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.
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!”
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.”
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.
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.
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.