Making the case: the value of heritage education

On Thursday 6th September I attended the last day of the GEM (Group for Education in Museums) conference at the Xfi Centre at the University of Exeter. The theme of the conference was Making the case: the value of heritage education and day three was about HOW to make the case. Exeter was quite unlike I’d imagined it to be, very sparse and sleepy (and extremely hilly!).

The day began with a keynote address from Sandra Stancliffe from English Heritage, who looked at the fragile and often difficult to negotiate relationship between schools and museums. She claimed that over the years, education hadn’t really changed that much (not sure how much I agree with that!) and that education and heritage run parallel with each other, only occasionally intercepting, the question she tried to answer was how to improve that interface. She said that museums and heritage sites need to move away from providing an ‘Argos catalogue’ of educational sessions towards more bespoke and tailored services, which isn’t to say that every class from every school need be catered to individually. Museums need to make the case for being involved in the co-production of local area-based curricula, an example she used was a school not using a nearby (and free!) Norman Castle because they “weren’t doing the Normans”, Sandra’s advice: “Do the Normans then!” The National Curriculum tried to move away from thinking in terms of block subjects towards more interdisciplinary fluidity. Chris Watkins of the IOE (my own haunt) uses a Turkey metaphor, apparently after being locked in a shed for a long time, once released, the Turkeys will not necessarily run straight out. Is Michael Gove’s enforced “freedom” for teachers a good thing? Will some run and others stay? Schools, for many heritage sites, can make the most long term impact, and the relationships need to be nurtured and mutual.

Sue Wilkinson, a museums and heritage consultant then spoke about bids, in a talk called Building and Advocating a successful case for heritage. While I’m not currently involved in making bids (thankfully, it sounds like a minefield!) there were still some points I found interesting that I have stored for future reference, she said that many unsuccessful projects are clearly written around a bid, where really the bid needs to come from the project. Bidders need to prove a need for their project, show awareness and understanding of the local, regional and national context, show evidence of their track record and make sure that their proposed project is rooted in partnerships (with schools, other heritage sites, local communities etc.) She concluded by saying that the four Ps to remember when preparing a bid, are Project, Partnerships, Process and Presentation.

The next part of the morning was split into three optional breakout sessions, which all included a practical element. One of these was my breakout session called Making our cultural practice more genuinely inclusive: queer and feminist approaches. I split the session into two, looking first at abstract ideas of queer (ie: queering the canon, I made reference to the timeline at the Tate Modern and the frieze at the Wellcome) and then a critical look at some examples of including LGBT narratives, including the British Museum, the Maritime Museum in Liverpool, Birmingham Art Gallery and many others. For the practical session, I returned to a more abstract version of queer and asked the delegates to think about how they could use the site of Gibside Hall in education. Gibside Hall was once the property of Mary Eleanor Bowes (1749-1800), known widely as the ‘unhappy countess’ was once the richest and most sought after heiress in England. Her tumultuous marriage to Andrew Robinson Stoney is well documented, but the National Trust, who have owned Gibside since 1965 fail to acknowledge the less salubrious elements of her life, including her three self-administered abortions and her interest to a feminist audience due to her education and her attitudes to sex, marriage and children. The activity was an informal discussion and a sharing exercise, some of the ideas that came up were about looking at recruiting artists as ‘problem solvers’, creating projections onto the ruined site, using drama and hot seating, incorporating contemporary voices, drawing upon her royal links, and using her as a focal point for asking questions about abortion, which removes it from visitors having to reflect personally about what is still a very divisive and controversial subject. An interesting point made was that in interpreting the site, we must be wary not to allow her to become defined by her abortions. I then showed the group my own interpretation of the site, which can be found here. I will probably blog about my Gibside Hall project at greater length in the near future. I hope that this session proved as a useful introduction to queer and feminist approaches and helped the museum professionals present to think differently about the narratives that are absent in their own institution. I’m really grateful for all of the interesting contributions in the session.

In the afternoon I attended two workshops, the first was The case for support – how museums can help vulnerable young people by Jo Ward, the newly appointed deputy director for GEM. Working with young people is something I haven’t looked into much (partially due to my fear of children), but Jo identified a group that I had never really considered, which were those vulnerable children in the transitionary period between primary and second school. She spoke about many ways that museums and heritage sites can support them during this potentially difficult time. She spoke about transition summer schools, and showed us some animations that children attending had made, she said that animation making was a great way of empowering and involving young people, as it is easy to do, and everyone can have a role, she recommended it as a great tool for learning new skills. She also mentioned the arts award, and how schools sometimes embed it into the curriculum, it requires self-directed learning and builds skills and is a well recognised award, and apparently an awful lot of fun to be involved with. The key is knowing what support schools need and being able to offer it.

The next workshop was about Sustainable online learning programmes by Samantha Elliott from Bolton Library & Museum Service. Samantha showed us some of the great online tools that had been developed in partnership with d2 Digital, specifically around the World War II and the Egyptian collections. I particularly liked the World War II scrap book, which made use of oral histories and is an engaging visual way of bringing the collections to a virtual audience. They can also use the scrapbook template for future interpretation of other collections.

This was a great networking opportunity and my first event as a member of GEM. It was a real honour to be asked to deliver a breakout session and was my first time of presenting my research so far to a non-LGBT audience. I look forward to continuing to share and learn from the experts in GEM. Look out for my write-up in the next volume of the JEM. (The pictures are from my breakout session and are featured here with kind permission of Susannah Stevenson from GEM)

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.

The legacy of London 2012

It was with a groan of despair when I found out that the new minister for Culture, women and equality was this woman:

It is she that is responsible for the legacy of London 2012, which no doubt she will do a dreadful job of. However, the preservation of this summer of sporting activity perhaps will manage without her, as it has provided its own glorious legacy that will outlive Maria Miller and the dreadful coalition government.

I am surprised that I’ve taken to the London 2012 games so much, I am quite emphatically not a sporting fan, I get really uneasy about the notion of ‘patriotism’ (which is often only one step removed from racism), and the fact that the London transport system comes to a screeching halt if there are leaves on the track was leading me to expect a summer of pure misery.

The thing I wasn’t expecting is that the Olympics and Paralympics aren’t really about sport, and aren’t really about borders and flags, they’re about people; individuals and collectively. They’re about people from all over the world cheering for the winners and losers, regardless of which colours they were wearing, they’re about celebrating human spirit and endeavour, and most importantly they were about having a bloody good time.

I worried that my enthusiasm for the Paralympics wouldn’t be as great as for the Olympics, because of the gap between them, but if anything I have enjoyed them more. Channel 4’s coverage has been brilliant (aside from the incessant adverts), and has focused on human spirit in a non-sentimental and non-patronising way. I love that so many of the presenters have disabilities, and really hope that this will continue post-Paralympics.

The Olympics and Paralympics have also been a great platform for women, a huge reason why I find sport so difficult to digest normally is because women’s sport is so often considered secondary. Women such as Jessica Ennis, Ellie Simmonds and Nicola Adams have been some of the most celebrated athletes in the games, with no inference that their achievements are any less than those of their male team-mates.

I also love how many holes in our government the games have exposed. The Tories’ loathing of our immigration rates have made their support of our GB athletes such as Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis look laughably hypocritical, and George Osborne being booed when giving medals at a Paralympic event was surely a highlight of the London 2012, it’s disgraceful to expect that the response would have been any different given the Tories’ lack of compassion for people with disabilities.

Perhaps the sour point is that even in something as all-embracing as London 2012, the number of ‘out’ LGBT athletes is tiny, while the opening Olympic ceremony gave a brief nod to the richness of the LGBT community in the UK, the measly proportion of out athletes simply confirms the inherent homophobia in sport. By my calculations only 0.16% of the near 14,000 athletes competing outwardly identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. This is not enough! Although I will use this opportunity to include a picture of the lovely diver Matthew Mitcham, who embraces his sexuality and is a real stand out in terms of how freely he speaks about it. (the picture is from his facebook fan page)

I have always been annoyed by how much of our newspapers are dominated by sport, but the London 2012 games have shown me that Sport has what I’ve always believed the Arts to have, which is the potential to empower, inspire and bridge gaps between people. That’s not to say my enthusiasm for sport will continue post London 2012- as our football culture in the UK is an embarrassing display of bravado, machismo, misogyny, racism and homophobia.

The games have been a triumph, and I look forward to seeing my home city of London continue to bask in that triumph for many years to come. For all of my initial cynicism, I stand corrected.

Iris Murdoch letters at Kingston University

This is my first attempt at blogging from my iPhone- so apologies if the formatting goes wrong.

The Centre for Iris Murdoch Studies at Kingston University has just acquired 250 letters from Murdoch to Philippa Foot thanks to £107,000 of Heritage Lottery money.

Philippa Foot was one of Murdoch’s closest friends. The pair met as students at Oxford. Theirs was a tempestuous relationship, and they were lovers. The collection is a great acquisition for the Centre, thought to be the most extensive authority on Iris Murdoch in the world, and aside from providing an interesting social history of Ireland, holds great significance for researchers looking at same-sex relationships.

My friend Alex is studying literature at Kingston Uni and is a massive Iris Murdoch fan, and queer, so I know she will be eager to get her paws on these letters!

More can be read about it here

and more about the Iris Murdoch collections here

The sixth annual Iris Murdoch conference takes place on the 14-15th September.

Upcoming LGBT History Club events at LMA

London Metropolitan Archives, 40, Northampton Road, London EC1R 0HB (except for 7 November – see below)

Moral Maze
Wednesday 5 September

Documents reflecting moral values and attitudes to behaviour will be available to explore with discussion to follow. From blackmailers and the scrutiny of the Public Morality Council to a recent work on ‘Friendship between Gay Men and Heterosexual Women’.

Ajamu Presents…(title TBC)
Wednesday 3 October

As part of Black History Month, photographer and artist Ajamu will present on his work recording Black LGBT people, discuss his forthcoming exhibition, Fierce, at Guildhall Art Gallery and recount his adventures on his 19 day walk from London to Huddersfield to raise funds for the artwork.

The Lesbian and Gay Newsmedia Archive at Bishopsgate Institute
Wednesday 7 November

London Metropolitan Archives is closed for stocktaking and LGBT History Club is on a trip to the Bishopsgate to find out more about LAGNA and its work.
NB MEET AT Bishopsgate Institute, 230 Bishopsgate City of London, EC2M 4QH

Launch of Gateway to Heaven
Wednesday 5 December

Clare Summerskill has gathered memories form older lesbians and gay men and brought them together as a collection of personal histories. Join us for the celebration launch of the book, a chance to talk about the value of personal histories and maybe a pre-holiday visit to the pub afterwards!

Can’t wait for these events, a really great range. The LMA LGBT History Club is really kicking off now with a consistent turn out and great content and discussions!

MA finished!

My MA is finished!

My dissertation is entitled ‘A feminine touch: seeking an understanding of the potential for using women’s archive collections for outreach’. I also submitted a placement report for my time in the IOE Archives working with the NUWT collection. I made a small online exhibition about part of the collection here.

It’s been such a great MA (Museums and Galleries in Education at the IOE) and has opened many doors for me (including the PhD). My PhD starts on the 29th September, but before then I have the GEM conference, and a journal article to write- no rest for the wicked.

Brave New World? LMA conference



The Tenth Anniversary London Metropolitan Archives LGBT History and Archives Conference
Saturday February 16th 2013 at Guildhall in the City of London

The LMA are currently planning the Tenth Anniversary LGBT History and Archives Conference which is going to be on February 16th 2013 at Guildhall in the City of London. This is to coincide with Ajamu’s photographic portrait exhibition of young black LGBT artists, trend setters and people of influence called ‘Fierce’ which will be in Guildhall Art Gallery from 1 February to April 14th.

The title, ‘Brave New World?’ provides the opportunity to look at LGBT history / stories and culture in a variety of ways, identifying genuine progress made and considering retrograde steps. There is room for looking to the future and how heritage and cultural activity generated by formal institutions, community groups and individuals might continue to influence and bring about change.

If you would like to contribute to the day in any way through a:
TALK / PRESENTATION – e.g. on a topic, project work, professional practice
DISPLAY OR STALL – promoting / celebrating LGBT history / cultural activity
WORKSHOP/BREAKOUT SESSION – focused on the overarching theme of Brave New World?
Anything else you can think of…

Please email

Deadline for submissions 30 September 2012

The exhibition and the conference should be great, really looking forward to attending this!

500 Years of Lesbian and Gay Related Material in the British Library

I thought it would be useful (for me) to put some retrospective posts from my personal blog on here, just so that all of my LGBT stuff is in one place, but hopefully they might be of interest to others as well. I’ll start with my rather peeved critique of an event held at the British Library on 9th February 2010 called ‘500 Years of Lesbian and Gay Related Material in the British Library’, a talk by Dr Bart Smith hosted by Amy Lame.

Since 2005, LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) History Month has been celebrated each February, and has hosted a modest scatter of events in cultural institutions to mark the occasion. Often these events seem more like a tick-box exercise than a thoughtfully considered celebration.

The British Library held a talk which was advertised as an introduction to and showcase of the wealth of LGBT materials held in its collections. The evening was hosted by well known radio and TV personality and out lesbian Amy Lamé and the presentation was conducted by reference librarian Bart Smith, a minor celebrity in his own right having appeared on University Challenge and Mastermind. He had been given a three month research break to develop a way of making 500 years worth of LGBT material at the library more accessible. His research had clearly been intense and thorough, but the parts of it he decided to share were indulgent and just-for-laughs, resulting in an uncomfortable and offensive camp “show-and-tell”, that was thin on substance but high on innuendos and enforced stereotypes.

The song that played as paying guests entered the lecture theatre was ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man after Midnight)’ by Abba, and among the items highlighted was a great deal of pornographic material, same-sex erotica in fiction and a map of cottaging spots in London. There was no mention of AIDs, little mention of the legalisation of homosexuality or gay rights movements like Stonewall , and not even a reference to Section 28.

If you didn’t go, you didn’t miss much apart from seeing a manuscript where the word “pooff” first appeared and some fairly bland newspaper articles (which are available online anyway and can be accessed through most good universities) the talk should have been about promoting the massive wealth of unique material, giving an overview of the breadth of it and explaining how it can be accessed and used to educate. Instead it was a flamboyant pantomime of cocks and innuendoes.

It was followed by a question and answer session, but me and my friend Jess left during it, as we had already found the evening sufficiently offensive.

While it is difficult to begrudge the British Library’s attempt to highlight the LGBT related items in its collections in the context of LGBT History week, their attempt could hardly be applauded.

WE EXIST! new LGF publication

The Lesbian and Gay Foundation has launched a new publication, which is available online as a PDF entitled WE EXIST! which aims to inform LGBT people how they can get involved in their local community, whether at work, in education, sport, faith, health & wellbeing, housing, policing and politics, and be an ‘LGB Community Champion’.
In their e-newsletter, they say: ‘Often the issues that directly affect the lesbian, gay and bisexual community may go unheard or un-addressed, unless there is an active voice around the table that is championing the needs of our community.’
I think this is really interesting, as in order for any community to be heard, it needs champions at the forefront. There really should be an LGBT presence in all of the issues mentioned above, and unless there is, often matters relating specifically to LGBT people become overlooked.

As I’m currently thinking about my presentation at the GEM conference, which looks at ‘making the case’ my argument is going to move beyond that, and say that the people pushing for LGBT and queer histories to be included in museums and other cultural and heritage sites are more often than not LGBT people, in order for these approaches to be fully adopted in earnest, we need straight allies and champions who believe in a more genuine form of inclusion as well, no community can break barriers in isolation, it needs people from outside of those communities to show an interest and actively support the cause.
It’s a great publication, so do check it out. More information about the project can be found here.