About the project
Out and About: Queering the Museum is an intergenerational project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. It aims to empower lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) communities to uncover and create existing and new LGBTQ+ heritage at RAMM.
Queering RAMM is an ongoing process. It hopes to leave behind a legacy that ensures LGBTQ+ heritage is represented and shared as part of world history.
Through this queering project, RAMM is furthering its commitment to creating a platform for underrepresented and marginalised voices. The museum seeks to become a space for open dialogue and discussion. RAMM aims to allow members of the LGBTQ+ community to share their own perspectives on the collections.
We decided to use the term ‘queer’ in a capacious sense to include diverse historically and culturally contingent expressions and experiences of sexual and gender nonconformity. This is an imperfect approach. As a Western term and as a word that has – for a long time – been used as an insult and slur, ‘queer’ cannot easily be assumed to refer to everyone. The term can only ever serve as a starting point for our investigations and conversations.
It involves a series of events, a gallery trail, website, artist commissions, creative heritage writing, and a permanent installation. Through this, we will highlight and share with RAMM’s audiences.
This Collections Story shares some of the research and responses generated by the project. The Out and About project website includes greater detail and further content. A booklet on the project is also available to download.
Expand the sections below to learn more about the project and discover some of the queer objects that inspired participants. Find out how you can explore the collections at RAMM yourself.
Curators and engagement specialists at RAMM worked with an academic and an artist to give LGBTQ+ people skills and opportunities to interpret the collections and reveal previously obscured aspects of LGBTQ+ heritage. Professor Jana Funke is an expert on LGBTQ+ history at the University of Exeter. Natalie McGrath is an artist, described as socially-engaged.
Jana (she/her) is an Associate Professor of English and Sexuality Studies in the Department of English and Film at the University of Exeter. She has published widely on LGBTQ+ history and has significant experience in collaborative working, including with non-academic collaborators. She has particular expertise working with LGBTQ+ communities, including young people. Since 2015, she has directed the collaborative Wellcome Trust-funded Rethinking Sexology project with Kate Fisher. Since 2018, she has been one of the principal investigators on the large-scale Transformations project, which engages young transgender and non-binary people with history to co-produce a new podcast drama written by artist Jason Barker and directed by Krishna Istha called Adventures in Time and Gender. Other engagement projects dealing with LGBTQ+ history include Transvengers (2014-2015 with Wellcome Collections) and Orlando: The Queer Element (with Clay & Diamond; British Film Institute; National Trust).
Natalie (she/her) is a playwright, poet, occasional performer, producer of arts and heritage projects, and Co-Director of Dreadnought South West who curate the Rebellious Sounds Archive.
- Coasting and Wild Doves (Bristol Old Vic)
- Rift (Brewhouse Theatre Taunton)
- Scottish Kiss (Paines Plough’s Come to Where I’m From)
- Metal Remains (Theatre West), shortlisted for the Meyer Whitworth Prize
- Exodus (Box of Tricks NWxSW Tour), Oxygen and The Cause (Dreadnought South West).
- Electric Spaces and We’ll Meet In Moscow (Exeter Phoenix, Exeter Bikeshed Theatre and Barbican Theatre, Plymouth).
- The Sound RnD supported by ACE SW and Theatre Royal, Plymouth.
Natalie was part of the Traverse Theatre’s Open Submissions 2019 programme, and their First Stages Festival with development on her play Blessed. We’ll Meet In Moscow was part of Shift Scot’s Pride Plays in collaboration with the Traverse Theatre in LGBT History Month 2020.
Currently under commission by the University of Exeter’s Wellcome Centre for the Cultures and Environments of Health in partnership with Exeter Northcott Theatre and the Intercom Trust, to write a new play called The Beat of Our Hearts, about LGBTQIA+ loneliness. Here Natalie is collaborating with Dr Charlotte Jones who is the lead researcher on the project and Dr Fred Cooper.
Natalie will perform two separate roles on this project. As Creative Heritage Producer, she will oversee the artistic engagement strand of the project. She will also empower LGBTQ+ people to find their own voice when engaging with RAMM’s collections. As Writer in Residence, she will write and publish a poetic queer heritage piece. It will weave together the different histories and voices captured throughout the project.
Ellie (she/her) is a freelance Engagement Officer at RAMM. Through her role she connects with people who find it more challenging to access RAMM, opening up the collections and encouraging dialogue and story sharing between people. She is an experienced project manager with a background in education and community engagement. She has worked on numerous projects with hard-to-reach and marginalised communities; often with young people. Ellie was formerly Curator of Learning and Participation at Arnolfini Gallery and has a particular interest in socially engaged creative practice.
In August 2020, Out and About: Queering the Museum was also endorsed as an Associated Project by the Exeter City of Literature team.
Inspired by earlier work, RAMM is expanding its engagement with LGBTQ+ communities, co-creating alternative interpretations of the collections and identifying stories from people that are underrepresented as a result of intolerance.
The following commitments drive this idea:
- Collaborate in meaningful ways with diverse partners in the LGBTQ+ community, including trans, non-binary, and people of colour.
- Explore decolonial and anti-racist approaches to the LGBTQ+ histories embedded in the RAMM’s collections.
- Make the RAMM a welcoming and accessible space for all members of the LGBTQ+ community, so no one feels excluded.
- Ensure that learning from the project is shared with other partners in the museum and heritage sector.
- Guarantee an ongoing commitment that the LGBTQ+ community’s stories and lives remain integral to the museum’s work beyond this project.
“One of the aims of this collaboration is to ensure that communities and groups who have not traditionally engaged with RAMM or the broader heritage sector see their stories reflected in the museum. The previous pilot project showed that young LGBTQ+ people often feel alienated from heritage sites, but are deeply invested in making historically under-represented LGBTQ+ stories visible.” Rachel Sutton, Portfolio Holder for Climate and Culture at Exeter City Council (2019)
Exploring the collections yourself
Browse some of the 1.5 million objects in RAMM’s care from the comfort of your sofa on the Collections Explorer database. You can select objects that already have an LGBTQ+ tag. Many of these featured in the Queering the Museum project. If you’d like us to tag an object please leave us a comment or contact us by email. RAMM updates the site data once a month.
If you’re visiting RAMM in person let the Rainbow Trail take you on a tour of the galleries exploring objects through a queer lens. Or visit the Life Stories butterfly and listen to LGBTQIA+ people talk about objects that resonate with them.
In 2019, Jana and Natalie worked with young LGBTQ+ people from X-Plore Youth and the Exeter College LGBTQ+ group. Over several months, they met with the young people and asked them whether they felt that their histories and identities were represented in the museum. They selected a number of objects that are on permanent display at RAMM to raise questions and concerns that matter to the young people. Together they created a Rainbow Trail for RAMM.
“It’s important to draw attention to Native American cultures and two-spirit people, because we often tend to forget about non-Western gender identities.”
“My favourite object is the gown, and I liked that Pepper LaBeija was mentioned. It’s great that the trail includes black queer culture, since it is often excluded from white queer culture.”
In late 2021 and early 2022, Natalie McGrath and Jana Funke interviewed 20 LGBTQ+ people (including themselves) about objects in the RAMM collections that resonated with them.
The Life Story Interview Installation, designed by project collaborators Stand + Stare, launched during LGBTQ+ History Month 2022. It is a permanent interactive in the Making History gallery at RAMM. The buttons allow visitors to select one of the pictured objects to hear an excerpt from corresponding interview. You can listen to full interviews, with transcripts, on the Out and About project website. Links for each object are below.
Objects featuring in Life Stories
Select ‘Read More’ to go to the Out and About website. Here you can listen to the full interview and a complete transcript is provided.
“It’s a photo, or it’s a slide I should say of the Shelley Tomb that was commissioned by Sir Percy Shelley, one of Mary and Percy’s surviving children. … There is so much queerity to the Shelleys and to their romantic circle and to Frankenstein on both a literary level and the kind of legacy of Frankenstein as well. Victor Frankenstein as a queer figure. I read him as both transmasculine and transfeminine, and I just remember relating to him so heavily, I remember him being a trans hero for me. … And then there’s also the inherent, I think, transness of creating life whether that be kind of self-determinant or creating life, you know, for someone else. … There is an absolute joy in self-creation and self-determination even if you are told there is not.”
“So, the object I have chosen is a taxidermy luna moth. I have a tattoo of a luna month on my right forearm, and I think it just really connected with that and the way that I feel I’ve been able to use tattoos as a way of reclaiming my own body so it really resonated with that. There’s just something really lovely about, I think, as a trans non-binary person feeling very disconnected with your body, being able to use tattoos, it’s like a form of visual art to kind of reclaim that space of your body and kind of reconnect and be able to fall in love with your own body in that way. … And there’s something about being viewed as one thing but being something else that, I think, really speaks to me a lot. And I think again with the luna moth they are kind of often assumed to be butterflies but are actually a moth, and I think it connects to a lot of personal ideas of my queerness and gender and how you relate and how the world relates to you as well. Often there are narratives that use butterflies and caterpillars as this kind of visual narrative for transness, and moths as an alternate version of that; [it] is this less-clear less-linear what-is-it vibe.”
“The object that I’ve chosen are the volumes of pressed and named seaweeds. And they were published in 1833 by Amelia Warren Griffiths and her companion Mary Wyatt. So these two women, kind of, the thought of them combing the shores of Devon, which has been my home now for over 20 years. The fact that these two women created something really beautiful together whether they were in what we would determine and categorise as a lesbian or a sexual or romantic relationship, it actually doesn’t matter in terms of the context of this labour of love that they created together. … You know, the beach and the sea and that part of being in Devon and actually just standing and maybe being held by water, being held by that rhythm of the ocean. … There’s always more than one story and that we have to move away from those dominant narratives that we keep getting told in terms of who gets to tell history or who gets to choose what goes in a museum or who gets to label it or and what that object could mean.”
“It’s a brick from the Mesopotamian period. It’s believed to have come from Nebuchadnezzar’s palace in Babylon. There’s a cuneiform inscription on it. … I was drawn to this object, because I was looking into Mesopotamia and ancient Babylon, particularly their worship of the goddess Ishtar. And Nebuchadnezzar, he was the master, the Emperor of Babylon for a period of time, and he built the gates to Ishtar, which is this huge, fantastic monument. And I was interested in the goddess of Ishtar, because she has a lot of worshippers and specific cults that worship her who are, who identify as gender nonbinary, and a lot of the worship of her actively encouraged people to be nonbinary, to identify outside of the gender binary. And I just love that thousands and thousands of years ago, about 3 millennia BCE, people, gender non-binary people, had a space in society, and we’ve always been here, this isn’t a new fad now, it’s … we’ve literally been around for thousands of years and had a place in society. And I just love the idea of being able to turn around and being like, look, queer life has always been here, and it’s been peppered the whole way through, and we can all find things that chime within us … find your story within these objects.”
“I’ve chosen a lovely drawing by somebody called Piper of the Quay in Exeter. It’s just a beautiful drawing of the Custom House. Now, I have an association with the building to the right, not the Custom House, the one across the road, that was the nightclub that I used to DJ at in my younger days. That’s where the LGBTQ+ night was held, the very first one in Exeter, it was called Boxes on Tuesday. … A lot of LGBT people will identify with that picture, probably of a more senior age now – not that long ago, I am talking about the 70s and 80s. That night was never publicised back then; we just couldn’t. It was just not safe enough for people to make it public that there was an LGBT night there. We still banned cameras so we’ve got no photographic evidence of anything that ever happened in those nights. It was like a secret nightclub; it was just a fantastic place for LGBT people to meet, the biggest secret in Exeter probably. … It was life-changing to just go into that building and be with other LGBT people. It’s really important to me, and I know it will be important to a lot of LGBT people just to see that building and say, wow, that’s where I was able to be myself, and it was so important in my life at that time.”
“The proper name of the object is St Peter trampling the Devil. I thought it was a kind of a little bit homoerotic, because, well, it’s just the fact that this guy is squishing Satan with his foot; he’s got his foot on his body, on his naked body as well, and Satan is looking really angry, or the devil or whatever he’s called, is looking really angry in this, and Saint Peter is not even looking at him, he’s just looking at his book, he doesn’t even seem to be aware that he’s stood on this devil, and there’s just something about the power play in that. … And also the fact that there’s this intrigue around it, of where did it come from, and the idea is that they think it was probably made by an immigrant, someone from France or Germany, or the low countries it said. … It’s really easy to look at, you know, something from five hundred years ago and not have any connectedness to that person or the people who lived then, and not think about them as having gender identities or having any kind of sexuality, so, yeah, I think it’s important for those reasons.”
“I have chosen a small ceramic figurine; it is of a headless person nursing two children … the Dea Nutrix. For me it isn’t also just about babies, it’s about bountifulness and caregiving, which any woman is able to be. It doesn’t mean that only heterosexual women have that. … But I do think there is too much stigma and judgment about whether women have babies or don’t have babies and what that makes you, whether that makes you a good person or not a good person; whether you are a good mother or not a good mother. And in a way just making a figurine that is a small representation of love, actually, and care and nurture is something that I want to claim, but I think every woman has a right to claim it, too. … Celebrating that uniqueness rather than conforming to one idea of what we are as a human being. I think that’s the last thing I wanted to say about this object. It was for me about nonconformity, and not staying with the accepted, you know, culture of what we can be and what we are.”
“It’s a big old bowl dish and an amphora jug from ancient Greece. … Ancient Greek culture was particularly tolerant of queer relationships that span gender identities, and it wasn’t at all unusual as we know for men, and sorry to be a bit patriarchal about this, but it was still a society that was largely organised around male power, for men to be married, to have families, but also to have, you know as we know, male lovers and so on. And obviously, because I identify as bisexual this kind of speaks to me. … Throughout my general identity, but also within my queer identity, I really thought about the importance of places where we eat, and particular drink together, and how having those places and having those people around me has been so, so important. This is why people love festivals, and it’s those kinds of opportunities to come together, but also where some of those normal labels don’t matter so much, you know we just kind of enjoy the basic humanity of we all need something to eat, we all need something to drink. … So, I think if Doctor Who shows up, I’m almost regardless of which part of history I land in, I’m gonna be all about the food and the drink and the people.”
“The object that I have chosen is a coffin pall. This object was repurposed from priests’ vestments to a coffin pall during the reformation. … I’m a Catholic, so it has always resonated with me as being part of my faith’s history. I think I’ve also always really admired the resourcefulness of this parish community, that they had these beautiful vestments, and that rather than lose them, they sought to repurpose them. … I think it made me think about the relationship between my own faith and my sexuality. Obviously it’s often really difficult to be a queer person within church communities; I think, we’re all well aware of how hard that can be, but for me personally at least, it has sometimes also felt difficult to be a person of faith within queer communities. … So, I don’t want to speak for everyone, but, yeah, maybe for any queer person of faith who has felt that tension between those two parts of themselves, or anyone who has felt like they’ve had to remodel any part of themselves in order to feel that they fit more easily in the world, then, certainly I feel like there could be a point of connection there, definitely.”
“So, I’ve chosen this set of Islamic prayer beads that comes from Sudan, but the thing I find most fascinating about it was that it has 78 beads which – for those that aren’t familiar with Islamic practices – most Islamic prayer beads have 99 beads or a multiple of 33. After a while, I ended up counting the beads and going OK, there are 78 beads here, this is not right. … That object, the part of why I connect it to queerness is the sense that something has been missing and that hasn’t been noticed. … I think on a broader level a lot of our conception of queerness is very white, it’s very influenced by Western cultural values. … I would like people to know that there are many histories that they are not aware of, and those histories are very rich, and I find myself very reassured and grounded by the idea that there is a track record of people like me that stretches back for hundreds of thousands of years. … History as collected in the museum is active and it’s constantly being written, and the way that we look at the same object will change over time and that’s a good thing.”
“The object I’ve chosen from RAMM’s collections is a collection of sand samples by a poet called Ivor Treby. It was quite moving to actually see these sand samples that he collected his whole life, and it occurred to me in seeing them that it felt very much that they were almost like his ashes; they’re not literally his ashes, but they are this granular material that Treby left behind. … With Treby’s sand there’s both the strata and the layers that all of us have, and perhaps as queer people we feel we’re more aware of our layers sometimes. And some of them can be challenging and some of them are wonderful, but we kind of become more aware of our strata and a kind of scattering. And sand, of course, is a great one for scattering, and that we can feel, I think, quite scattered, particularly over the pandemic we felt very scattered. We haven’t had our shared spaces, but still kind of find ways, I think, as queer people. So, it’s a wonderful metaphor for lots of things – sand – and maybe Treby knew that; he was a poet. I think there’s an organised playfulness to what he collected and maybe a queerness to that. … I hope that it will give people that sense of some objects that reached a hand across time and across generations. Treby himself connected with his elder queer people. They travel across time, connect us to him and his journeys.”
“The object that caught my eye is a hand-held mirror with wooden handle, and it’s an Egyptian mirror. It’s old, it’s a little bit rusty, but it looks like it’s been loved. … Whenever I go to museums, I always look for something that feels like it’s close to home, and home is the Middle-East, and so I looked at the North African and Middle East Collection. … There was something about the gaze, but the gaze was inverted. because it’s about – you are looking at yourself in the mirror, but also imagining who would have looked at themselves at the time. So, it would have been primarily used, I imagine, for vanity, and there is just something really human about checking yourself out in the mirror before you leave the house. … There is something about being introspective when coming out happens, right, for you, if you’re a queer person, because it is something that we are still getting to accept as a society. It’s not something that [goes like] “I’m gay and that’s who I am, right”, or “I’m LGBTQ+, and that’s who I am”. We have to go through that introspective space, we also have to go through what do I look like, because there’s an expectation from society around how you present yourself, what does queer look like to the world? … It took me a long time to get to a place where I accepted that this is what feels right for me, because probably when someone sees me I might not look stereotypically gay, and actually that’s okay.”
“And I remember walking into this room and always being really struck by this dress and having this real emotional reaction to it. I was thinking about the Little Britain characters, and how much when we look at the images that I had of trans women that were presented in the noughties, something obviously drew those creators to – when they were making fun of trans women – to do it through Victorian style dresses as well. And there was something about it that seems to speak of trans femininity, and maybe it’s the over-the-topness, maybe it’s the fact that it feels a bit over the top in terms of its expression that then feels not attainable, but enough of a fantasy that you are not picturing yourself in it, which is really important when you’re not out, because you are allowed to enjoy expressions of femininity as long as they are in no way connected to you. … Femininity is often under-respected, often, even if we have a feminist character, it will be them ripping a part of their dress off, and we’ve got to interrogate our feelings around why. It’s okay to be feminine, it doesn’t make you less feminist, it doesn’t make you less valuable, and I feel like part of why I want to talk about this dress is to say that.”
“I’ve chosen Terns with Nests, which is a magic lantern slide from Alfred Rhoden, and it’s part of the magic lantern slide collection. It is a captured seascape with a rugged rock, some terns, which are silver and white birds with a black head and a long beak, circling around a nest at the base of the rock where you can see they’ve got eggs. And the photograph here of the terns with nests is from the Devon coast. It reminded me of the particular crags and rocks and the birds in particular of where I grew up in Dublin beside the sea. … I would say that I am a spiritual person, but that is intrinsically linked with nature and the natural world around me, and I think you’d probably find the same in a lot of queer people, you know, where we can’t or haven’t, growing up, made the same connections with establishments, and with the same standard external sources of family that you might have through community, through village, through parish, through church or religion, so we found other connections, either through found family and friends, through connections with nature, connection with, in my teenage years, the moon, just looking for this sense of connection and identity somewhere else. … These birds, that coastline, those rocks, and that connection with sea and water, it’s a really fundamental part of who I am.”
“Handcuffs spoke to me about the ongoing relationship I’ve had with how I feel about the law, the government, the police, and the relationship with the queer community. I came out as a lesbian in the 1980s at a time when the relationship between the queer community and the police was really strained and, really, it was a really difficult time. … I think it was about fighting any kind of oppression and injustice in the end, and for me personally in terms of being a youth worker, which is my chosen profession, I’ve seen the injustice young people face, too, with transphobia, homophobia. So, I think the fight became broader than just how I started out, which was fighting, being part of the peace movement, it was like we just became anti-oppression. … I do hope that anybody from the queer community – anybody from the LGBTQ community for those that don’t like the word queer – looks at the object and understands why I’ve chosen it and thinks about how their own lives have been impacted by oppression and looks at what part they can play in making life simpler for the LGBTQ community going forwards.”
“The object I’ve chosen out of the collection is a chasuble; for all intents and purposes, a very ornate garment worn by priests in the moment where they would move from their ordinary clothes into a kind of sacred or religious ceremony. … I think within a medieval kind of Christianity what I’m really excited about is the uncharted sense of gender and sexuality in general that is so vastly different from the kind of image of heteronormativity under capitalism as opposed to this deep, murky medieval religious context. … I mean, I don’t want to speak for people but it’s a universal experience of queerness, where you’re, kind of, in this process of casting off the things that have been put on you to move into this space that is an uncharted expanse of like symbols and history and becoming that feels very spiritually significant. … The knowledge that all objects can be undone and be undone in order to take away the dry dust that archiving puts on these objects and that they have a life and try and imagine or put back together the life that they may have had outside of the museum.”
“I selected the butterfly. … On a personal level for me, you know, I came out at the age of 17 after I was brought up in a really strict religious family; coming out at the age of 17 felt like I was coming out of my cocoon, that I could be myself. … My life has been challenging on all sorts of different levels, dealing with religion and dealing with my parents rejection and conversion therapy and becoming an alcoholic and dealing with all that and thankfully coming to my senses at the age 26 and then doing the rehab thing. But if somebody had said to me, you know, during the recovery that in 26 year’s time, you’re going to be the CEO of an LGBT charity, I would have just laughed in their face. … I am the CEO of the Intercom Trust, and we are the regional lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans + charity, and for me seeing clients coming up, I have been here for 16 years now, and seeing clients come in when they are kind of just bursting through their own cocoon and seeing them change and grow, becoming the beautiful people that they are, flying off and getting on with their lives. … We’re all beautiful people and, you know, we come out of our cocoons at whatever age that might be; the client groups that we work with … young people [and] their families, and the oldest client that I worked with came out as a trans woman at the age of 84 in a small town in Cornwall … how beautiful is that? “
“I’ve chosen a bronze age arrow flint from Fernworthy, which is on Dartmoor. It is triangular, and you can kind of see all of the notches on it from where it’s been carved, and there’s two little indents at the bottom. … I know the area of Fernworthy well, and Fernworthy Reservoir, which is where the archeological dig that found this arrowhead was done. And I actually went to Fernworthy for Solstice, because I’m a Pagan, and so the kind of Celtic Pagan ceremonies and dates are really important to me to celebrate. … I identify as Pagan, and I think like a lot of queer people that I know, it’s sort of been their way to find spirituality when a lot of other religions might be homophobic or transphobic or things like that. For me, it’s kind of like my spirituality. … I am a history nerd, not all queer people are, but I think from the Pagan aspect, and the Pagan people that I celebrate, the past is important. For a lot of people, Dartmoor is an important spiritual place, so I think it would be interesting from that point of view.”
“I have chosen a bronze sculpture by Barbara Hepworth. It has a hole in the middle, and it has a very different texture, and so there’s this opening that almost makes you want to discover the object and look inside. The reason I’ve chosen it though is because it’s called Zennor, and that is a place that I have a very strong connection with, so it’s really that link to Zennor, which is a very small place in Cornwall. There is a writer called H.D., who was an American poet, and another writer called Bryher – this is obviously a pseudonym that they chose, they named themselves after one of the Scilly Isles. H.D. and Bryher were in a lifelong open polyamorous relationship, and they met in Zennor. You can imagine them meeting and talking about their work and falling in love in that space and going on this beautiful coastal walk. … I like this idea of almost an unexpected opening that gives you access to something that you might not previously have seen as something that is for you or that belongs to you, and so for me it is an unexpected opening up of a relationship that I can have to the South West through that queer history. Any object might have a queer or trans or non-binary history or resonance, and we just need to have the knowledge, we just need to have the information and background knowledge to reframe those objects.”
“I chose a wolf bone, it’s a leg bone. I wrote my MA dissertation on werewolves as a transmasculine metaphor, so I was interested in this wolf connection. I think about werewolves as this kind of stepping stone connection in-between man and beast that destabilises that boundary. … So, I’m really interested in this idea of alternative sites of representation, sort of non-canonical. I think you can often feel like when you’re talking about trans things and looking at representation that you have to show this easy narrative, this linear narrative that’s digestible and understandable to cis people, because you don’t want to look complicated or messy, and I think that that can make working through transness yourself really difficult because you have no outlet. … It’s quite empowering, I think, to go around and be like, well, this might not be a history that is going to go into a history book, but this speaks to me and as a person who will, you know, in time also be history that kind of dialogue is really exciting.”
Digging deeper into the collections at RAMM
The objects in the RAMM’s collections also inspired a range of other responses from LGBTQ+ artists, writers, researchers and young people. Read biographies of the reasearchers on the Out and About website.
We tried and tested many different methods to uncover LGBTQ+ heritage in the RAMM’s collections. We began to work with the concept of ‘queer resonances’ to capture the rich and sometimes unexpected ways in which objects can speak to and allow us to access LGBTQ+ history, culture and experience. This made it possible for us to explore different forms of LGBTQ+ heritage through an open, playful and inclusive engagement with the objects and artifacts in the collections.
Finding LGBTQ+ Creators, Collectors and Sitters
Perhaps the most obvious way of queering museum collections is to look for artists, collectors or other creators who can be situated within LGBTQ+ history because of the knowledge we have about their personal lives.
Treby (1933-2012) was born and raised in Plymouth. He was a biochemistry teacher as well as a gay literary activist, scholar and writer. Treby grew up at a time when male homosexuality was illegal in the UK. Nevertheless, he was out to his family and friends. Treby travelled regularly and collected sand on his journeys.
Grant was a British painter and designer. He was a member of the Bloomsbury Group and a co-director of the Omega Workshop. He had male and female partners, but was predominantly attracted to men.
Known as ‘Kitty’ to family and friends, Courtenay inherited Powderham Castle, near Exeter, in 1788. In 1811 the Earl found himself involved with rumours of charges against him for “buggery” with another man named William Fryer. Due to these impending charges, the Earl left England for his safety. Kitty’s homosexuality certainly contributed to him being shunned by society and forced to flee abroad.
Read more in the a post by Kathryn Edwards.
Mary Stella Edwards (1893-1989) and Judith Ackland
(1892-1971) were British artists and life partners,
who were together for more than 50 years. They spent
much of their life in North Devon, painting and writing
about rural landscapes and coastal regions in the
South West. RAMM cares for several of their art works.
Read more in this post.
While it is important to try and identify LGBTQ+ people in the past, there are serious limitations to this method. It is often difficult or even impossible to access information about people’s personal lives. Especially considering that sexually and gender nonconforming people often had to be secretive about their experiences. Moreover, the labels and frameworks people have used to understand themselves and their relationships shift radically across historical periods and cultural contexts. It is also the case that it is not at all clear what evidence is necessary to ‘prove’ that someone was LGBTQ+. More often than not, this ‘burden of proof’ discounts or erases LGBTQ+ voices and stories.
Wyatt originally worked as a servant in the Griffiths household. They developed a close friendship searching for specimens and publishing their finds.
At first glance, the story perhaps appears unremarkable. Two female friends working together does not immediately suggest romantic involvement. If we press further, however, it becomes evident that the early Victorian period had a number of such close companionships, framed around the common activity of collecting. Read more in this post by Frankie Dytor.
Inspired by this local fossil Emma Wallace posts about Mary Anning and her recent portrayal in the 2020 film, Ammonite, by Kate Winslet. Emma considers how Anning’s life and scholarship have been reframed over time and interrogating analogies between paleontological and queer research.
To access the richness of LGBTQ+ history and culture through the RAMM’s collections, the researchers on the project also explored other ways in which objects could speak to LGBTQ+ history and culture. We embraced the many different insights objects can hold once they are considered through LGBTQ+ lenses.
This slide inspired Fred Spence to consider other depictions of pools and bathers. This includes gay painter David Hockney whose swimming pool paintings are some of his most famous. Also the film Swimming with Lesbians (2009) which follows Madeline Davis as she builds an LGBTQ history archive. Read Fred’s post on the Out and About website.
What sea creature, real or mythical, do you most identify with? These starfish prompted Fred to think about the life histories of sea creatures. For example the seahorse where the male, not the female, carries the young in a pouch. In a post Fred explores queer films and literature with links to the sea. This includes Seahorse (2019) follows Freddy McConnell, a transgender man, throughout this process as he becomes a new father and In their memoir Life as a Unicorn (2019), non-binary drag performer Amrou Al-Kadhi reflects on keeping sea creatures as a teenager.
This type of quizzing glass was a fashionable accessory among upper-class English gentlemen in the nineteenth century. Its name comes from the practice of ‘quizzing’ people by looking them up and down through the glass.
Ren Lloyd posts about the quizzing glass’ role in evolving fashions of queer communities in interwar Paris. ‘If you were queer, or lesbian, in 1920s and 1930s Paris, looking for love, a short-term fling, or friends, your go-to club would probably be Le Monocle.’
This bust depicts a bacchante, a female priestess of the Roman god Bacchus, also known as Dionysus in Graeco-Roman religion. The female followers of Bacchus were also known as maenads. Graeco-Roman deities played an important part in the Victorian discourses of aestheticism and decadence. Dionysus was an especially important figure to the author Michael Field. Field was the pseudonym of Katherine Bradley (1846-1914) and Edith Cooper (1862-1913). Susannah Shepherd explores their work.
Both strawberries and carnations are common motifs on sampler. Sstrawberries symbolise innocence and purity, whilst pink carnations were emblematic of maternal love. By 1892, the green carnation had become emblematic of LGBTQ+ love. Queer author and playwright Oscar Wilde requested an actor wear the flower pinned to his lapel. Read more in Ashley Eyvanaki’s post.
During the early twentieth century, many slang terms for gay men had botanical roots. For example ‘daisy’, ‘buttercup’, and particularly ‘pansy’. However, by the 1920s, the term ‘pansy’ was used as a derogative slur across America, against gay men who presented themselves as feminine or flamboyant.
This plant is renowned for its bell-shaped, violet-blue flowers. Historically, purple flowers such as violets have been linked to the poetry of Sappho (c.610-570 BCE). She was Greek poet who lived on the island of Lesbos. Sappho is believed to be the first woman to openly express loving another woman. Her legacy resulted in the word ‘lesbian’ as we commonly use it today.
Ashley Eyvanaki’s post explains more.
“The morning woke abruptly. The house shifted in its sleepy state, unable to lie still against the dust and the sun. Floorboards started to creak; laces started to be tied. It was time to move. I felt for the warm body next to me and it stirred softly, giving small noises of discontent. ‘Time to leave’ I whispered in her ear. … ‘
Read a creative response to this ring by Frankie Dytor.
Pelagia noctiluca is a jellyfish known for its distinctive lavender colour. As a result, its common name is the ‘mauve stinger’. The colour lavender has been linked to LGBTQ+ life and love since the 1920s. There were two movements associated with lavender relating to the queer community – the ‘Lavender Scare’ and the ‘Lavender Menace’.
Historically, lilies also hold significant meaning within the LGBTQ+ community. For example, the floral paintings of artist Georgia O’Keeffe have widely been thought to have a dual meaning. In particular, her delicate paintings of calla lilies have been viewed by some art critics as an intimate depiction of the female genitalia, so have been repurposed into an erotic lesbian symbol. During the 1970s, a new wave of feminists began to celebrate O’Keeffe’s portrayal of nature, the body, and themes of gender, despite her neither encouraging nor discouraging such interpretations of her work.
The Out and About team commissioned LGBTQ+ artists to respond to the collections at RAMM. Their work explores otherwise hidden or obscured aspects to reveal LGBTQ+ heritage. More detailed biographical information is found on the Out and About project website.
Writer in residence: Natalie McGrath
Writer in Residence and Co-Director Natalie McGrath wrote ‘Honeycomb’, a creative response to some translated letters between lesbian medieval nuns (not at RAMM) two rings on display in the Making History gallery.
“I always wanted to be a writer in residence and it has never quite materialised until now. I was particularly excited to be undertaking this role to write a poetic queer history of the museum, and to write about Lesbian Medieval Nuns in response to some letters found and translated. The beauty of the letters had really struck a chord. So all of this was something I have never done before, all new directions in my work and practice as a writer.”Natalie McGrath, 2020. Read the full blog post.
Charice Bhardwaj and Carina Miles
Welcome to the matchbox cabaret … where the wall tastes like sugar, and the dancefloor’s alight, but the world is bigger in here, so we like it. Well, sometimes. We’re struggling to find our way into the matchbox, and we’re worried that we’re underdressed, but we’ll squeeze in anyway and try not to burn our heads off too much under the stairs. Inspired by a 19th century matchbox in the RAMM collections during lockdown, and a variety of tiny objects, collaborators Charice and Carina discover a small queer world of pink hares and dark cupboards.
Rushaa Louise Hamid
Watch “Modern Prayers”, Rushaa’s creative response to these Sudanese prayer beads in the RAMM collections, below. You can also find out more about her work in the introduction video and in this companion guide.
Sachal Khan is an emerging writer based in Exeter using poetry and manipulated sound to explore history embedded within memory. By picking apart separate sounds, memories, and moments before stitching them together, they hope to explore the disruptive experiences within migration and transness. You can also find out more about their work in am introductory video.
Caleb Parkin is a day-glo queero techno eco poet, performer and facilitator, based in Bristol. He won second prize in the National Poetry Competition 2016, first in the Winchester Poetry Prize 2017, and has placed in various other competition shortlists. Caleb responded to a collection of sand made by Ivor Treby, Treby considered himself a gay literary activist. A second video is also available.
Shiri Shah is a poet and lyrical essayist, born and raised in London. She dedicates her artistic practice to unearthing mythical histories, and abstracting the distinction between the non/human and the un/natural. Watch Shiri’s creative response to this onyx cup from Pakistan, now in the RAMM collections, and find out more about her work in the introduction video.
Oren is a writer and artist using text, sound and performance to explore volatile and abject masculinity. Often working with messy materials such as raw clay, spit, water and lubricants, he looks at overlaps between embodied horror, humour and erotics to articulate a chaotic trans and queer subjectivity.
Hearing your voice
Would you would like to share how an object at RAMM resonates with you? If so please submit a comment on the object’s Collections Explorer record page. Subject to moderation (to avoid spam etc.) we will make your comment public.