‘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
Ehenderson01@ioe.ac.uk 
ioe-ac.academia.edu/EmilyHenderson
Author, Gender pedagogy: Teaching, learning and tracing gender in higher education (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)

‘Making things’ exhibition

Just a quickie, to share the poster (click on it for a larger version) for an upcoming exhibition that I am part of, based at the Institute of Education, showcasing work-in-progress from doctoral students in the Art, Design and Museology department whose research includes an element of practice. My work is a piece called ‘The village folk had a lot to say about it’, and it is in response to the neglectful interpretation of Mary Lobb at Kelmscott Manor.

There will also be a seminar, as you can see from the poster, in which there will be a respondent to each of the student’s work and a discussion about how research and practice intersect. I’m delighted to say that Emily F. Henderson, a PhD candidate at the IOE researching feminism, gender and queer theory in connection with international Higher Education, has kindly agreed to respond to my work. You can check out her new book here.

The exhibition opens the week before 126 does- eeeshk, it will be an exciting few weeks!

Queer collecting talk at LMA

Firstly, I must apologise for how long it has been since I have updated the blog, LGBT History Month was manic, and alongside writing a chapter about queer oral histories and a little trip to Paris I have barely had time to formulate my thoughts, let alone write them down.

Just a quick blog post to thank everyone who came to my talk last Wednesday about Queer Collecting at the London Metropolitan Archives, and of course to Jan at LMA for allowing me to share my research, and to Howard for facilitating the evening.

As always, the LMA LGBT History Club served as a great forum to share ideas and to generate discussion, and also as an opportunity to run my research-in-progress past people who aren’t my supervisors, which is a really valuable exercise for any research students.

I always like to use literature in my research, and this talk was no different, it was named after a quote from Utz by Bruce Chatwin ‘The right and the need to touch’, and I also mentioned Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, when talking about taste and gender. The quote I referred to was from when the protagonist Mrs de Winter is describing Rebecca’s morning room, which she describes as “a woman’s room” (you can see a picture of me gesticulating wildly about it above), the quote is as follows:

“This was a woman’s room, graceful, fragile, the room of someone who had chosen every particle of furniture with great care, so that each chair, each vase, each small, infinitesimal thing should be in harmony with one another, and with her own personality. It was as though she who had arranged this room had said: ‘This I will have, and this, and this,’ taking piece by piece from the treasures in Manderley each object that pleased her best, ignoring the second-rate, the mediocre, laying her hand with sure certain instinct only upon the best. There was no intermingling of style, no confusing of period, and the result was perfection in a strange and starling way, not coldly formal like the drawing-room shown to the public, but vividly alive, having something of the same glow and brilliance that the rhododendrons had, massed there, beneath the window.”

This provided an interesting starting point to looking at the gendered nature of taste and of collecting, and I elaborated by looking more closely at the research of Susan Pearce, Belk and Wallendorf (some references beneath). I then argued that collecting was a queer act, that required a collector to be gender atypical in behaviour and ended by looking at the survey I conducted with over 60 LGBTQ identified people who owned collections.

I wanted to show a video clip of a documentary called Signs of the Times from the early 90s, but unfortunately it wouldn’t work. It’s very camp and funny, so I thought I would share it here.

‘signs of the times’ documentary clip

Thanks again to everyone who came along, I hope it was useful/interesting/thought provoking/mildly amusing. I will be updating the blog more over the coming days as I have a lot to report back on, including the LMA LGBT conference which was a great success, a recent meeting with Surat Knan of Rainbow Jews, the IOE LGBTQ & Friends group and the events we held for LGBT history month and more!

Belk, R. W. and Wallendorf, M. (1999). ‘Of mice and men: gender identity in collecting’. In S. M. Pearce (Ed.), Interpreting Objects and Collections (pp. 240-253). London: Routledge.

Pearce, S. M. (1994). ‘Leicester Contemporary Collecting Project’s questionnaire’. In S. M. Pearce (Ed.), Interpreting Objects and Collections (pp. 291-295). Oxon: Routledge.

‘The Right and The Need to Touch’: the Queerness of Collecting – talk at the LMA

‘The Right and The Need to Touch’: the Queerness of Collecting

LMA’s monthly LGBT History Club welcomes back Sean Curran for a talk and discussion event.
FREE DROP IN – NO NEED TO BOOK

Wednesday 6th March 2013
18:00 – 19:30

PhD researcher Sean Curran shares his findings from his recent research about the nature of collecting (and specifically personal collections) and the results of a recent survey he conducted amongst LGBTQ collectors. What implications might these results have for museums, archives and libraries collecting material of LGBTQ interest?

London Metropolitan Archives
40 Northampton Rd, London EC1R 0HB

It would be great if you could come! I will be sharing some of my findings from the survey I mentioned previously on this blog, hoping a lively discussion will follow!

(image credit: Backstage at the Royal Holborn Music Hall, from George Sims (ed.), Living London: its work and its play, its humour and its pathos, its sights and its scenes, Vol. 2, p.288 (Cassell, London, 1903) Available at Guildhall Library.)

 

LGBTQ History conference: LGBTQ Narrators and Oral Histories

I attended the What is LGBT(Q) History and Where do we stand? conference at Queen Mary, University of London on Wednesday 7th-Thursday 8th September. I decided to do a few blog posts, just to make it more digestible, and because my notetaking tends to be a bit scatter-brained and excessive.

My first question before even getting there was why the Q for Queer was in brackets…

Rather than going through each of the papers, I’m just going to pick out some of the points I found most interesting.

You can find out more about the conference here: http://whatislgbtqhistory.blogspot.co.uk/

The first panel was about LGBTQ Narrators and Oral History(/ies)

Jane Traies, a PhD candidate from the University of Sussex spoke about her work with older lesbians and oral history. She said that older lesbians are overlooked in both academia and in popular culture, and the older queer generation is particularly hard to access. She managed to survey around 400 lesbians aged between 60 and 90, and then followed up with 50 indepth life story interviews. She referred to older queer people as “the closeted generation” which was a turn of phrase I like. Oral histories with older people, specifically marginalised people, is about restoring the historical record, and not only treating them as museum pieces with an interesting past, but capturing their experiences of today, the present. One of the questions asked was “do you consider yourself a feminist?”, a staggering 80% said yes, which is much higher than any other statistics for 3rd age populations, is it because they are older? is it because they are women? is it because they are lesbians? these are ideas she needs to unpack.Many of the younger women she interviewed (around their 60s) were young during the second wave feminist movement and thus may see feminism and lesbianism as inextricably linked. Those who formed their lesbian identities before the 1960s were less likelyto consider themselves feminists, she also found that those from working class backgrounds were also more likely to consider themselves feminists. Of the non-identifying-feminists, the adoption of butch/femme and mirrored heteronormal roles were more common. Jane’s research has confirmed for her that personal histories and identities and socio-political histories are linked and often in conflict. She also said it was important to disaggragate the LGBTQ acronym, but also to knit it back up again.

Of LGBTQ history, she said it was still troublesome to the academy, as it erodes traditional boundaries of histories and is interdisciplinary, and that LGBT histories are a political act and activism. She also identified that LGBTQ history is almost always researched by LGBTQ people, thus bias is unavoidable, and there are some academics that still believe that history can and should be completely unbiased.

She spoke of her methodology, which as an early stage researcher, was of great interest to me. She said that she feels she has a responsibility to the community that she is studying, and has been careful to include them at all stages and has co-produced their life histories and allowed them to choose their own psuedonyms and has consulted them with the transcripts. She also seeks feedback for her research with non-academic LGBT people, which she says is good practice for eliminating academic jargon.

More about her fascinating research can be found here: http://womenlikethat.co.uk/
Elizabeth Young (Uni of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada) and Alva Traebert (Uni of Edinburgh) were both looking at place in their research, Elizabeth at the ‘Bible Belt’ of Canada, Lethbridge, and Alva in Scotland from 1980-2000. Ideas that cropped up included; the importance of geography on shaping and informing sexual identities, how this geographic influence impacts oral methodology, the importance of preserving voices, issues of labelling and terminology (which was a theme that cropped up throughout the day and a particular anxiety in my research), the importance of being reflexive researchers who are mindful of ourselves and our own influence and interpretations of the stories that are told.

Alva was looking at AIDs/HIV and how young queer people in Scotland would have educated themselves during the AIDs/HIV crisis without the internet or access to formal education on the subject due to Section 2A (Scotland’s version of Section 28 which was repealed three years before the rest of the UK repealed Section 28), the absence of women in queer AIDs/HIV research, apart from as care-givers, how the “scene venues” as viewed by mainstream society are mainly very gendered places (ie: gay bars, parks etc.), the importance of acknowledging the tensions within the community and who polices the boundaries of community membership, the difficulties some lesbians find in being part of the lesbian community due to their femininity (which some of my friends have experienced first hand). She spoke of how she was using queer as an umbrella term for all LGBT people and their allies (which is what I plan to do in my research), but is mindful that it’s not a widely embraced term. She sees her role as not giving voices to queer people, but as facilitating queer people to find their own.

She finished by saying that being a queer researcher, working on a queer research project in a traditional university is still a challenge (I have recently faced a sea of blank faces when describing my research to some fellow PhD students at a university that is primarily education and social sciences) and that we need to start thinking about what it means to be a queer researcher.

Some good points cropped up in the Q & A which followed:

-“community” should perhaps be viewed as what we are not, rather than what we are.
– there is a queer generational gap, older queers believe firmly in identity politics (and therefore labels) whereas younger people are more inclined to think of identity as fluid. Jane said that she felt the LGBTQ were not great at intergenerational relationships.
– when doing oral histories, there is no truth. You get the stories that people want to/are prepared to tell and you become the co-producer and the storytelling becomes a conversation.

I’ll do a follow up blog post with more from the conference soon.

Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill

There are two potential strands of LGBT interest that could be developed at Strawberry Hill, taking advantage of the lightness and the weight that this audience group can be approached with.

The LGBT and queer heritage of the house is intangible; the challenge is to bring this heritage to the surface. The National Trust, for example, is slowly beginning to embrace more daring ventures to include this audience group, with recent developments at Nyman’s House, where an artist and curator was invited to perform interventions to uncover the story of a gay former resident, and the ‘Soho Stories’ smartphone app, which is a guided audio tour around the popular LGBT-friendly streets of Soho, London.

The first strand is around the idea of social justice. Richard Sandell and others have looked with some depth at the potential museums, galleries and country houses have in reaching out to marginalised or “difficult-to-reach” groups. The Museums Association are currently looking at the idea of the ‘just’ museum, considering social justice at the very core of all institutions do. They are also looking ahead to ‘the museum in 2020’ and at how museum professionals can strive to reach the goal of being inclusive by that time.

There is great value in Strawberry Hill House as place, or as a safe space. In my MA dissertation I looked at how women’s collections in archives can be used for outreach and education and found, through looking at other institutions, particularly at the Women’s Art Library at Goldsmiths, that the library is valued as a space for women, with many groups using it as a base for discussion, workshops and debate. Strawberry Hill could become such a space for LGBT groups. It could be the venue for conferences looking at Horace Walpole’s sexuality (on which George Haggerty, Timothy Mowl and others have written about), queer identity in the 18th century, the queer gothic and queer aesthetic. It could also play home to LGBT books clubs, discussion groups and study days looking at, for example, the potentially homoerotic content of Walpole’s correspondence. Strawberry Hill could celebrate LGBT Pride over summer, sending a strong message that this is an audience group worthy of acknowledging and worthy of celebrating.

While we cannot assume to know of Walpole’s sexuality, his life and his home unpack and undo notions of heteronormativity and resist normative sexual values, this discussion is one that is worth exploring further.

The second strand is a lighter one, and would explore the kitsch and the camp that is abundant at Strawberry Hill House. Kensington Palace has begun to embrace a more kitsch line of interpretation to complement its kitsch aesthetic, evident in the recent Enchanted Palace exhibition. The theatrical and performative nature of the décor would lend itself to hosting gay youth groups and gay drama performances, as well as short running exhibitions examining the gay themes that currently reside only subliminally in the house. The empty and unfurnished rooms could be interpreted by queer contemporary artists, and the bold and unusual lighting created by the gothic windows and stained glass mean that it would require little to transform the rooms into breathtaking gallery spaces. There is also scope for a queer artist in residence, to help facilitate LGBT community groups (and others) to explore these themes for themselves. Similarly, these themes and ideas could be exploited with fashion and design students, who could look at masculinities, men and fashion and interior design.

The financial implications of welcoming and embracing an LGBT audience go way beyond the entry charge that new LGBT visitors would bring with them. If an LGBT audience sees that their narratives are valued by Strawberry Hill, the number of Civil Partnerships that the House currently caters for could increase considerably.

For those concerned with the idea that these proposals include the “outing” of Horace Walpole, this is not the case. It is instead a matter of interrogating undercurrent themes and using them to inform a new kind of conversation. Queering a space can be a retrospective form of interpreting that opens up innovative discourses and a reassessment of how inclusive Strawberry House can become.

The pictures were taken by me (with the help of the Instagram app).

LGBTI ALMS 2012 conference

I’m really excited to be giving a paper at the LGBTI ALMS (Archives, Libraries, Museums and Special Collections) conference in Amsterday on the 3rd of August. A brief abstract of what I will be talking about can be found on the conference blog here.

The full programme can be found here. It’s a jam-packed conference with a real range of interesting speakers.

It’s going to be a great opportunity to discuss my research at such an early stage with so many experts in the field, and a great chance to see Amsterdam as I’ve never been before! I will report back on the blog when I return.

upcoming discussion at the London Metropolitan Archives

I’ll start with a plug:
LGBT HISTORY CLUB
Wednesday 4 July   6pm-7.30pm  FREE drop-in event
London Metropolitan Archives, 40, Northampton Road, London, EC1R 0HB
On Wednesday 4th July Sean Curran will be presenting some interesting ideas around his current research and opening up a discussion with members of LGBT History Club.
Sean has  been awarded a PhD studentship by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) due to start in October and would like to take the opportunity to discuss the nature of his proposed research with a range of people interested in the  field of queering museum and archive practice.
Some areas for discussion:
  • Should interpretation in museums and archives be weighted towards a celebration of a shared queer identity to promote a sense of belonging and community amongst a diverse and varied audience?
  • What broader steps towards inclusion can be made beyond interpretations focusing on difference?
  • How can museums and archives become platforms for identity-forming, both for individuals and communities?
The facebook event can be found here.
We look forward to seeing you.
Sean