Some thoughts about diversity agendas in museums

hello all!

A few updates:

  • I’m currently working on some corrections for a chapter for a book called Museums and Activism, edited by Richard Sandell and Robert Janes. I’m so excited to be part of this, and have really enjoyed writing about Sutton House outside the context/confines of a thesis. 
  • I’m also working on some illustrations relating to the history of Sutton House. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with them yet, but I’m feeling a self published book or a zine coming on… I might share some of those on this blog soon. 
  • Most significantly, I’m delighted to have been appointed as a part time Lecturer for the Museums and Galleries in Education MA at the UCL Institute of Education. It’s the MA I did in 2010-2012 and the department within which I’ve been doing my PhD, so it’s really great to have the opportunity to contribute to a department that has been so supportive, inspiring and rewarding. I will start in the new year, and Sutton House have been super accommodating, so I will be continuing my work there too. 

For my interview I was asked to give a presentation about diversity in museums and galleries. It ended up, like a lot of my writing, more of a polemic than I had intended. I thought I’d share some of the thoughts I raised in my presentation here (in more form) as I thought it might be of interest to some.

Speaking about diversity in museums, you have to start with the staff. Museum Studies MAs and other post graduate qualifications are inherently a barrier. Increasingly museum jobs are requiring a postgraduate qualification, or otherwise a lot of experience which usually means unpaid work. This is, of course, a class barrier, which in turn is a barrier for people of colour, people with disabilities and a large portion of the LGBTQ community. Museum Studies MAs are unsurprisingly reflective of the wider heritage sector and the education sector in that it comprises mostly white, middle class women.

Andrea Fraser notes that the majority of people of colour working in museums (in the US) are security staff or catering staff, and do not hold the more “professionalised” roles related to curation, collection care/conservation or education. This is also reflective of UK museums as well. I would urge museum professionals recruiting staff to consider whether or not a post graduate qualification genuinely is essential, and I imagine the answer is almost always no. A more diverse workforce might be built if transferable skills from other jobs are considered as highly as post graduate qualifications or masses of voluntary experience within museums. Having time and capacity to volunteer is a huge privilege, and requires that candidates have sufficient savings or financial support to be able to do it.

I also think we need to be wary about the overuse or rather misuse of the word diversity. And more specifically we should be wary of assuming there’s a commonly understood definition. I think that in museums, diversity is usually a lazy shorthand for people of colour. This often reductive term neglects other protected characteristics and issues of class, and access in terms of disability and mental health. It also often fails to address intersectional identities: some trans women are Muslim, some black people are disabled, some autistic people are refugees etc etc etc.

The first obstacle in addressing the diversity problems in museums is that we all need to start acknowledging our privileges more. People often don’t like to be called out on their privilege or their complicity with ableism, heteronormativity and white supremacy. Linked to this, it is often difficult to articulate to people with privilege, what it’s like to be oppressed, marginalised, or invisible- when we introduced gender neutral toilets at Sutton House for example, some people couldn’t understand why it was worth doing. We had a young trans teenager who visited who, along with their mother, told us it was great to find somewhere where they felt safe and welcome. Cis people who have never felt vulnerable in a public toilet, or had to go without using a toilet in a public space because there was no where to accommodate them, might not be able to see why such a small change can be such a crucial one. I myself have had experiences where I’ve been reminded of my blindness to barriers faced by other marginalised people. During my exhibition 126, some disabled participants were rightly disappointed that they had contributed to the exhibition, but that it would be exhibited in a place inaccessible by wheelchair. I felt bad, but it wasn’t about me, we have to listen, get over our own bruised ego, and make changes to our behaviour.

Museums, and their staff, need to be good allies. Saying ‘we welcome all’ is not being an ally, what are you doing about it? How are you reducing the barriers faced by people of colour, who only see white faces in the museum? How are you making concessions in pay for entry museums for local working class visitors who can’t otherwise afford the fee? How are you challenging heteronormativity in depictions, for example, of the home and family in historic house museums? How are you making school workshops engaging and accessible for children with autism or other specific educational needs? How are you developing alternatives to audio tours for deaf people?

The Morris Hargreaves McIntyre ‘spectrum of audience engagement’ (see page 19 here), which is something I return to regularly is a good measuring tool for museums, or an aid for museum studies students to assess museums they encounter: where do they fit, where are they aiming for? My aspiration is always to achieve the final column: museum as a platform for ideas, as an “egalitarian facilitator”. A key word there is Safe Space, it’s not only about producing programming and exhibitions to appeal to marginalised groups, but to steer a cultural change that makes museums a space of an exchange of ideas and expertise between visitors and so-called “experts”.

Likewise, establishing trust with communities as an “egalitarian facilitator” means that marginalised communities are also more likely to visit and engage outside of programmes directly marketed towards them. If you invest time and resources into a community, that community are more likely to feel welcome, and that the museum is a space for them. Sutton House Queered, the year long LGBTQ programme of events and exhibitions at Sutton House is, I’m pleased (and a bit smug to say) a good example of this. At the beginning of the project we set out to make Sutton House a safe and welcoming place for the LGBTQ community, for this year and beyond. We were approached by the Fringe Queer Film Festival to host one of their biggest events, a screening of the film Out of this world and a Q&A with Mykki Blanco. They approached us based on the reputation we have established over the year, the curator of the festival had been to a few of our events and knew that we were serious, and not taking a tokenistic approach to our LGBTQ engagement. This impact, and the relationships built on the back of it, influences the legacy of such projects once key milestone anniversaries, such as the 50 year anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, have ended.

Exhibitions that are built for, with and by communities, is an ethos I bang on about quite regularly. This often means conceding that museums professionals aren’t the experts, and that unsettles a culture of gate keeping and ivory tower syndrome, which museums are still often regarded as being inflicted with.

I attended the 13th LGBTQ History and Archives conference at the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) a few weekends ago. As usual it was great. Steven Dryden who was one of the curators of the British Library exhibition Gay UK: Love, Law and Legacy, told us that they welcomed 88,502 visitors over three months, this was 111% over target, the second most visited exhibition of the year, 6th best attended in the space- most of which had a much longer run time. These are the sorts of figures that make the museum big wigs who might question the desire for such exhibitions sit up and take notice. This has given the newly formed British Library LGBTQ network extra mileage and perhaps lobbying leverage to make demands for further work, and they have created new guidelines to say that every exhibition must have an element relating to LGBTQ history, be it an object, some interpretation, an online blog post etc. This in turn has implications for future collection building too. 

We must also start to challenge the assumption of a shared understanding of what is ‘important’, particularly in regards to historic houses and other heritage sites. They are usually deemed heritage sites because they are considered ‘important’. But what does important mean? Usually it means related to the monarchy, an aristocratic family or a well known successful figure, or of architectural significance. If we reframe what constitutes “importance” in public history, we open up a wider and more exciting variety of spaces. Sutton House was dismissed by architectural historian James Lees-Milne, whose influence likely saw it sit in a state of decay for almost 50 years. ‘No more important’ than any other house he wrote in his diaries. Its true importance came to be in its potential, rather than its past, its potential for a community space for the people of Hackney. The Birmingham Back to Backs are another great example. They were far from unique, thousands were built in inner city areas to accommodate for a burgeoning population growth in industrial areas. These homes were occupied by normal working people, a vision of history much more relatable to most visitors and potential visitors than the grand crumbling piles owned by Lord and Lady Upperclass.

The conference at the LMA was about oral histories, and was called ‘Talking Back’, a title inspired by bell hooks, who was raised to believe that to talk back was to challenge or stand up to an authority figure. This idea lends itself naturally to oral histories, but also, I’d argue, to museums in general. If we think of the museum as the authority figure, then people within marginalised communities must ‘talk back’ to be heard, seen and recognised. Bell hooks said: ‘It is in the act of speech, of “talking back”, that is no mere gesture of empty words, that it is the expression of our movement from object to subject- the liberated voice’. It’s our responsibility, as people in the museum sector, not to idly wait until the oppressed, forgotten and ignored ‘talk back’ to us, but to actively invite them to do so and to listen to them.

(Apologies these are only half-formed thoughts, and no doubt full of typos, but that’s part of the charm of blogging… isn’t it?)

Speak Out! LGBTQ+ history exhibition & the 2016 LGBTQ ALMS conference

Hello! Apologies for such a lengthy gap between blog posts. I started working in a secondary school in Hackney in November, and I’m still writing up my thesis, which leaves little time for blogging, but I shall endeavour to do better!

Speak Out!

Speak Out London, LGBTQ+ history exhibition is now up and running at the London Metropolitan Archives. I am so pleased and proud to have been a part of such an excellent project. The exhibition is part of an LGBTQ+ oral history community project revealing stories of LGBTQ experience in London from 1395 to the present. It’s been a real labour of love for the LMA team, myself and a legion of volunteers. The next phase of the project is a website!

Here are a few pictures:

I’m particularly pleased with our wall of contested definitions, where visitors are invited (and encouraged) to graffiti it with their own additions, corrections and thoughts to the ever-evolving ways in which those in our wonderful community define, describe and identify.

LGBTQ+ ALMS conference 2016 ‘Without Borders’

Another project I’m involved with is the 2016 LGBTQ+ Archives, Libraries, Museums and Special Collections (ALMS) conference, hosted by Bishopsgate, University of Westminster and LMA.

I would never have thought, when me and Jan Pimblett (from the LMA) were drinking jagermeister in the oldest lesbian bar in Amsterdam during the 2012 ALMS conference that we would be working together on its follow up in London. The programme is phenomenal, and can be found here. And over the next few weeks in the build up, the website will be continuing to grow with tasters, teasers and tidbits! Keep up to date here. Hope to see many of you there! You can buy tickets here.

‘Without Borders’ LGBTQ Archives, Libraries, Museums and Special Collections conference

Hello all, just a reminder that the deadline for proposals for the LGBTQ Archives, Libraries, Museums and Special Collections conference 2016 is looming ever closer, they are due by Friday 8th January 2016, details below, including how to submit. I’m also delighted to share the official logo for the conference, designed by the fabulously talented Alex Creep, who you might remember designed the beautiful poster for my ‘126’ exhibition!


Archives, Libraries, Museums and Special Collections (ALMS) 2016, an International LGBTQ+ Conference hosted by the City of London through London Metropolitan Archives in partnership with Bishopsgate Institute and University of Westminster. 

Dates: 22 – 24 June 2016 Location: London


ALMS is an international conference focussed on the work by public, private, academic, and grassroots organisations which are collecting, capture and preserving archives of LGBTQ+ experiences, to ensure our histories continue to be documented and shared. The conference began in Minnesota in 2006 when the Tretter Collection and Quatrefoil Library co-hosted the first LGBT ALMS Conference. The last conference took place in Amsterdam in 2012 and saw archivists, activists, librarians, museums professionals and academics from around the world coming together to share success stories and discuss challenges involved in recording LGBTQ+ lives.


To reflect our emerging global community, the 2016 conference is titled ‘Without Borders’. Papers are invited from across the heritage, cultural, academic and grassroots communities. Our aim is to generate a dialogue within the co-dependent fields of LGBTQ+ historical research and collecting, and share experiences, ideas and best practice through a programme of presentations and short talks that explore margins, borders, barriers and intersections, past and present. Topics may include, but are not limited to:

Barriers –in accessing LGBTQ+ content within existing collections, and in collecting material from LGBTQ+ communities
Intersections – collecting, cataloguing or researching subjects which share multiple / contrasting identities
Margins – researching elusive or liminal subjects; learning, research or projects taking place outside formal institutions
Connections – uniting individuals or communities across boundaries through heritage or research
Border police – navigating the formal standards of the heritage sector, including official terms and language or constructions of identity

We invite 200 word abstracts offering informal 10-minute presentations that share work-in-progress or provide an introduction to new projects or research that address these themes.

We also invite 300 word abstracts for 20-minute papers or presentations exploring the themes in more detail.

We particularly welcome contributions from BME / QPOC (Black Minority Ethnic / Queer People of Colour) and Transgender communities, as well as from those living outside the UK and USA.

The ALMS conference 2016 is being delivered on a not-for-profit basis by London Metropolitan Archives and Bishopsgate Institute in order to encourage dialogue and share knowledge in LGBTQ+ histories and cultures. The conference is not being funded as part of a wider project and the organisers are unable to cover speakers’ costs except in cases where keynote or invited speakers are prevented from attendance for financial reasons. A limited number of bursaries for attendees will be made available at the beginning of 2016. 

Abstract deadline: Friday 8 January 2016
Abstracts to:
Facebook: Twitter: @LGBTQALMS #alms2016

Speak up! Speak out!

I’m very pleased to share the programme for the 13th Annual LGBTQ History and Archives conference at the London Metropolitan Archives. This year we’ll be hearing about the Speak Out! oral history project (about which I may have some very exciting news soon) and the Pride of Place project. There will also be an excerpt from All the nice girls.

The conference is a steal at just £10, and promises to be even better than last year’s! Hope to see many of you there. You can book here.

‘Queer homes, queer houses’ workshop at ‘Lines of Dissent’, the 12th annual LMA LGBTQ History & Archives conference

Yesterday was London Metropolitan Archives’ 12th annual LGBTQ History and Archives conference. The day was co-curated by the Raphael Samuel History Centre and the theme was ‘Lines of Dissent’ and was focusing on queer genealogy. The key note from Daniel Monk, Birkbeck was ‘The perils and pleasures of queer wills’ and after that was a series of carousel workshops in which delegates got to play archive detective by looking at primary source documents and trying to gather what the material might say about the person, or people to whom they belonged.

In the afternoon, I facilitated a workshop called ‘Queer homes, queer houses’, in which I briefly spoke about my own research, and highlighted some examples of queer homes. I then asked the participants to create plans of a place they live, or have lived in, but instead of highlighting rooms or objects, to highlight moments and memories. We all did this on A3 tracing paper, and then we tied them all together to create a patchwork curtain (dubbed on the day, rather tongue-in-cheek, as a patchwork quilt of painful memories), which I then presented to all of the delegates. I’m delighted with how much effort everyone put in, and for sharing their memories, and I’m really grateful to Jan Pimblett, who organised the day, for inviting me to do a workshop. It has given me loads to think about for my research. You can view the work that was created here:

Created with flickr slideshow.

and I made a video of some highlights here:

‘Queer homes, queer houses’ : a workshop at the LMA LGBTQ History and Archives conference from Sean Curran on Vimeo.

Here are a few pictures of the workshop in progress:

and a few of me presenting it, thanks to my glamorous assistants Jan and Gavin:

Another highlight of the day for me was when Surat Shaan Knan of Rainbow Jews told us his personal story and wonderful news, and announced the successful funding bid for Twilight People, a project about trans* people of faith, which I am delighted to announce I will be co-curating. I can’t wait for us to work together, and I am sure this really important project will be a huge success!

Thanks again to Jan, to Gavin Baldwin, Matt Cook, Justin Bengry, Faridha Karim, Surat, and to everyone else who organised and contributed to make it such an inspiring day. Also, big thanks to Claire Hayward who ensured there was a lively twitter presence throughout the day, and who has storified the tweets here.

Lines of Dissent – 12th Annual LGBTQ History & Archives Conference

I’m really pleased to share the flyer for the London Metropolitan Archives’ 12 Annual LGBTQ History and Archives conference, run in partnership with the Raphael Samuel History Centre this year. I’ve been part of the conference steering committee for the last two years along with a great team, and this year I’ve been asked to host a practical workshop about queer homes. The focus this year is on LGBTQ genealogy and family history.

The conference takes place at the London Metropolitan Archives on December 6th, tickets are just £10, or £7.50 for concessions. You can book tickets here.

I hope to see many of you there!

Rainbow Jews: help to save a legacy

Just wanted to share a fundraising initiative from a really great project.

I’ve mentioned the Rainbow Jews project before, but for those of you who are not familiar, this project is pioneering, in that it records and showcases Jewish lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) history from the 1950s to today. For the first time ever in British history, it captures the voices and experiences of Jewish LGBT people in the UK through oral histories and archive creation.

Like so many great queer heritage initiatives, it is volunteer-led, and the financial support from the Lottery Heritage Fund grant has now finished. Led by Surat Knan, the Rainbow Jews have done great things, they have launched an exhibition which is now set to travel the country, they have collected oral histories from a much overlooked community that otherwise would have been lost, and they have, with the support of the London Metropolitan Archives, began to gather material for an archive collection.

There is still so much to do though. Donations will work towards achieving the following:

  • covering staff costs for a part-time project manager, who will coordinate the volunteers, and continue to promote our key activities, such as: 
  • getting this wonderful exhibition around the country to further share these amazing stories and experiences, (already confirmed Leicester, Birmingham and Liverpool/Homotopia as from 31 August 2014; with more possibilities e.g. Belfast). 
  • creating over 5 events such as launch receptions, film screenings and talks while touring. 
  • disseminating education resources, and co-facilitating sessions at school, youth groups etc.
  • recording and processing of over 10 new oral histories, especially of Jewish LGBT pioneers in remoter UK regions. 
  • collecting more memorabilia and fostering our archive collection at LMA

The page to donate (and to find out more about the fundraising project) is here. Let’s all ensure that this great heritage project doesn’t join the long line of brilliant grassroots queer initiatives that have faded away due to a lack of funding.

‘Unspeakable’ LMA LGBTQ History and Archives Conference

Saturday was the London Metropolitan’s annual LGBTQ History and Archives conference, and, dare I say, I think it was even better than the 10th anniversary conference in February.

I’m not going to report on the whole day, as I have a mountain of work to do before the end of the year (my upgrade interview from mphil to phd takes place tomorrow- eeshk), but I’ll highlight some of the speakers I found particularly engaging.

  • Veronica McKenzie presented part of her film Under Your Nose which looks at the intersections between race and sexuality, and focuses particularly on the involvement of black lesbians in the 70s and 80s and the establishment of the Black Lesbian Group and the Black Feminist Network. You can view a clip from the film here.
  • Catherine O’Donnell and Harriet Richardson from the People’s History Museum in Manchester, I’ve mentioned the PHM on here in the past. You can find more about the Pride in Progress? project on the blog. I look forward to being involved in the project in February.
  • Surat Knan from Rainbow Jews was, as always, extremely engaging, and introduced us to Esther who shared her very moving story about being ostracised from an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Stamford Hill. You can hear from her here. It was particularly moving to hear an oral history, which I’m sure all of us there were familiar with, in person, the workshop session allowed Esther to go into more detail, and I applaud her bravery for sharing her story with us.
  • Dr Clare Barlow from the National Portrait Gallery spoke about the dilema of choosing appropriate pronouns in the text panels for the recent acquisition of a portrait of Chevalier D’Eon, who endured a very public change of gender in the 18th century. Ultimately, I think they made the wrong decision (they went for ‘he’), but the talk was an extremely engaging one and highlighted the complexities of framing non gender conforming people in the context of an art gallery.
  • The day ended with Stella Duffy and our fabulous chair for the day Louise Chambers discussing some of the issues raised throughout the conference, and a brilliant performance by the Pink Singers.

Here’s to the next one!

Hall-Carpenter Archives visit

On Wednesday 6th November, the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) LGBT History Club took its monthly meeting to the London School of Economics (LSE) to look at the Hall-Carpenter collection.

The Hall-Carpenter Archives was founded in the 1980s to document the history of LGBT activism in Britain. It consists of over 2000 boxes of material, and most of the archives are post-Wolfenden Report.

Rather than give a run down of the collections (which you can find here, as well as information how to access materials), I thought I would just highlight three things I found interesting from the sample of the collection that were laid out for us to have a look at.

  • I spotted a copy of Gay Times that had an interview with Sinead O’Connor in it from 1988 (August, Issue 119), I’m a huge Sinead fan, so was keen to read the interview. In it, she was talking about performing at a Pride event, and said that while she was wary of benefit gigs (because she felt artists often only attended to massage their own ego), she wanted to do Pride because it felt like something that people only engage with if they really care about the cause. The interviewer, Rose Collis, said ‘in the true spirit of the day, Sinead’s expense claim for her performance was her young son’s babysitter’s fee’ (p38)- which made me love her even more. In the same issue I stumbled upon a quote that I found really striking in a letter about gay bereavement, which said ‘Those who love in secret must mourn alone’ (p27).
  • A second thing that struck me was an article in Diva magazine from 1994 (June, Issue 2) called ‘Girls with Gun Glamour: can lesbians be camp?’ by Paula Graham. I found this particularly interesting because my supervisor and I often discuss how camp seems to be considered the realm of gay men, when we both consider it to be a trait more easily identified in women (think Hattie Jacques). In the article, Graham suggests that ‘”camp” has become a kind of glam-talisman against the spectre of “frumpy” feminism’ (p21) and she argues that ‘cross-dressing allows gay men to flirt with sexualised loss of control. Lesbians generally want more control, not less.’ Not sure I agree with either of those statements, but an interesting read nonetheless, which made me think of the book ‘Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp from Mae West to Madonna’ by Pamela Robertson, which was published just two years after this article was written, and is definitely worth a read.
  • I thought I’d save the best til last. I looked at a report on a pilot study on attitudes towards homosexuality from September 1963, which was part of the Albany Trust (HCA/ALBANY TRUST/12/7), which was founded in May 1958 as a complimentary organisation to the Homosexual Law Reform Society with a remit to promote psychological health in men. The sample for the pilot was very small, around 24 I believe, and while many of the attitudes reported were negative, as might be expected for the time, most offensive was the way in which the report itself framed the negative attitudes. Apparently the study showed that there is ‘a tendency to think of homosexuals as amusing, or rather funny or ridiculous, rather in the same way as people might be inclined to think of dwarfs or small dogs, with a strong admixture of complacent and scornful superiority, although with surface sympathetic pity.’ (p12). I would be very interested to know if any of the interviewees had made the comparison with “dwarfs” or small (why ‘small’ specifically?) dogs, otherwise if it came from the people who compiled the report, perhaps they need to be interviewed in a pilot for attitudes towards short people… a good reminder that wording and language when analysing data from research needs to be considered and troubled!

I highly recommend taking a look at the collections, we barely scratched the surface during the visit. I also highly recommend the LMA LGBT History Club, which I often mention on this blog, it provides a varied space for contesting, discussing and scrutinising LGBT History and archive collections. You can find more information here.

Also, I have some exciting news, so keep your eyes on the blog for some LGBT History Month based excitement!

‘Unspeakable’ 11th LGBTQ History and Archives Conference, London Metropolitan Archives

The 11th LGBTQ History and Archives conference at the London Metropolitan Archives is taking place on Saturday 7th December, and promises to be a great follow up to the tenth anniversary spectacular that took place at the Guildhall in February.

The theme this year is about addressing the silences in LGBTQ history and the underrepresentation of certain communities, and how a more inclusive approach can help to shatter the barriers.

For more information, visit the facebook page here. You can book at the Eventbrite page here.

Speakers, contributors and performers include:

Eastern Europe in Drag Dzmitry Suslau.
Focusing on this exhibition, this presentation will explore traditional gender norms and the role of drag performers and queer artists.

Rainbow Jews: Oral History Surat Knan.

Rainbow Jews’ presents their current Oral History project.

The Problem of Pronouns The National Portrait Gallery.

Dr Clare Barlow presents the questions and challenges which arose when representing Chevalier D’Eon’s extraordinary life.

Archiving the Ephemeral Pride Alan Butler.

This presentation will discuss the significance of oral history interviews held at Plymouth LGBT archives.

LGBT history in Gloucestershire and South Gloucestershire Sam Bairstow and Karen Cooke.

Gloucestershire Archives are currently working to gather and share local community histories.

Pride in Progress? The People’s History Museum.

Harriet Richardson and Catherine O’Donnell present the findings of their project, “Pride in Progress?” and the rich experience of working with marginalised communities.

Mirror Mirror Zemirah Moffat.

The film “Mirror Mirror” depicts Club Wotever, (now Wotever World,) a club which attracts performers not afraid to play with gender, sexuality and desire.

Q Theatre Bristol Alice Human, Abi Higgs, Charlie Scott, Zoe Collins.

New performance by an emerging all female Queer friendly theatre group.

Into the Light Veronica McKenzie.

Presenting extracts from the film, “Under Your Nose,” this presentation will focus on the involvement of black lesbians in late 70’s and early 80s single-issue politics and their response to multiple discrimination.

I hope to see you there!