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A Little Gay History (abridged): the British Museum and China

28 March 2014

The British Museum apparently opted to exclude ancient Chinese artefacts from a book on the history of homosexuality, so as not to jeopardise its upcoming Ming dynasty exhibition, which relies heavily on loans from the country. According to Richard Parkinson, the book’s author and a former curator at the museum, they asked that he omit Chinese subjects on the grounds that it was ‘too risky’ while negotiations were ongoing.

Last year the museum staged a major – and very popular – exhibition of erotic Japanese shunga prints, even though the genre is still controversial in Japan, where they apparently failed to find a venue that would host the display. And at their earlier Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition visitors were famously confronted by a statue of Pan copulating with a goat. Clearly, the British Museum is unafraid of challenging and breaking cultural taboos for a mainstream audience. The institution’s support of A Little Gay History confirms that commitment – but once committed, why fudge it?

Cultural diplomacy is something the British Museum does extremely well. Over the years, it has organised impressive and often unprecedented exhibitions. The shipping over of a squad of China’s terracotta soldiers in 2007 ranks highly among them, and the Ming exhibition (due to open in September) will no doubt be impressive too. Obviously, when negotiating any collaboration of such cultural weight, a degree of tact must be observed, and compromise expected.

It seems a shame though, that in order to arrange an exhibition celebrating China’s cultural heritage, it should feel obliged to pander to what many people, in and outside the country, consider to be an outdated and oppresive aspect of its contemporary culture. Pre-emptively censoring works that it imagines the Chinese might not like is taking cultural relativism too far. And if China really would have pulled loans over the issue, as presumably was the concern, then it does beg the question of whether we should be pursuing cultural ‘exchange’ on such inflexible terms.

What, I wonder, would be their stance on Russia, whose anti-gay laws have drawn considerable attention recently? The museum is heavily involved in a year of cultural collaboration with the country, despite growing public unease about the political situation there. If the book were in the making today, would they be calling for the Russian artefacts to be omitted as well?

Related Articles:

Sex on Show: Shunga at the British Museum (Lara Prendergast)

Manifesta 10 will go ahead in Russia despite calls for a boycott (Maggie Gray)

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