Daily Mail vs National Trust (AGAIN)

These are obviously my own views about the recent Felbrigg debacle, NOT those of the National Trust.

As everyone knows, the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales is being marked by many huge heritage institutions, including the British Museum, Tate Modern/Britain, Historic Royal Palaces, V&A etc. It seems though that the only institution to be consistently ruffling the feathers of homophobic right wing rag commentariat is the National Trust.

When the 2017 Prejudice and Pride programme was announced at the end of last year, Breitbart fascist Delingpole claimed the ‘once great’ institution had been sullied by the inclusion of LGBTQ histories, and name dropped my beloved Sutton House as being his former favourite property, now hosting the ‘nonsensical’ Sutton House Queered programme.

I’m currently at my family home, and I’m ashamed to say my dad buys and reads the Daily Mail. Today, amidst the political chaos in our country, the Daily Mail deemed the National Trust front page material. He made a joke about hiding it from me. He mistakenly thinks that my distaste for the Daily Mail in contrast to his reverence for it is amusing.

I know very well that the Daily Mail is reactionary, and barely based on truth. We all do. But earlier in the year when the rag bemoaned with outrage that the National Trust had CANCELLED EASTER, I could only roll my eyes, as the day before I had helped to hang a huge canvas banner emblazoned with the word Easter in front of a National Trust property. It was amusing because it was laughably reactionary, and also, very easily demonstrably not true. It also created the largest number of visits for the Easter weekend that Sutton House had ever seen.

Today’s headline reads MUTINY IN THE NATIONAL TRUST, and is in response to volunteers from Felbrigg in Norfolk who refused to wear Prejudice and Pride badges. In response to their refusal, the Trust asked them to move away from public-facing duties for the duration of the programme. Firstly, let’s just unpick the headline. 10 ‘furious’ volunteers out of a body of over 70,000 volunteers across the National Trust (ie 0.01%) is emphatically not a mutiny. It’s a mere drop in the ocean.

When the Prejudice and Pride programme began, the Trust approached it very carefully, working with and consulting many experts (including myself), such as Stonewall, curator of Queering the Museum and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery Matt Smith and Leader of the Leicester University School of Museum Studies, Richard Sandell. We worked together on a series of training days to discuss how various inevitable challenges could be met. Volunteers were always a great consideration. The Trust is so privileged that so many people devote their time, skills and energy to volunteering there, but sometimes volunteers can be difficult- anyone working in museums and heritage can tell you that much. I visited Seaton Deleval in Northumberland once and I had to walk away from an elderly volunteer who was using sexist language to refer to a Mary Eleanor Bowes portrait, when he noticed her portrait had caught my eye. Not everyone thinks LGBTQ history should be uncovered, they prefer that it should continue to be hidden, like a shameful dirty secret, and unfortunately, out of 70,000 volunteers, it’s inevitable that some of those would share that view.

The news that the National Trust had stood firm on this ruling that volunteers must wear lanyards or badges reflecting the programme at the house was like music to my ears. Like a lot of large charities and organisations, the Trust has a set of values and behaviours that all staff and volunteers must abide by. These range from being respectful to people, to being willing to try new things, but also that we be advocates and ambassadors for the National Trust.

So often, as with many of my own visits to National Trust properties, the only people you will encounter as a visitor is a volunteer. It makes perfect sense then, that they be ‘on message’, for whatever is going on in the property at that time.

Pam Meecham, my PhD supervisor, has written about the Hello Sailor exhibition at the Merseyside Maritime Museum, and noted how some of the museum staff wanted nothing to do with the exhibition, and were vocal in their disapproval of it. It shouldn’t be behaviour that is tolerated from staff, and therefore should not be tolerated by volunteers. The difference is, volunteers are not contractually bound to sharing the values of the Trust, so the alternative, if they are not prepared to do so, is to take their skills elsewhere, and use their time where their values are in line with the organisation (the daily mail perhaps?). I think it’s very generous for the Trust’s stance to be to allow them to move their duties away from front of house rather than just showing them the door.

I obviously feel very strongly about criticisms about the Trust’s LGBTQ engagement, and take a lot of it very personally given my role in laying the foundations for it, and in building the programme this year (especially since I know that people like my parents are consuming the sort venom that is being written about it). It hasn’t always been easy, both from inside and outside the Trust, but reading that they were taking such a bold stance made me feel really valued, and genuinely moved by the Trust’s devotion to these important histories, and to making their properties more inviting and welcoming to LGBTQ communities.

I’m disheartened to see they have reneged this bold stance in the face of criticism from the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. They haven’t yielded to the ‘fury’ of volunteers, they’ve yielded to homophobia/transphobia. And if you change your course in response to hatred and ignorance, you give weight and merit to that hatred and ignorance, and say that those who voiced it are in the right. This is really disappointing, it feels like one step forward and too steps back and it’s exhausting.

The Daily Mail is the enemy of many people and many things and carries a lot of power given its colossal readership. But if you continue to worry about what the Daily Mail is going to say about every thing you do, and if you cave in to bullying from thick right wingers, you’ll never get anything done. The future members and visitors of the National Trust are not old white Daily Mail readers, so we really, really need to stop bending to the every wishes of old, white Daily Mail readers.

I feature on episode three of the National Trust’s Prejudice and Pride podcast, speaking with Dr Gus Casely-Hayford and Clare Balding about hidden queer histories. The whole series is great, written by Museum of Transology’s E-J Scott, check them out here.

“Get your acorns out!” – the National Trust at Pride

I’ve finally handed a full version of my thesis to my supervisors, so hopefully will have more time to blog, and I’m also planning on making the blog a bit nicer too, and adding more info about the exhibitions we’ve had at Sutton House this year.

This week has been a pretty unusual week for me at work. On Wednesday we hosted a member’s event at Sutton House hosted by National Trust Director Helen Ghosh. I was delighted to be asked to chair the panel event, and the discussion was around making the Trust more diverse and inclusive. On Saturday, the Sutton House team led the National Trust’s presence at Pride in London. If you’d have told me when I started researching and volunteering for the Trust in 2013 that either of these things were happening I’d have guffawed. It seems a very appropriate way to bookend the uphill struggle that has been my relationship with the Trust (and frustrations with the heritage world more broadly), and my PhD.

I’ve ranted on here before about how problematic I find Pride, and haven’t attended for the past few years, opting instead for Queer Picnic, Black Pride or Trans Pride in Brighton, all of which embody what Pride events should feel like for me much more than London Pride.

I hate that Pride now presents an opportunity for institutions to stick a rainbow flag on themselves and be seen to be visibly supportive of a community they do shit all to support all year round. I hate that the organisers so consistently get everything wrong (as an aside I attended a winter club night they did at Scala and they had a men’s queue and a woman’s queue… yet they claim to be for the whole LGBTQ community…). I hated that a police man came up to me this year to ask for a selfie, I said no, and that he could have a selfie for every time the police have appropriately dealt with a hate crime I’ve reported… Pride is too corporate, too white, too cis, too homonormative, pats people and institutions on the back too much for being “allies” but for not actually doing anything, is hypocritical and blind to the genuine pressing issues that queer communities face around the country and the world.

 

So it was with a lot of anxieties and doubt that I agreed to march in Pride for the first time, and especially to march as part of a huge organisation. But I’m actually pleased I did. The Trust haven’t always got it right this year when dealing with LGBTQ histories as part of the Prejudice and Pride programme, but I know that those who worked on it, and helped put together the Pride march are all coming from the same place as me. When we were first talking about Pride, I said I wouldn’t be involved if we were selling memberships on the day- as I think it would be desperately inappropriate to do so. Instead, our presence should be to show support, to celebrate the work we have done over the last few years (especially at Sutton House!) and to celebrate our LGBTQ staff and volunteers.

This year at Sutton House, all of our programming has been related to LGBTQ themes. We have worked with (and paid!) exclusively LGBTQ artists, have given platforms to people that otherwise wouldn’t have had them from the Sutton House community (such as Victor Zagon, who I will blog about more fully at some point!), we’ve worked with a young LGBTQ support group, we have explored queer themes with school groups and in our family offers. My exhibition Master-Mistress in 2014 was the first ever LGBT History Month exhibition in a National Trust property, we were the first to launch gender neutral toilets, we’ve been hosting queer club nights with Amy Grimehouse and Late Night Library Club for years, and I know that we won’t stop just because the Prejudice and Pride programme ends. I’m very concerned about legacy, but for now, I was very proud to march as part of Sutton House in Pride, I have worked very hard to help educate a large organisation about LGBTQ heritage, I have called out staff in the Trust when they have got things wrong, and just because the Trust are now on the cusp of progress, I won’t stop doing either of those things.

I love the National Trust, that’s why I’ve spent over four years researching and writing about it, that’s why I volunteered with them, and why I’m so pleased to have a job at my favourite National Trust house. Marching in Pride also made me realise how much affection my community has for the Trust too, even if sometimes it seems very conservative, or inaccessible, people appreciate the aims of Europe’s largest conservation charity, and recognise our attempts to get better. Fear not- I will continue to hold the Trust to account and work with my equally passionate colleagues to ensure that this is just the beginning of making the Trust a better place for EVERYONE.

We met a lovely man called Martin from the London Gay Men’s Chorus, who had been part of the Save Sutton House Campaign back in the late 1980s- I’m looking forward to getting in touch with him to start recording his memories, some of which we were lucky enough to hear over a pint after the march.

Also: huge shoutout to the man in the crowd that shouted “Get your acorns out!” as we marched past.

Petworth (and a very queer statue)

I was lucky enough to visit Petworth this week on a training day. The West Sussex country house contains one of the most iconic art collections in the care of National Trust, and a Capability Brown landscaped deer park in the 700 odd acre grounds are home to the country’s largest herd of fallow deer. We only had time for a brief whistlestop tour, but I will definitely make time to go back to have a closer look, and also to explore the grounds more.

There was one particular statue in the collection that stood out for me. The Petworth twitter feed helpfully pointed me towards this record on the collections website.

This is Pan and Apollo (or Marsyas and Olympos or Pan and Daphnis). In other words, it’s potentially any of three combinations of mythical figures. I was struck by the tenderness, and lets face it, queerness of the statue. Let’s consider for a moment that the sculpture depicts Pan and Daphnis, Daphnis was a Sicilian shepherd whose mother was a nymph, and is often depicted as an eromenos, which means the younger man in a pederastic relationship- a convention which was both socially accepted, and recognised in Ancient Greece. Pan fell in love with Daphnis, and taught him to play the panpipes. These models of relationships can be problematic to use as parallels with contemporary understandings of sexual identities. There were no rules or laws about age when it came to sex in Ancient Greece, but there were about consent. Either way, it’s certainly one aspect of Greek/Roman culture that hasn’t directly informed our own ‘civilisation’. The curators of the British Museum’s Warren Cup exhibition in 2006 no doubt had to think very carefully about how the object, which more blatantly depicts sex between erastês and erômenos, was framed in contemporary conversations around sexuality.

Apart from being a really striking statue, it serves to remind us that you never have to look too hard for queer histories and narratives in historic houses, or at least for artworks, furniture and objects that lend themselves well to queer readings and interpretation.

I was also compelled to do a little sharpie doodle of the statue:

all 126 LGBTQ sonnet videos now online

I have finally put all of the contributions to the 126 LGBTQ sonnet project online. You can view them all in this album here. I’m looking into potential ways of displaying them, perhaps with a dedicated website, but for now they are all there for your viewing pleasure.

The exhibition at Sutton House has finished and it was a great success. I was sad to see it go, but looking forward to writing about it for my thesis, and I don’t think this is the end of the project, I am hoping to edit them in to a second version of the film and to continue to look for opportunities to screen it to make sure it can be seen by as many people as possible.

I want to extend my thanks again to the staff at Sutton House, but especially to the 125 (I was the 126th!) volunteers who gave up their time to contribute so creatively and generously to this project. I am overwhelmed and moved by the contributions, which range from funny to really moving. All of them are brilliant. Visibility is still really political for queer people, so we have all done something towards ensuring that we are seen and heard, and I think that’s a beautiful thing. I’m also delighted to have met so many of the contributors since, at Sutton House, the V&A and various other queer events. I never imagined this project would help me feel so much more a part of the queer community, and that I would make so many friends through it.

I’m really excited that the exhibition had a brief mention in an article in the Independent. Unfortunately it was only two days before the exhibition ended, meaning that it wasn’t an effective marketing device, but still great to have been noticed, and I hope the higher ups in the National Trust are paying attention to our success.

Special thanks to Alex Creep, who has put up with me being quite insufferably stressy during the build up to the exhibition! and who also made the beautiful poster for the exhibition.

V&A Friday Late: Queer and Now

I’m delighted to have been invited to speak at the V&A’s Friday Late ‘Queer and Now’ which takes place on Friday 27th February from 18.30 – 22.00

The event is free and consists of talks, music (from Amy Grimehouse), performance, food and drink and first come first served free haircuts from Open Barbers!

My talk is called ‘There’s no place like homo: the deconstruction of the queer country house’ and takes place in the beautiful National Art Library at 19.30.

Last year, the V&A celebrated the 40th anniversary of the influential and groundbreaking exhibition ‘The Destruction of the Country House, 1875-1975’. While the exhibition was concerned with the preservation of houses, this presentation will look at the idea of the preservation of homes, specifically the homes of those who could be considered queer figures. Domestic spaces have historically been some of the very few places where queer lives could be safely enacted and lived. Using a number of case studies, including National Trust properties, and other historic houses open to the public, I will make a case for activism in heritage sites to ensure that queer voices are heard in the spaces they called home. I will also showcase some of my own interventions, specifically my audiovisual exhibition at Sutton House in Hackney, and a multimedia protest based on Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire.

You can see the full programme of events here. Hope to see many of you there!

‘126’ exhibition poster!

I’m delighted to unveil the official poster for the ‘126‘ exhibition at Sutton House.

The poster was made by the super talented Alex Creep.

 

 

The event on Facebook is active, please click ‘attending’ and invite everyone you think might be interested!

The event is also on the LGBT History Month calendar. Which is a great source for keeping an eye out on the various events taking place in February and beyond.

Hope to see you all there!

‘126’ and ‘Queer Season’ at Sutton House

We’re less than a month away from the exhibition that I (and 125 volunteers) have been working on. I’m delighted to unveil the trailer here:


‘126’ LGBTQ exhibition trailer from Sean Curran on Vimeo.

I’m also delighted to announce that owing to the success of last February’s exhibition Master Mistress, the staff at Sutton House have decided to eschew the confines of LGBT History Month by hosting a two month long Queer Season throughout February and March. Below is the exhibition blurb and more information about the other events taking place throughout Queer Season:

Queer Season at Sutton House

Starting in LGBT History Month, Sutton House is hosting its first Queer Season, a series of exhibitions and events celebrating the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer communities.

National Trust’s Sutton House presents:

126 
5th February to 29th March,
Weds to Sun 12pm to 5pm

Building on February 2014’s exhibition ‘Master-Mistress’, the first LGBT History Month event to be held in a National Trust property we think, ‘126’ is a crowd-sourced audiovisual experience featuring all 126 of Shakespeare’s Fair Youth sonnets as read by members of the LGBTQ community. Each sonnet is self-recorded and is accompanied by video portraits of the contributors.

Admission: Adult £3.50, Child £1, Family £6.90, National Trust Members FREE.

The Amy Grimehouse and National Trust’s Sutton House present:

The Craft Valentine’s Massacre 
14 February 7pm to late

 Join The Amy Grimehouse for their special presentation of that 90s classic, The Craft. Explore Sutton House and participate in some anti-Valentine’s spells, Hex-Your-Ex, the Nancy Booth, The Craft Craft Room with binding and poison pen Valentine’s cards and more. All before the pre-screening show with the Bitches of Eastwick. The screening will make way for the ‘Invoking the Spirit of Manon Ball’ with Connie Francis on the jukebox and more til late. “Now is the time. This is the hour. Ours is the magic. Ours is the power.” 

Nick Fox and National Trust’s Sutton House Present:

Bad Seed 
5th February to 29th March,
Weds to Sun 12pm to 5pm

 This will include the first comprehensive survey of work by South African-born artist Nick Fox. Arranged over seven rooms, the exhibition brings together artworks created over the last ten years, principally painting but also films, installations, cyanotype prints and intricately laboured object d’art from his celebrated Nightsong and Phantasieblume series. Fox has also chosen Sutton House to launch a new artistic project called Seedbank, which invites members of the public to select seeds linked to a veiled dictionary of floral meanings to give as long term and living tokens of love and loves loss. Bad Seed will be shown simultaneously with Fox’s International touring exhibition Nightsong, at Angus-Hughes Gallery (7th February – 7 March 2015), which is also located in Hackney.

Admission: Adult £3.50, Child £1, Family £6.90, National Trust Members FREE.

2nd call for volunteers for ‘126’ LGBTQ exhibition at Sutton House

[EDIT: thanks for the overwhelming response to this second call out- all sonnets have now been assigned!]

Hello all!

I am currently working on an exhibition for LGBT History Month (and beyond- it will be running until the end of March!) at Sutton House, a National Trust house in Hackney.


(the dates on the poster are wrong- they will be amended when the proper posters are made! It actually ends on the 29th March!)

I can now announce that the exhibition will be called ‘126’. It will be an audio visual exhibition featuring crowd sourced recordings of LGBTQ people reading one of Shakespeare’s 126 Fair Youth sonnets, and short video portraits of the contributors.

I have been overwhelmed by the quality of the submissions so far, but alas- there are still between 20-30 sonnets to be assigned to volunteers!

If you wish to get involved, it only takes 5-10 minutes to record, and you can do it in the comfort of your own home, and it’s a great chance to be involved in a huge community effort to raise the visibility of LGBTQ identities in historic houses, and in the National Trust, you will also receive an invite to the private view!

You can see some examples of the contributions so far here. And read the original call for volunteers here.

To get involved or for more information, contact SuttonHouseLGBTQ@gmail.com and I will assign you with a sonnet!

I need all of the sonnets and videos to be recorded by the end of December, so please share widely with your networks!

Sutton House LGBT History Month exhibition- updates!

Just thought I’d share a few updates about the LGBTQ sonnet project exhibition to be exhibited at Sutton House in February 2015.

The exhibition will open on the 4th February, which is also when the house reopens after the closed season. The private view will be the following evening, on the 5th, and we’re toying with holding a second event to follow up on the success and interest of this year’s panel discussion. I’ll keep you posted!

Here is another teaser of the exhibition, featuring snippets from 5 of the contributions so far:


126 sonnets – teaser video [three] from Sean Curran on Vimeo.

I really can’t express how pleased I am with all of the contributions so far! You can listen to the sonnets so far here.

The exhibition will be taking place in the chapel, here are a few pictures of the space for those of you who have not visited yet (obviously it will look very different once the exhibition is in place):

I’m also delighted to say that the posters and promotional material will be designed by a super talented queer artist, more on this soon, but I’m really excited about it! In other great news, this year’s Master-Mistress exhibition and the upcoming follow up will receive a brief mention in the National Trust magazine that goes out to members, a readership of approximately 4.5 million…

I’m also hoping to soon be able to reveal some other LGBTQ related things that will be taking place at Sutton House during February and beyond, it’s really great that the success of this year’s exhibition is increasing the visibility of LGBTQ identities and narratives more widely throughout the property, I can only hope that other National Trust properties follow the lead soon.

By November 30th I should know for sure exactly how many more contributors I will need as, for various reasons, some of the original contributors are no longer able to commit, so I will be posting a second call out in an attempt to fill the final few spaces by the end of December, so that I have plenty of time to experiment with how the audio and the videos will work in the exhibition space.

A huge warm thank you to those who have already contributed and those who are planning to, this exhibition would literally be nothing without you all!

The National Trust at the Balfron Tower

In September last year I was involved as a tour guide in the National Trust London Project’s Big Brother takeover. It was such an interesting experience that when I heard about their pop-up opening of Flat 130 in Balfron Tower I was eager to be involved.

I had, unknowingly, known about Balfron Tower from 28 Days Later, being a huge zombie film enthusiast (arguably it’s not a zombie film, as the ‘infected’ aren’t dead, but yadda yadda), as Cillian Murphy’s character takes refuge there with other survivors. Interesting that I knew a building originally envisioned as a socialist utopia as the refuge from complete nightmarish dystopia. It also turns out that my good friend currently lives in the tower as a property guardian, albeit 21 floors below the flat that the National Trust temporally opened.

The experience was quite different to the Big Brother opening, partially because of the considerable amount of research that was required before the tours (the Big Brother tours were quite small in comparison, and as a fan of the programme I didn’t really need to learn much), as well as the anxieties that many, including me, had about the project. I was uncomfortable in the direction that the building was going, as it is being developed and sold as luxury apartments, the original social housing residents having, mostly, been “decanted” (i.e.: booted out) since 2010. I was also uncomfortable at how the tours could be read as voyeurism- touring largely white, middle class people around an area that is mostly social housing, not to mention the potential for disturbances that could be caused to the current residents (a few remaining social housing tenants, property guardians and artists from Bow Arts Trust), however, my initial concerns quickly vanished once the project got underway, as the Trust had taken great steps to ensure limited disturbance to the residents and local communities, they offered free community group tours to ensure that those who lived and went to school locally had the opportunity to see the flat and experience the tour, and part of the income from the tickets will be donated to the Residents Association.

The enthusiastic visitors on the tours, and the other volunteers I worked with shared my discomfort with the direction the building was being taken in, and by being reflective about that in our conversations, it became clear that everyone was there out of an interest in modernist architecture and the socialist values imbued in it by Ernő Goldfinger. The conversations we had on the tours about our own experiences of social housing, high rise living and East London meant that the tours were more self aware and critical than perhaps your average National Trust tour. I tried to make sure that the tone of the tours was not one of fetishising the building as an icon, but instead getting to the core of the social values that Goldfinger intended to be enacted by such a building, and how it has been, and is being, undone.

Flat 130 is the one in which Goldfinger and his wife Ursula briefly lived in in 1968. Part publicity stunt, part “empirical” research, the Goldfinger’s used their time there to inform the future Trellick Tower, by finding out what residents thought about living there. They only occupied the flat for two months, so the Trust decided to go down a more fantastical route rather than trying to recreate what would have been a very sparse flat. Instead, Wayne and Tilly Hemingway were invited to create a 1968 flat for the imagined family that moved in after the Goldfingers. The idea was that all furniture was from 1968 or earlier, assuming that families would have inherited furniture from earlier to bring with them. There were, however, a few anachronisms, and perhaps the furniture would not have been reflective of a family in social housing, but my questions about the logic of presenting well researched fiction rather than, say, the empty flat, were soon challenged when I saw how much visitors enjoyed the flat, mostly because of the nostalgia it triggered. One woman said it was strange seeing somewhere that looked so much like an old flat of hers being presented as a museum piece.

I gave tours on three days, and was asked to Duty Manage the volunteers on three more. The tours were such a success that the initial run was extended. The tour guides were all volunteers, and the turnover of recruitment and training was a lot quicker than usual National Trust endeavours- and definitely the better for it. The dynamic and diverse range of guides and styles of tours made the project feel fresh and exciting, and it proved, to me at least, that being a Tour Guide is not necessarily something you get better at with experience…

A huge thank you to Roshan and Katherine, and many others, for making the project such a great pleasure to be a part of it, and I really wish it was a happier story for what happens to the tower next.

I made a little video of the flat:


Flat 130, Balfron Tower from Sean Curran on Vimeo.