Interview with Sean Curran: “We should be living in a post-history months heritage world”

February is LGBT History Month in the UK, so to celebrate we at History Riot have been speaking to heritage practitioners and public history researchers about their work in LGBTQ-inclusive heritage.

Sean Curran 4 blog

 

We spoke to Sean Curran, an academic and teacher currently completing a  PhD looking at queer activism and curation in National Trust historic houses. They told us about queer activism and the National Trust – and why if Sean had their way, this would be the last ever History Month.

 

 

1. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work.

I’m currently writing up my practice-based AHRC-funded PhD. My professional background is in academic libraries and archives. I am part of the steering committee for the annual LGBTQ History and Archives conference at the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) and the upcoming international LGBTQ Archives, Libraries, Museums and Special Collections conference hosted by LMA, Bishopsgate Institute and the Queer London Research Forum at Westminster University. I co-curated ‘Twilight People: stories of faith and gender beyond the binary’ at the Islington Museum, which is an oral history and photographic exhibition about trans and gender non-conforming people of faith, and I am exhibition consultant for the LMA’s upcoming ‘Speak Out!’ LGBTQ oral history project. I’m also currently a teaching assistant working with ASD students in a secondary school in Hackney.

“I think fed up queers like myself and our allies who work outside of institutions are slowly making progress that over time will have to impact on the fabric of how heritage organisations and institutions operate in regard to marginalised histories!”

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126 Artwork by Alex Creep

 

2. Your Sutton House Shakespeare sonnets project was the first time that Sutton House  had participated in LGBT Month. How did the piece come about?

In Summer 2013 I started volunteering at Sutton House in Hackney. One of the few middle class luxuries my family had when I was growing up was a National Trust membership, and it profoundly shaped my interest in, and passion for, domestic history, beautiful buildings, and kitsch. Sutton House is quite an anomaly in the Trust’s portfolio, given it’s relative lack of original objects and furniture, it’s location in a busy urban area, and it’s initial rejection by National Trust stalwart and house-scout James Lees Milne who visited it in 1946, and described it in his diaries as a “wretched” house in a “slum” area. I offered to curate an exhibition in February 2014 for LGBT History Month, and the staff there kindly agreed. In ‘Master-Mistress’ I used four of Shakespeare’s Fair Youth sonnets as inspiration, and recorded four LGBTQ identified people reading them. These were played on loop in four of the Tudor-interpreted rooms, and were played from mock-tudor speakers made by artist Judith Brocklehurst. This was the first ever LGBT History Month exhibition at any National Trust property. I was invited back the following year, and rather ambitiously crowd-sourced recordings of all 126 of the Fair Youth sonnets. I also asked contributors to record a 10 second moving “selfie”. The result was a phenomenal cross section of the LGBTQ community, with a huge variety of interpretations of the sonnets and the video brief. I edited these into one long film, and it became ‘126’, part of the first ever Queer Season at Sutton House. I was also invited to screen the film at the V&A’s first ever LGBTQ themed Friday Late ‘Queer and Now’.

 

LGBTQ histories, black, womens, disabled, all of these histories are an integral part of all history, and the more we continue with the idea of history months as being the only time museums and heritage sites engage with these narratives, the more we enforce the idea that real history is only about straight cisgender white able-bodied men.”

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Still of 126 film in the chapel of Sutton House

3. The National Trust owns Sutton House. How do you think heritage is changing to incorporate more inclusive histories? 

I don’t think heritage is changing to incorporate these histories, I think fed up queers like myself and our allies who work outside of institutions are slowly making progress that over time will have to impact on the fabric of how heritage organisations and institutions operate in regard to marginalised histories.

Most of the groundbreaking work in museums, archives and historic buildings is being led by freelancers, independent curators, artists, grass roots groups and educators. It’s more risk free for a massive membership organisation like the National Trust to let a volunteer lead an LGBTQ project, than to do it themselves.

Thankfully, the Heritage Lottery Fund is recognising the value of these projects and is really keen on funding LGBTQ ventures. The next thing that needs to happen is for heritage organisations to start creating jobs for (or giving jobs to) those of us who are prepared to think outside of the box and be a bit anarchic.

 

4. How can heritage sites/ museums/ historical homes start, or continue, telling the stories of the LGBT members of their communities? What would you like to see across the heritage sector in February 2016?

If I had my way, February 2016 would be a glorious swan song for LGBT History Month. As far as I’m concerned we should be living in a post-history months heritage world now. LGBTQ histories, black, womens, disabled, all of these histories are an integral part of all history, and the more we continue with the idea of history months as being the only time museums and heritage sites engage with these narratives, the more we enforce the idea that real history is only about straight cisgender white able-bodied men. LGBT History Month has been a great starting point, but the conversation should have moved on by now.

 

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‘Twilight People: Stories of Faith and Gender Beyond the Binary’, running at Islington Museum until 5th March 2016.

 

5. What’s the most interesting story/ conversation/ obstacle you’ve encountered during your work around LGBT themes?

I offered to make a soundscape based on the relationship between May Morris and her long term companion Mary Lobb to Red House, a William Morris National Trust house, and they turned it down, even though I was offering to do it for free. I decided to make it anyway, and host it for free online. I also made a zine, explaining their refusal, and a protest tea towel, which was a play on the tropes of the National Trust tea towels in the gift shops. I had an opportunity to exhibit this in a group show at the Institute of Education. I hope to revisit this fascinating story one day, as it’s completely silenced in Red House, Kelmscott Manor and the William Morris Gallery.

 

You can keep up to date with Sean’s  work at Towardsqueer.blogspot.com and follow them on twitter @MeltingSwans

 

Want to read more about LGBT Month? Why not check out  our interview with Claire Hayward about Pride of Place or this little editorial we wrote about it.

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Interview: Claire Hayward tells us about ‘Pride of Place’

February is LGBT History Month in the UK, so to celebrate we at History Riot have been speaking to heritage practitioners and public history researchers about their work in LGBTQ-inclusive heritage.

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We interviewed Claire Hayward, a public historian, Further Education History Lecturer and the Project Researcher for Pride of Place, a LGBTQ Heritage Project by Leeds Beckett University and Historic England (formerly English Heritage).

 

 

  1. So what is the Pride of Place project all about then? And how did it come into being?

Historic England and Leeds Beckett launched Pride of Place in June 2015. It builds on from other diverse history projects by English Heritage on The Slave Trade and Abolition, Women’s History and Disability History. These projects, Pride of Place included, aim to make often marginalised histories more visible, and to trace the ways that they are found across buildings and landscapes in England. One of the key aims of Pride of Place is to show that lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer histories can be found everywhere across England, and that LGBTQ histories have played an important part of local and national histories. Our online map, which anyone can add to, launched last year. The map shows LGBTQ sites across England, and covers everything from personal domestic spaces to long-gone ‘LGBTQ’ pubs and clubs. We’ll also be producing Teachers’ Resources and guides to researching the queer heritage of buildings and places for local authorities and community groups. We will be launching an online exhibition later this year, hosted permanently on the Historic England website. We’ll also be writing amendments to descriptions of already listed buildings, so that their LGBTQ heritage becomes a defined part of their national significance.

 

2. This is an area of Public History which has interested you for a while, isn’t it?

I took over this role from Justin Bengry last month, who has done an incredible job building the Pride of Place map as well as other resources yet to launch. I’ve just finished up my PhD in History at Kingston – my thesis was about LGBTQ public histories, and explored the ways that members of the public encounter and influence LGBTQ histories. Pride of Place is a great example of LGBTQ public history, particularly because the map that is being produced as part of the project is community-led, so I’m really excited to be working on it. Before the PhD I took an MA in Early Modern History, focusing on women’s and gender history in the eighteenth century.

“There has been a significant shift in how heritage organisations approach diverse histories over the last decade or so.”

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Image from Pride of Place (Historic England)
  1. Historic England is behind this project – the traditional image of heritage organisations is very much “here’s a big old mansion with a tea room, don’t touch the tulipiere”, whereas this project actively engages with LGBT communities and histories that have been marginalised.

How do you think heritage is changing to incorporate these histories? Is it something that’s happening across other heritage organisations and sites too? 

There has been a significant shift in how heritage organisations approach diverse histories over the last decade or so. Historic England is not alone in this, and other major institutions such as the National Trust have in recent years begun to reach out to their diverse visitors and include wider histories in the narratives they tell. For example, the National Trust’s Sutton House hosted Sean Curran’s exhibitions Master-Mistress and ‘126’ during LGBT History Month in 2014 and 2015. I was privileged to take part in a panel discussion about LGBTQ histories in museums and historic houses at the launch of ‘Master-Mistress’, which you can listen to online. Projects like Pride of Place and events like those held at Sutton House show that conversations about LGBTQ histories are now taking place in heritage organisations, and that they are also taking action to address the often marginalisation of diverse histories.

We’re still only at the beginning of this change, and there’s still a long way to go. One important change will be incorporating LGBTQ histories the year round. Although LGBT History Month has provided a specific time, and perhaps as a result more funding opportunities, for heritage organisations to connect with LGBTQ histories, it would be great to see a similar level of enthusiasm continuing outside of February.

 

  1. How important do you think social media is to this sort of project (and more generally in histories of sexuality)? Is it more about linking up with other interested parties in the same field and making connections, or letting members of the public know about its existence and spread the word? 

Social media is hugely important to projects like Pride of Place as it allows us to reach wider audiences, and to reach people who might not otherwise me able to connect with the project. Because the Pride of Place map is crowd sourced, social media plays an even more important role. It means we can share stories and encourage others to contribute, and people can add comments via Facebook. It’s also great to hear about other projects, heritage institutions and academics who are working in similar fields, and social media allows us to share their work too.

“Although homosexuality was still illegal, this didn’t matter in their Brixton community. Instead, ‘Cyril and Terry were simply beloved members of the community, lovingly helping friends in need’.”

 

  1. What’s the most interesting / intriguing story or mapping connection you’ve come across? 

It’s difficult to pick just one! Some of the entries are of national significance, while others are personal. The personal ones are incredible because they mean we can find out about histories we otherwise wouldn’t. For example, one entry explains why Brixton is an important LGBTQ site to the contributor; it’s where they grew up in the care of two gay men during the 1950s. They explained that although homosexuality was still illegal, this didn’t matter in their Brixton community. Instead, ‘Cyril and Terry were simply beloved members of the community, lovingly helping friends in need’.

Personal stories like these are incredible ways of sharing memories, and they show that LGBTQ histories can be found in all kinds of places. Personal stories have also appeared in our comments feature. Many of the histories on the map are personal and anecdotal, and some people have commented on entries for pubs and clubs to explain what it was like when they visited, or if it was the first ‘LGBTQ’ bar they went to. These connections are really important to Pride of Place, and they mean that some of the sites have multiple histories and stories attached.

 

  1. How can people contribute to Pride of Place?

You can contribute to our map of LGBTQ sites in England on mapme.com/prideofplace. You will need to either create a log in or log in via Facebook or LinkedIn.

You can also log in anonymously using the email LGBTQPlaces@gmail.com and password lgbtqplaces. We’re interested in any places in England, whether they are important for personal reasons or for national significance.

You can also host a pinning party with a community group – you can email me on claire.hayward@historicengland.org.uk for more information and to ask any questions about the project.

 

Want to read more about LGBT Month? Why not check out  our interview with Sean Curran or this little editorial we wrote about it.

 

Source for banner image: Pride of Place Facebook Page

Interview with Jane Cartwright: Interpreter at the Charles Dickens Museum, London

The Charles Dickens Museum in London offers monthly costumed tours with a ‘housemaid’: in reality, live costumed interpreter Jane Cartwright. We chatted to Jane about her work in the museum and beyond…

Jane Cartwright chicken

How did you get into live interpretation, and specifically this tour at the Dickens Museum?

 I started working in live interpretation  in 1994 at the Museum of Moving Image. From there I joined Spectrum Theatre and Drama Company and have been with them ever since. Through Spectrum Ive had the opportunity to work in a wide variety of historical sites and museums and in very differing styles. I research, write and deliver events for both family and educational programmes. The team at the Dickens Museum happened to be on a tour that I was giving at Linley Sambourne House and as a result Spectrum and I were invited to develop their costumed tour of  number 48 Doughty St. An important place in Charles Dickenss life where he resided from 1837 until 1839.

You built an immediate rapport with the crowd, encouraging them to clap and join in with repeated phrases. What do you think is the most important or useful tip to get an audience on your sidefrom the start?

I think its useful to consider what you are asking of your audience in a live performance. Unlike in the usual darkness of a theatre auditorium, playing conditions in museums and heritage sites, such as Doughty Street, emphasise social perception and response; audience members are all on view, both to the performer and to each other. There may be people who will recognise and readily engage in the improvisational and inclusive nature of such performance. There may be people who are unfamiliar with what is happening and are chary of committing to it.  There may also be people who recognise such involvement as being potentially embarrassing – how might their conduct, their cultural competence, be judged by others? They may fear being socially wrong footed. That an audience feels relaxed and safe is essential. I think it is important for an audience to know what to expect  and what is being asked of them. How an event is organised and framed and how you signal and facilitate the theatrical conventions in play are crucial and can be  essential in influencing the degree to which an audience will engage in a performance.

Housemaid tour dickens museumYou seemed to adapt very easily to questions during the tour, taking the story in different directions. Is your tour scripted or does it change every time you deliver it? How did you research the tour?

I did originally prepare a script, though rather than being a definitive acting script, it serves more as a series of prompts. It changes with every tour as I try to respond to the visitors and their interests. As the housemaid, I am only one half of the performance, or experience. The visitors also play an active part, so no one is just watching. The nature of this event is such, that a fluid, improvisational style works best.

However, in the context of interpreting a historical site, such as Doughty Street, this degree of improvisational style does need careful preparation. For the tour to work effectively, I must try to have a thorough and  intuitive understanding of the subject. So the scriptI created, serves as a set of factually correct information, approved by the team at the museum, and developed through rigorous research. I needed to cover the social and historical background of the area, the architecture, the role of a servant, etc, as well as knowledge of the life and works of Charles Dickens.

Is your character based on a real historical figure, or an amalgam of several people?

The character is based on the historical fact that, numbered amongst the staff at Doughty St in 1839, there was a housemaid. Beyond that,  unfortunately, specific details are unknown. So, I decided to base her on an amalgam of several different characters drawn from various accounts of housemaids at that time.

Your language was very of the period. How did you create that style?

A hugely rich source for inspiration when creating the character, were  Charles Dickensnovels. I wanted to try and draw on his wonderful character descriptions, the voice that he gave his characters; their style of speech, their idioms and vocabulary. At Doughty Street, I feel that the realismof the setting, and the close proximity of the audience, demand a naturalistic performance style and so the signification of language, costume, gesture and voice, hopefully, combine together to build a psychologically believable character.

 

Jane Cartwright 1930s
Source: NewsShopper

Inevitably, visitors will ask questions about things your character could not really answer (like your own future). How do you respond to those questions without undermining the sense of a historical world?

There is much in the house that relates to Charles Dickens’ life after he  left Doughty Street; there are items of furniture, clothing, a lock of hair, flower from his funeral, and so on, and the team at the museum very specifically wanted me to address these anachronisms, answer questions as they arose, and not be totally bound by the conceit of the event, i.e being visitors to the house in 1839. This doesn’t seem to be an issue, or, indeed, undermine the sense of a historical world. I feel it’s possible to cross the boundary between time periods and address questions from a modern perspective, without causing confusion, and without stepping out of character.  As the combination of period character and contemporary commentator mutate, so the visitor hopefully blends the concepts of ‘actor’, ‘identity’ and ‘character’, and these complex transitions are simultaneously enfolded into the lived experience.

What do you find the biggest challenge of being a live interpreter, and what do you think is the most rewarding aspect of the job?

Its hard to think what might be the biggest challenge. Sometimes the environments in which you find yourself working, battling with the elements, (and sometimes noisy helicopters!) when working outside, and noisy exhibits when working inside can be taxing. Clambering into a Victorian costume in the confines of a very small toilet cubicle can also be seen as very challenging!

The most rewarding aspect? When the lines between performer and spectator become blurred, and no one is ‘just watching’.

Where else do you work, when you’re not being Mr Dickens’ housemaid?

I also work at the Florence Nightingale Museum, Museum of London, London Transport Museum, Science Museum, Natural History Museum, Royal Astronomical Society, Linley Sambourne House, Docklands Museum, the Royal Observatory Greenwich and the Firepower Museum at Woolwich.