Queering the Museum Project

Project: Hidden Voices

The Reading Museum in Reading, UK recently developed a LGBT focused exhibit.  In the following post, the Reading Museum,  details the exhibition and its’ development. The timing of this exhibition supports the LGBT History Month int he UK and brings to life the unique role Reading, UK played in LGBT activism.

By: Bobby Smith

Project: Hidden Voices

Photo: Courtesy of Bobby Smith

The preview opening of the Hidden Voices was a landmark occasion in the history of the Reading Museum with  the Mayor of Reading, Cllr Tony Jones, and invited members of the Reading’s LGBT community in attendance.

Never before has the town centre venue hosted an exhibition focusing on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) heritage. The Hidden voices project has been a partnership between the Support U and the Reading Museum, aided with a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The idea was first conceived in 2012, when the charity’s founder, Lorna McArdle, lent the museum her Olympic Torch, which she had run though the town during the Olympic relay. Lorna had been selected for this honour as a result of her LGBT campaigning work. The museum Olympic year exhibition, ‘Bikes, Balls and Biscuitmen: Our Sporting Life’, displayed the torch with clear reference to it as an item of material culture with LGBT properties. This was seen as something of a ‘toe in the water’, testing how the museum could be open in representing, to its general audience, a minority group in Reading who define identity by sexual orientation. It is not an entirely straight forward subject matter, precisely because Reading is made up of such a diverse range of other communities, a small number of whom still hold the unenlightened attitudes towards homosexuality that only public discourse and education will counter.

Hidden History

Photo: Courtesy of Bobby Smith

Research into Reading’s hidden gay history, conducted by volunteers recruited by Reading’s LGBT Support U charity, sheds light on the town’s place in the story of homosexual oppression throughout the centuries. Through oral history recordings the project has also uncovered more recent local campaigns that have taken place in a journey towards gay liberation.

Here are a few examples of the scholarship we found:

Oscar Wilde’s incarceration in Reading Gaol in 1895 following his conviction for homosexuality is well documented and amongst the objects now on display at the museum is a Victorian prison key, which was recently donated to the collection by the Ministry of Justice after the prison’s closure in 2014. This key opened the master key safe at Reading prison during the period of Wilde’s imprisonment and, as such, must stand as one of the world’s most significant artifacts in relation the LGBT history.

Also on show is the Huntley and Palmers biscuit factory visitor’s book signed by Wilde on 22 September 1892. Wilde was amongst the society friends of Jean and Walter Palmer and three years before his downfall had been a guest at ‘Westfield’, their family home on Southcote Road.

It is less well known that 21 years before Wilde’s enforced stay, the French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud lived just a stone’s throw away from the prison, at 165 Kings Road. It was here, whilst working as a language tutor during the late summer of 1874, that he drafted Les Illuminations, generally considered to be his greatest work. An archetypical Enfant Terrible, Rimbaud’s up-front stance on homosexuality scandalised French literary society but, despite giving up writing at aged just 19, his influence on modern poetry and art has been pervasive.

In a remarkable further literary connection to Reading, Wilfred Owen, the Great War poet, spent formative years before the outbreak of hostilities as lay assistant to the vicar of Dunsden Church. Owen took an active part in the cultural life of Reading and in his spare time attended botany classes at the University College. His letters also reveal details of his visits to Reading Museum to see the Silchester collection of Roman antiquities.  He writes:  ‘Walked into Reading, went to Museum and joy of joys was shown all over Roman remains from Silchester. What a morning and what a museum!’

Owen’s sexual orientation was kept a closely guarded secret long after he was tragically killed in action, just days before the armistice. In an age when homosexuality remained outlawed, his friends and family saw the importance of preserving his reputation intact.

Above all these figures in LGBT history with a close association to Reading, it is perhaps John Wolfendan, Vice Chancellor of the University of Reading in 1954 when he was appointed chair of the Home Office committee debated changes to the laws relating to homosexuality. The Wolfenden Report recommending decriminalisation was published in 1957.

Despite the changes to legislation, prejudice against people on the grounds of their sexual orientation continued beyond 1967, when the recommendations of Wolfendan’s report finally became law. Indeed a report published by the

National Centre for Social Research in 2013 found that discrimination has remained widespread in subsequent decades. As such, by bringing the life and times of Reading’s LGBT community into a public spotlight, the ‘Hidden Voices’ project, represents a further milestone in promoting tolerance and acceptance.

As project manager Bobby Smith put it while speaking very movingly at the Hidden Voices preview event:

Photo: Courtney of Bobby Smith

“Throughout the project I have learned that love, the beauty of it, the joy of it, even the pain of it, is the most incredible gift to give and to receive as a human being. And we all deserve to experience love fully, equally, without shame and without compromise

If all goes to plan this March, representatives from the Hidden Voices project will travel to Derby Museum to attend the concluding event of the inaugural Museum Association Transformers programme. This presents a good opportunity to disseminate the positive output of the Hidden Voices project, further afield. Perhaps it may encourage other similar local museums in the UK to consider the positive benefit that embracing partnerships with the LGBT community can bring. In Reading; besides deepening engagement with a wider set of social issues effecting gay people, by uncovering enlivening historical narratives the museum has positioned itself as a place of pilgrimage during this year’s LGBT history month. A final port of call for tourists might be St Marys Minster Church where, in 2003, but for the controversy surrounding his relationship with another man and his pronouncements on those others made in God’s gay image, Dr Jeffrey John might well have been moved to go through with his consecration as the first Gay Bishop of Reading in the world.

Reading Museum in the heart of Royal Berkshire England

Reading Museum was founded in 1883 and it’s Art Gallery in 1897. From its earliest days it collected broadly in the fields of Archaeology, Art and Applied Art, Natural History, Numismatics and Ethnography as well as objects relating to the history of Reading and its environs. Collections of international significance include the Romanesque stones from Reading Abbey, the Victorian copy of the Bayeux Tapestry, and the finds and records resulting from various excavations of the Roman town of Silchester.

 

Bobby Smith is the project manger for Hidden Voices Was to visually and orally bring the history of the Reading’s LGBT community to life by remembering what came before equality. By opening up the past and bringing understanding to the present, we can bring inspiration and education to future generations. To give a voice to those that had to be kept quiet. To open the mind that was once closed and to inspire the inquisitive.Together we can listen to the Hidden Voices so that the loneliness and fear can be heard. May the past be remembered so that the future can be unbiased and equal.