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How to make a queer museum

28 March 2022

In 2017, the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality was celebrated in several British museums, galleries and libraries. Tate Britain led the way with its ‘Queer British Art’ exhibition, while there were smaller displays of historical artworks, objects, books and documents at the British Museum, the British Library, Senate House Library and other venues. Major galleries and museums in Britain now actively encourage visitors to explore LGBTQ+ art and history. The British Museum provides an ‘object trail’ for visitors to follow, taking in such items as the Warren Cup, a piece of Graeco-Roman silver graphically depicting two pairs of male lovers, and a pair of 18th-century chocolate cups commemorating the Ladies of Llangollen. Tate similarly invites us to ‘Discover LGBTQ+ artists and art’ online, with images from the collection and stories to go with them, including an online video aimed at children. Equivalent initiatives have been adopted by other leading museums and galleries in Brighton, Liverpool, Glasgow, Belfast and Cardiff. 

The charity Queer Britain is now opening this country’s first LGBTQ+ museum in London’s Granary Square. Apart from a press release announcing that the museum ‘aims […] to be a fully inclusive space that celebrates the stories, people and places that are so intrinsic to the queer community in the UK, and beyond’, no one is yet talking to the press about what exactly it might do or display in its four galleries. Its creation does, however, raise questions about what a queer museum is for – particularly at a time when mainstream museums and galleries are rushing to embrace ‘diversity’ – and what aspects of queer history and culture it might put on show. 

An excellent model would be the Schwules Museum in Berlin, which was founded back in 1985 and lays claim to be the world’s first museum devoted to queer life and arts. It came about after three men working at the Berlin Museum curated an exhibition there titled ‘Eldorado’ charting the history, everyday life and culture of lesbians and gay men in Berlin, 1850–1950. It took its name from the famous club in Motzstrasse, which flourished in the late 1920s, its transvestite clientele immortalised in paintings by Otto Dix and Christian Schad, and was a huge and unexpected success, attracting more than 40,000 visitors. The widespread interest it had aroused led to the founding of a permanent queer museum, which included a library, archive and small exhibition space.

The Schwules Museum

Photo: Martin Wiser/CTK Photo/Alamy Live News

A regular programme of frequently changing exhibitions was always part of the remit, though lack of space led to the museum sensibly collaborating with other institutions to mount large-scale shows such as ‘Goodbye to Berlin? 100 Years of the Homosexual Movement’, held at the Akademie der Künste in 1997. Shortly afterwards, the museum moved to a larger site, and during the next 16 years held more than 130 exhibitions before moving into its current premises in Lützowstrasse, which (like the Queer Britain museum) has four exhibition spaces. The range of exhibitions is hugely impressive, covering almost every aspect of LGBTQ+ life and culture, both in Germany and internationally. Some shows have focussed on the life and works of such queer icons as Conrad Veidt, Marlene Dietrich, Anita Berber, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Oscar Wilde, Allen Ginsberg, Michel Foucault, Tom of Finland and Luchino Visconti, while others have been devoted to the paintings of Lotte Laserstein, Jochen Hass and Patrick Angus and the French photographer Marc Martin’s record of ‘the culture of urban urinals’. More generally the exhibitions have showcased everything from ‘feminist porn’ to ‘a queer history of video games’. 

Like Germany, Britain has a rich political, social and cultural LGBTQ+ heritage. Even if you are exploring as limited a field as the lives of queer men in London from 1945 to 1967, as I have been doing, the wealth of material can be overwhelming, not only in relation to the law, parliament and the press but also to culture. A queer museum in Britain would have scope for as wide-ranging and lively a programme as at the Schwules Museum, celebrating the contemporary while paying tribute to a sometimes darker past that should not be forgotten. There is already a large and excellent LGBTQ+ archive at the Bishopsgate Institute, but the exhibition spaces of a museum might provide an opportunity not only to display documents and artefacts relating to the fight for homosexual rights and the lives of ordinary LGBTQ+ people, but also to celebrate the arts. At a time when LGBTQ+ art is part of the mainstream, it is worth remembering that John Minton, Keith Vaughan, John Craxton, the Roberts Colquhoun and MacBryde, Francis Bacon, Patrick Procktor, David Hockney and a host of lesser-known painters all made queer desire visible even when it was illegal. More generally, the vital contribution of LGBTQ+ people in the past to literature, photography, film, theatre, music and fashion would provide ample material for exhibitions. 

Museums generally are spaces in which society and culture meet, where the artefacts they display have an intrinsic value as well as an historical one. A queer museum has a particular story to tell, not only to LGBTQ+ people but to the wider public. The lease of the new museum is for just two years, but if Queer Britain gets it right, a programme that entertains as well as educates may lead to a permanent and welcome addition to the country’s cultural attractions.

From the March 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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