort to ensure any accompanying text or discussion of Shiva as Ardhanishvara (Lord Who Is Half Woman), in a queer context, would not cause offence.
‘Androgyny is a part of many ancient religious traditions, and while they may not have an undisputed ‘queer history’, they still lend themselves to consideration and discussion,’ says Dawn Hoskin. She checked with the V&A’s Asian Department, ‘We weren’t labelling it as ‘queer’, instead we describe what the sculpture shows and make clear the position of Ardhanarishvara in the Hindu religion.’
The department advised Dawn that the LGBTQ Working Group should be ready to deal with any fallout. Fortunately, the British Museum had set a precedent in their publication ‘A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the World’. Dawn consulted one of the authors, Richard B Parkinson, to see if there had been any negative feedback received. His response: none.
Glynn Christian argues that it is simply about giving visitors the right framework, and then they can decide for themselves. ‘I encourage my groups to search for the question that unlocks the personal story, the magic or the mystery of the piece, which they can then relate to their experience.
‘The best thing a guide can do is to enhance an object in a way that makes sense to visitors today; sometimes it’s gossip and scandal (the big Giambologna). Sometimes it’s the extraordinary skill required to make something, or a connection with great events or people in history.’
Visitors are interested in the beauty of an object, but are inspired by stories of the remarkable individuals connected to it. ‘It is important to remember that every V&A object is associated with people – everything was made, loved, lost, stolen, hated, given and received by people.’
Creating a Lasting Cultural Legacy
One of my favourite stories to tell at the museum is of the Cast Court copy of Michelangelo’s David, originally given as a gift to Queen Victoria. When Her Imperial Majesty laid eyes on David she was so shocked by his nudity that a fig leaf had to be crafted, and hung, for royal visits.
Times have changed. For February’s Friday Late ‘Queer and Now’, not only was the famous sculpture sans fig, but also surrounded by a live guard of naked models imitating David.
In recent years there has also been a spate of big-ticket exhibitions with great appeal for a gay and lesbian audience, such as ‘Kylie Minogue: Image of a Pop Star’, ‘David Bowie Is’ and ‘Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty’.
With the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain coming in 2017, some inside the museum are already asking how this anniversary will be commemorated. Not if, but how.
Acceptance is not everywhere though, as exemplified in the unexpected hit exhibition, ‘Disobedient Objects’, which included a placard from Russia. Crudely painted with rainbow stripes, it was used in a pop-up protest against Putin’s run for a third presidential term, but more divisively, was a stab at his homophobic political stance.
Dawn Hoskin reflects on its significance. ‘I think that large cultural institutions, such as the V&A, demonstrating that they are actively supportive and open to recognising and supporting discussion of LGBTQ subjects is very important.’
The V&A is not afraid of flying the rainbow flag. For ‘Queer and Now’, the Union Jack was swapped for the rainbow banner. ‘I was very pleased to see the flag up above the museum. I felt it was symbolic of showing that the V&A is a space that is open,’ says Dawn.
I ask her if visibility for special occasions is enough, and she admits: ‘As museums do more to recognise LGBTQ histories, I feel the previous lack of content and recognition becomes even more glaringly apparent and disappointing.’
Dawn believes the tour will go some way towards mitigating this. ‘We are helping to convey that there are queer objects, histories, research, experiences to be found within the museum all year round.’
Exhibitions and events can make a big splash, but they are fleeting. The tour will prove that gay and lesbian people are always close to the heart of the museum. As Glynn Christian puts it: ‘I find that quiet discussion and dignified example has always won over noise. Such unquestioned presence has the potential to bring more light more easily to current issues of gender and sexuality.
‘The tour is a valid way to remind us that LGBTQ men and women are squarely in the mainstream of everything the V&A does.’
Returning to the poster that tells visitors what time the LGTBQ tours run, the notice may only be black and white, but for me it is as important and exciting to see as the rainbow flag atop the museum. I feel the V&A is, in a way, making a permanent statement to all LGBTQ visitors. ‘You are accepted, respected, and we welcome you.’
Tour Dates and Times
LGBTQ Tours are held at the V&A Museum on the last Saturday of each month at 16.00. Visitors are asked to come to the Meeting Point in the Grand Entrance (enter from Cromwell Road). Tours run for approximately one hour and are free; you simply turn up. There will be a lot of walking, including steps and stairs. Please let your guide know if you may have difficulty, as alternative arrangements can be made. Private tours can be arranged for those with hearing or sight difficulties, please contact Caterina Bisquert firstname.lastname@example.org.
Further Information and Resources
- Clayton, Z., Hoskin, D., Thom, D. Out on Display. 2nd ed. London: private press, 2014.
- Parkinson, R. B., Smith, K. A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the World. London: British Museum Press, 2013.
- Winchester, O., Nightingale, E. and Sandell, R. (eds) A Book with its Pages Always Open? In Museums, Equity and Social Justice. New York: Routledge, 2012.
- Bishopsgate Institute runs a course entitled Queer Britain: 20th Century LGBT History.
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