Museum Activism

Hello all, apologies for the lack of recent updates, I’ve been busy with our big Christmas exhibition (our most successful ever!) and the Clive Jenkins exhibition, I’ll blog about the launch event when I get a moment.

Just a quickie to note that a new volume Museum Activism edited by Richard Sandell and Robert R. Janes is now out. I am delighted to have a chapter in it called ‘Heritage and Queer Activism’, outlining some of the work we have done with LGBTQ+ communities at Sutton House. It was really nice to be able to reflect back over the last few years, and on my PhD thesis when writing this. I hope it will prove enlightening, or at least interesting to those of you in the heritage field. I can’t wait to read all of the other chapters, there is a huge wealth of museum innovators.

You can buy the book here (or forward the link to your librarian to buy!) and there is a discount code for 20% off on the banner below, so make sure to order your copy now!

Print your own Mary Lobb zine!

You may have seen a few months ago I made a zine about Mary Lobb and the sound piece I made to accompany it, in response to the lack of mention of her and her relationship with May Morris at Kelmscott Manor (you can see the original posts about it here, here and here).

I’d now like to share a print-your-own PDF of the zine!

Follow this link here

Then download the PDF (from the link along the top menu bar) and once downloaded, select ‘print’ and select ‘print on both sides’ and make sure to select the option to flip on the side edge, as otherwise the pages will be upside down. Obviously the PDF will look a bit jumbled, as the pages are in an order to ensure it can be printed as an A5 booklet. Once it is printed, fold in the middle, and hopefully all the pages should be in the correct order!

The sound piece to accompany the zine is here:

Thanks again to Joe and Ellie Lewis-Nunes for patiently lending their voices and recording skills.

Please share this with anyone who might be interested- and enjoy!

Feminism, Gender and Sexuality Seminar Series, UCL IOE

As part of the UCL Institute of Education Feminism, Gender and Sexuality seminar series, I’ll be presenting some of my doctoral work in progress.

Thursday 19th March 5.30 – 7pm: Room 539, 20 Bedford Way

The Great Wings of Silence: Queer Activism in Heritage Sites 

Sean Curran, IOE

Here’s the blurb:

Sean will present from their research about addressing the silence of LGBTQ narratives in heritage sites, using their own curatorial practice at the National Trust’s Sutton House in Hackney as a case study. Sean will raise questions about the roles of curators, artists and activists in challenging dominant narratives in public history and will present initial findings from a survey conducted with participants of a crowd-sourced LGBTQ intervention and will reflect on the challenges arising from practice-based research.

Evening session followed by informal drinks in the Student Union Bar (level 3)

About the Feminism, Gender and Sexuality Seminar Series

Organisers: Jenny Parkes, Emily Henderson, Charley Nussey, Claudia Lapping, Annette Braun

This group is designed for research students and staff to explore their work around feminism, gender and sexuality. We meet informally about three times a term, twice during lunchtimes and once during the evening; at each session a speaker is invited to reflect upon their ideas as they develop, and to use the discussion space for the exploration of their own questions. Session topics located within diverse disciplines are encouraged. At least one seminar each term addresses LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer) research. The session to be held in the evening will be followed by drinks in the bar.

To join the seminar series list contact

(the image is from an old Penguin edition of Woolf’s Orlando, which is where the ‘great wings’ quote comes from)

‘The village folk had a lot to say about it’ – from one heritage site to another? Guest post by Emily F. Henderson

To accompany the ‘Making Things‘ exhibition at the Institute of Education, we held a seminar to discuss the relationship between practice and the doctoral form. I invited Emily F. Henderson to respond to my work:

How to offer a response to a protest-research installation without reducing the impact of the installation to protest or research? This was the challenge that I faced when Sean invited me to respond to their contribution to the group show put together by doctoral students in the Art, Design and Museology department at the UCL Institute of Education (see blog post 26 January 2015). To try to take Sean’s installation in the spirit in which it was created, I offered three types of response, one for each of the objects that made up the installation: the zine, the sound piece, the tea-towel. Each of these objects offered a different possibility for thinking about how protest and research can be intertwined in different forms.

In Sean’s blog post about the installation, they situated the work in two different spaces. The first space was Red House at Bexleyheath. Sean had offered to make a sound piece representing the voices of villagers discussing the nature of the relationship between May Morris and Mary Lobb – the sound piece was to be made without expectation of payment, and it was to be based on archive sources that Sean had put together. This intervention in the way in which ‘non-normative’ relationships are erased and/or caricatured in heritage sites was rejected and not included in the heritage site. This ultimately resulted in there being a floating sound piece, which existed in the world as a protest object with no site for protest. The sound piece found a site in the group show at the Institute of Education, flanked by a zine illustrating the story of Mary Lobb’s erasure – and Sean’s own erasure – from the heritage sites that present William Morris’ life and work. Accompanying the zine was a William Morris design tea-towel – the traditional heritage site gift-shop purchase – upon which Sean had written in large letters ‘JUSTICE FOR MARY LOBB’, as a twist on the protest banner form.

Sean had said that they were interested in how the installation would work in an ‘exhibition environment’, a ‘gallery space’. In the photo that Sean has taken of the installation, it looks very much as if the work is displayed in a gallery – and it was a gallery, but it was a gallery within an academic department within a university. My response to the installation was very situated in the space of the university – what was the effect on Sean’s work of it being displayed in a university, and what was the effect on the university?

My first response took inspiration from the zine that Sean had created – how could the form of the zine provoke an interpretation of the installation? The zine genre is defined by a deliberate DIY format, in which pictures and text – handwritten and typed – are combined in a collage and photocopied in black and white. Looking at Sean’s zine, I found myself wondering how Sean had decided which elements to ‘mess with’, and which images or text they would preserve, framed intact within the zine. The question of obedience came into my mind – obedience to research convention versus disobedience (which could be taken as obedience to protest convention). Sean’s installation was obediently situated in its designated corner within the temporary gallery space of the department – did situating it in this way contribute to the ‘fetishising’ of protest objects that Sean was concerned about?

Thinking about the sound piece helped me to respond to this question. The coming to rest of the sound piece in this institutional gallery space transported the installation out of its context. Listening to the gossiping voices took me out of the space and into an imagined heritage site, a heritage site which could only exist in the imagination. The misplaced, displaced sound piece points to the intangible site of Sean’s protest-research: the ‘site’ of the lives that have been invisibilised and caricatured in heritage properties. The sound piece represents the way in which heritage houses produce and normalise an image of heterosexual, cis-gendered existence as the norm of history – an image which leaves any other account dismissed as gossip. Not fetishised then – rather all-too-aware of its uprootedness, its enforced rootlessness.

And this brings me to the tea-towel: the layering of a twee gift tea-towel with a painted protest slogan. This is perhaps one way of seeing the layering of Sean’s installation, and the exhibition as a whole, onto the institutional context that held it. I noticed in entering the exhibition space that I was entering a different part of the university to the classrooms and social spaces I normally inhabit. This space did not have a single institutional logo or branding item visible. There were floor-to-ceiling prints of vintage-looking artists overlooking us, flicking projected images on a punky orange screen, a quilt of photographs draped over the centre of the room, a detailed journey in pictures taking us along one of the walls, and Sean’s hyper-visible tea-towel and protruding ledge bearing the zine and headphones. It was difficult to know where to stand or sit – each of the exhibits had us turning and moving, leaning on them and knocking into them. The room exposed us and our bodies, brought us into the room. It struck me that this was a room that could shift thinking, could disrupt obedient research practice: the exhibition fleetingly layered the tea-towel of the institution with a protest for the value of the Arts and Humanities in higher education.

Sean’s protest work uses research to bring to light the erasure of lives from heritage sites. It is also important to recognise that their research work also makes a protest, in challenging what should be researched and how this research can take shape. Thanks go to Sean and the other exhibitors and respondents for a genuinely thought-provoking evening.

Emily F. Henderson 
UCL Institute of Education
Author, Gender pedagogy: Teaching, learning and tracing gender in higher education (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)

‘The village folk had a lot to say about it’ – a sound piece for Mary Lobb

Back in July I contacted the staff at Kelmscott Manor about the neglectful way they had dealt with Mary Lobb in their interpretation. I subsequently offered to put together a sound piece for visitors to listen to, to the staff at Red House in Bexleyheath, that was made from verbatim snippets from sources I had found during a visit to the William Morris Gallery archives in Walthamstow.

The aim was to show that even when they were both alive, contemporaries of Mary Lobb and May Morris considered their relationship to be more than just ‘companions’ and the hope was that this sound piece, presented as gossip, would serve as a small way of remembering the close relationship between the two women, that has for so long been overlooked.

Unfortunately, the staff at Red House refused this interpretation, saying first that the exhibition programming for 2015 was to be all about architect Philip Webb, as 2015 is the centenary of his death. When staff from the London Project asked about it again, they were told it was due to staffing and budget issues, which seems odd, as I was offering to make the sound piece for free.

Fast forward to the end of 2014, and the opportunity arose to be part of a group show at the Institute of Education to showcase the work of five PhD students in the Art, Design and Museology department whose research includes elements of practice. Rather than just showing some of the work I’ve been doing with Sutton House, I instead decided to use this as an opportunity to revisit the idea for addressing Mary Lobb, and alongside the sound piece, I created a protest banner out of a William Morris tea towel, and a fan zine for Mary Lobb, explaining who she is, and how she has been overlooked at various heritage sites.

While the sound piece (recorded thanks to Joe Lewis-Nunes and Ellie Lewis-Nunes) obeys the convention of heritage interpretation, it is offset by the objects more closely aligned with activism: a banner, zines.

It’s important for me to consider how my work changes in an exhibition environment, to consider what it becomes. I want to avoid fetishising paraphernalia (such as banners, zines) used to enact change. The inclusion of such objects here raises questions about what is allowed and expected in a gallery space, but refused (as it was) as legitimate interpretation in a heritage site. Interestingly, and perhaps proving that the inclusion of these objects was not successful in fetishising them, at the private view, the plinth upon which a stack of zines (masquerading as museum objects) rested, was treated by visitors as a table, rather than a plinth, people leaned against it and rested drinks on it, rather than revering the plinth as is often the case. Observing people interacting with the plinth in this way was a nice piece of accidental data.

On Thursday 29th 4.00- 7.30, there will be a seminar in which we will discuss the nature of practice-based research.

In the mean time, here is the sound piece.

I will make the zine available online at some point, when I work out the best way to do it.

Pride: #freedomto complain?

I attended my first Pride in 2005, just weeks after I had come out. It was in Manchester, and because I was new to the whole thing I saw it for what I then thought it was; a street party. This was also my first experience of Canal Street, which looked much like Queer as Folk had promised it would.

I hadn’t then began to think about my own identity, or at least I didn’t have the vocabulary to, nor had I started to think about where I fit in to Pride, or really about what Pride once was, or could be again. I thought it was expensive, at £15, to walk down a street that was usually publically and freely accessible, and I was annoyed that the club nights were all so expensive, but the weekend became a larger sort of coming out for me, it was the first time I had been ‘out’ with other queer people in the daylight. I met someone who was my age whose mum had come with his nephew in a pushchair. She came every year and loved it. This solidarity was, perhaps, my first subtle glimpse that Pride might actually be about something more, something bigger. I was handed a free porn DVD by a muscular man in a thong.

That evening we soon found out that all of the club nights that we had in mind were sold out, so we went to the only lesbian night, which was woefully under attended. They had a no-man policy, but naturally they didn’t batter an eyelid as I entered. My friend, the only other male in the group was allowed in after some bartering. It was a good night, a nice (albeit modest) crowd, but it felt very much removed from the rest of the activity of Canal Street that weekend. Another hint of something wrong about Pride.

The following year, me and a different friend attended Manchester Pride again. It was more expensive than the previous year, and I was heckled on Canal Street several times for being a ‘fucking goth’ or a ‘fucking emo’. It seemed an emphatically less safe space this year, since I had started wearing makeup. Another problem.

Since moving to London I’ve attended Pride four times. I’ve watched the march only once and usually my attendance has consisted of drinking shop-bought booze on a curb with friends. I feel like I can’t criticise Pride in the way that perhaps I know I should, because it would be hypocritical. I’m complicit in its flaws, I don’t march, I don’t help. Pride, for me, has become annual event where me and my friends drink in the street and have a lovely time. Nothing more. I am part of a complacent and lazy generation. We know where Pride’s roots lie, we know how embarrassing Pride has become, but inspite of this, we still find being allowed to be obnoxiously queer en mass in a public space extremely refreshing. The words ‘being allowed to’ are another problem.

This year, Pride was a last minute decision for me. Having just returned from a trip to Taiwan at 7am that morning I decided to cheat jetlag by joining my friends in our usual spot on a curb by Soho Square.

I broke tradition this year slightly by going to the ‘main stage’ in Trafalgar Square first, mainly to see the wonderful Conchita Wurst perform. The queues to get into the make-shift boxed-in arena were waves upon waves of umbrellas, and the fences around the arena were sheathed with giant adverts from selfless companies such as Barclays and ASDA. When rightly disgruntled folk began to pull down the adverts to see the stage they were quickly re-erected by the security. The theme of this year’s Pride was FREEDOM.

This picture captures Pride this year for me, a peeled back advert that prevented people from seeing a free event. Our view was literally masked by corporate sponsorship. The excessive crowd control for such a peaceful gathering was absurd, and everyone, even the security, could see that.

With sharpened elbows, we did get in. And after enduring a set from Sam Fox (whose set proved that no crowd are more forgiving of mediocrity than the queers), Conchita arrived. I was left with a real sour taste at the ‘banter’ between performances from several DJs, Antony Cotton (who in spite of playing the most visibly gay character in Coronation Street, manages to be the least queer of an otherwise deliciously queer soap) and Ian McKellan. While the sentiments from these folk were sort of blandly heartwarming, they all spoke only about (and to, and for) gay men.

Ultimately, what distresses me most about Pride, above the sinister corporate soullessness, is its misogyny, and ignorance of trans issues. Gay men are arguably the most privileged of a still pilloried community. A community that is sadly very fractured. Unsurprisingly, the trans community have responded to this by creating a more activism-focused Pride event in Brighton, and likewise, an annual Dyke March for the lesbian community and its supporters now exists. It seems to me that the trans, bi and lesbian communities are not really welcome at London Pride, and if they are it’s as an aside or a footnote. The trans community were integral not just in the stonewall riots in the US, but in countless battles for LGBTQ rights in the UK, our lesbian sisters are still underrepresented and misunderstood in ways that, on the whole, gay men (specifically in London) are not. Lest we forget that queer women were at the forefront of providing support, blood and their angry voices during the AIDs crisis in the 1980s, 90s and beyond.

I don’t know how these problems can be resolved, but until they are, London Pride will always be an uncomfortable and embarrassing affair. I will always be a staunch supporter of Pride, even if I’ve never seen it work well as an event that combines anger and activism with love and celebration. But why do I, like so many others, feel like I can complain about it when I’ve never marched? when I’ve never done anything about it? I’m part of a generation of lazy armchair activists whose anger at the keyboard is never realised as it should be in the flesh.

What can we do? How can we restore a sense of pride in Pride?

Answers on a beermat please.

The Pansy Project

Just a quickie today. I’m forever banging on about the Pansy Project to whoever will listen, as I think it’s one of the most subtle and innovative ways of recording an otherwise difficult to capture intangible part of our queer heritage. I mentioned the project during my GEM breakout session, which I will be blogging about shortly.

Paul Harfleet is an artist who plants pansies at the sites of homophobic abuse. Using his own experiences of homophobia in Manchester, Harfleet has managed to create something beautiful out of something very ugly. He photographs the pansies and names them after the abuse that was used. “Titles like “Let’s kill the Bati-Man!” and “Fucking Faggot!” reveal a frequent reality of gay experience which often goes unreported to authorities and by the media. This simple action operates as a gesture of quiet resistance, some pansies flourish and others wilt in urban hedgerows.”

For me this is a brave and peaceful form of activism, with a really beautiful output. You can find out more about the project here. You can also follow Paul on twitter here.

The first image is “Die Queer! Die Queer! Die Queer! Die Queer! Wyatt Close, Birmingham, For Ben Whitehouse, the second is “Queer Fucker!” Tottenham Court Road, London, both used here by kind permission of the artist.