Celebrating Pride with a visit to the British Museum and British Library

Today was the Pride Parade in London which marks 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality. The city looked like a Lush shop had exploded; rainbow flags and glitter galore. As I sat on the tube I overheard a parent explaining to her two little girls why there was a man dressed in a PVC policeman outfit holding hands with a girl kitted out as Wonder Woman. ‘It’s for a Pride March’, she said, ‘people get dressed up and celebrate that people can love who they want’. I sat feeling pretty lucky that I’m in a country where I can overhear that on public transport.

Instead of the parade I headed to two exhibitions, UK Gay: Love Law and Liberty at the British Library and Desire, love, identity, exploring LGBTQ histories at the British Museum.

It saddens me that you are not permitted to take photos in British Library exhibitions. I’m afraid I was incredibly naughty and took a few before I realised that this rule extended to exhibitions in the Entrance Hall, which is where this exhibition is on display. It’s an interesting space, a bit corridor like, but the exhibition is clearly labelled at all the multiple entrance points and since the story that they are telling runs like a timeline, you can choose in which direction you follow the exhibition. Items are displayed really clearly alongside interpretation. There are headphones to listen to personal accounts and music. Scattered quotes allow you to see the progression of acceptance as well as the struggle that it has taken.

The exhibition starts by introducing the Buggery Act of 1533 that first made gay relations illegal and punishable by death as late as 1835. Then in 1885 the Criminal Law amendment act was passed making all homosexual acts illegal. It was the enforcement of this act that resulted in the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895. This all seems worlds away from now, but the exhibition proceeds to present how things have changed over time and how people have fought for equality and understanding, through to the modern day.

I’m very uneducated when it comes to gay history and the; one of the many reasons why this type of exhibition is so important. The thing that will stay with me are the numbers. People were sentenced to death as late as 1835 for homosexual acts. Clause 28 of the Local Government Act of 1988 stated that the local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”; this wasn’t changed until 2003 (and frankly goes a part of the way to explaining my lack of knowledge). It wasn’t until this year that the ‘Alan Turing Law’ pardoned approximately 49,000 historic convictions of ‘gross indecency between consenting men in England and Wales’. It’s a step in the right direction, but why is it a pardon when it’s agreed that no crime was permitted . . . maybe apology would be a more accurate term.

Basically it’s a brilliant and moving little exhibition, with a good selection of audio visual interpretation and supporting objects.

Pride Flag British Museum

Next on my list was a trip to the British Museum. Which was flying the beautiful rainbow Pride flag for the first time this weekend. It makes me feel incredibly proud that I live in a country that accepts all people for who they are. A cheesy and (having looked at the comments on the British Museums Instagram image posted of the flag flying) naïve thought. I only hope the amount of people that declared they are unfollowing the British Museum for this act, were outnumbered by the ones of support. I’ve just come from an exhibition at the British Library that’s informed me of how some of the UK’s laws have failed the gay community, I can understand why LGBTQ people may not feel truly represented by the Union Flag (it’s only the Union Jack when it’s on a boat . . . just in case I get some of the negative Instagramers reading this). Knowledge is power, kids!

The exhibition is entitled ‘Desire, love, identity; exploring LGBTQ histories’. It’s only a tiny exhibition space, but has an associated trail around the museum, which is based on Richard B Parkinson’s book, ‘A Little Gay History – Desire and Diversity Across the World’ (added to my amazon wish list).

The thing that was incredibly refreshing in this exhibition was the tone. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of considering the British Museum to be the source of all museum information, the leader in all that is great and good ‘museuming’. To many it is seen as the pinnacle of museums. So it’s really nice to see a museum portraying its weaknesses as much as its strengths in the quote, ‘The British Museum does not display all perspectives and experiences equally’ . . . because, let’s face it how could it! But at the same time it is doing a beautiful job at presenting what it does have.

It was interesting to see the objects that had been selected and the interpretation indicated that they were keen to hear feedback, collecting thoughts and photographs through the #LGBTQ_BM. My favourite item is the earliest known depiction of a couple making love, a sculpture from Palestine c.9000BC. The interpretation points out that it is assumed that this is a heterosexual couple . . . but then openly questions why should it assume this? And they are correct, how can the distinction be made with these two indistinct figures. Alongside this item are a number of badges that support LGBTQ rights, with interpretation that informs that homosexuality is still illegal in 76 countries around the world.

I am ashamed to publicly flaunt my lack of knowledge, but at the same time doesn’t that show how important these exhibitions are. Get to them if you can, follow them on social media if you can’t and add your voice and constructive thoughts.

Desire, Love, Identity; exploring LGBTQ histories is on display in room 69a at the British Museum until 15 October 2017 in room 69a. UK Gay: Love, Law and Liberty is in the Entrance Hall of the British Library until 19 September 2017.

 

 

 

 

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