THE UK’S FIRST MUSEUM DEDICATED TO QUEER HISTORY HAS FINALLY ARRIVED
Words by Christina Dean
It’s pretty shocking that with all the museums and cultural institutions we have in this country, not a single one of them has been dedicated to LGBTQ+ history, until the opening of Queer Britain in King’s Cross. Establishing the nation’s first LGBTQ+ museum has been the work of the Queer Britain charity, co-founded by former Gay Times editor Joseph Galliano in 2018.
The idea of the museum had been in Joe’s mind for a while. “Starting from the perspective of that when I went to the Queer British Art exhibition at Tate Britain in 2017, it left me thinking this was the right time to start addressing this gap in the museum and culture sector around the under-representation of LGBTQ+ people’s stories,” he says. That year was the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of gay male sex so there had been a lot of cultural activity to mark the occasion, but it also left Joe realising that there needed to be broadening in terms of the stories being told, so not just those of gay men but of women, trans people, queer people of colour, and queer people with disabilities.
That’s the mission of Queer Britain, showcasing and celebrating the diversity of the queer experience. “We call ourselves the LGBTQ+ museum for all, regardless of sexuality or gender expression and that includes our heterosexual counterparts who are also part of our family and deserve to see the stories we are telling about our lives and our histories,” says Joe. Crucially, it’s free to enter because “if we are about inclusion, it has to be about economic inclusion, there’s no two ways about it. If I found that some young queer person wasn’t able to come in because they couldn’t afford an entry fee then shame on us.”
Clearly, there’s been a gaping hole in the cultural landscape that’s taken until 2022 to be filled, despite there having been previous attempts to do so. Joe believes it’s because queer erasure is better understood now than it has been historically and “culturally the timing hasn’t been quite right before. Look at how Pride has been taken up, you walk down Oxford Street during Pride Month and it’s like a vomit of rainbows everywhere.” The increased adoption of Pride by businesses, whilst not without its issues (“mostly I think they’re trying to make the place more comfortable for their LGBTQ+ employees, they’re trying to reach out and I think we should be welcoming of it. Where it’s being used to cover up other poor behaviour then I think it should be called out”) makes it easier to get companies to spend their money than it would have been in the past – Aviva, Diageo and Meta are just some of the businesses Queer Britian has established partnerships with.
Timing is one thing, but so is time; the point Joe stresses most of all is that creating an institution like Queer Britain is “a lot of bloody work! It needs somebody on the ground every day just pushing and pushing and pushing, and it’s a big commitment.” The first couple years of Queer Britain involved building the board and the governance procedures, developing partnerships, conducting community consultations, business planning and establishing strategies to ensure that the project would succeed. “What I’ve spent the last four or five years trying to answer is the question of how do you set up a museum from a standing point, and that’s really what everything has been focused on,” explains Joe.
Of course, you need collections for a museum, and Queer Britain has worked with the Bishopsgate Institute to develop theirs, which initially involved a lot of passive collecting with people giving things to the museum. Now there’s a collection committee that includes Clare Barlow, curator of the Queer British Art exhibition at Tate Britain; Dawn Hoskin, who’s worked at the V&A and the National Trust; and Matthew Storey, a curator for Historical Royal Palaces. This allows Queer Britain to hone in on its purpose, as Joe puts it, “how can we collect in a way that will add to the sector rather than compete with it? Where are the gaps? How can we be a valuable resource to the sector and to the country in general?”
The hard work and meticulous planning have paid off because Queer Britain found themselves moving into and opening a space at the start of 2022, not the beginning of 2023 as expected. Still it took four years to find the Granary Square location that they now call home; Art Fund own the building and they’d established a relationship after the Queer Britain team gave them funding advice regarding the purchase of Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage. Although Joe says that the current site is one he had his biggest eye on, opening in London wasn’t a sure thing.
“The decision was based around where do we find the biggest philanthropy market? What are the chances of attracting statutory funding (not so great in London)? What does the tourist infrastructure look like? Where is the footfall likely to be good?” explains Joe, and London came out on top in terms of the tourist numbers, the philanthropic opportunities and its accessibility versus the rest of the country. He is keen to point out that Queer Britain is also working in other areas of the UK – they’ve undertaken a Queer Pandemic project in partnership with Goldsmiths and Kent State University in Ohio, which featured participants from across the country discussing their experiences of the pandemic, and has been on a touring display to Cardiff, Manchester, Belfast and Aberdeen. “It’s an expression of intent,” says Joe. “This early in the life of the project, here is what we’ve been able to manage in terms of meaningful engagement. Queer life doesn’t just happen in London, it happens everywhere.”
The museum opened with the temporary exhibition Welcome To Queer Britain, curated by Matthew Storey, which showcased pieces from the Queer Britain photographic collection and previous exhibitions alongside portraits by Allie Crewe, Robert Taylor and Sadie Lee. Time was also spent developing the shop and its lines of product, some of which have come from the Queer Britain Madame F Award, an annual art prize sponsored by the wine brand where the winner receives a cash prize and a spot in the gallery showcasing their work. “What I think that does is it really merges together nice wine with an actual concrete way of supporting queer creatives. Not only are we working to think about our heritage, we’re also thinking about how we support our culture as well,” says Joe. “We look back to understand where we’ve come from, we need to understand where we’ve come from to understand who we are, and once we’ve understood who we are, we can work together to imagine the best of all possible futures. That for me seems like the perfect marriage of heritage and culture.”
Now the first proper exhibition, We Are Queer Britain, is in place. Loosely tied to mark 50 years of Pride in London and with themes of “finding each other, activism, art and culture”, the display features an array of pieces, including Oscar Wilde’s prison door, a dress worn by drag queen Divine and a bust of Virginia Woolf. “It’s very broad and purposefully broad,” explains Joe. “We can’t do everything in one go, there’s too much to represent and too much that hasn’t been shown in a mainstream setting, so the with the first show we wanted to show you the stuff we’re going to be doing and also to try, in as fascinating a way as possible, cover a richly diverse representation.”
The reception that Queer Britain has had since it opened – 12,000 people through the door in the first two months – is a vindication of all the hard work that’s been put in to reach this point. “When we signed the lease we were a team of two people full time,” says Joe. “We’re building the team as we go, setting up the shop and the lines we’re selling in it, setting up a trading subsidiary, building a board for that, the publicity. Most of the team at the moment are doing the jobs of four or five people.” It also shows how big the appetite for an institution like this was. It’s well-documented that the number of LGBTQ+ venues in London has been declining for years and at a detriment to the community. “I think that one of the things that communities have been crying out for is something that’s not alcohol-based and somewhere that is welcoming and inclusive of the whole of the rainbow of our communities,” states Joe. “It means more people can get involved in more culturally engaged ways and feel seen. That’s something that’s really important to us, we think that most people visit other museums to see the museum, whereas people come here to be seen and we want people to feel seen.” With instances of people in tears in the gallery as well as visitors spotting a photograph of themselves on the wall being not uncommon, it seems that Queer Britain is succeeding in that mission as well.
And the work doesn’t stop. The Granary Square site is an incubation space for Queer Britain, where the team can learn how to run a museum, with Joe seeing the opening of a forever home on the five-year horizon, “which will be a race but we’ve done a lot racing.”
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2 Granary Square, London, N1C 4BH