On the Trail of LGBTQ Brighton

posted in: Blog, Jools Stone, LGBTQ history | 0

It’s 5.05pm and Brighton Museum stills into such a hush as the doors close to the public it’s quite uncanny. A group of us are huddled around the Front Desk for a special after hours tour in the capable hands of Kelly Boddington and Robert White, who are about to guide us through the sometimes hidden history of LGBTQ Brighton.

Passion Project

The story of how this and the accompanying LGBTQ Trail came about is interesting in itself. Neither Kelly nor Robert are from the curatorial side. Kelly is a buyer in the Retail division, while Robert works in the Events & Functions Team, while also supporting the Learning team with Heritage Learning work.

Kelly on her LGBTQ Trail
They undertook the tour in 2013 as part of their Workforce Development programme – an intensive temporary secondment which Kelly describes with unnecessary modesty as ‘kinda like our work experience project’ – driven by their own passion and knowledge of the major contribution gay life has made to Brighton’s cultural profile, and partly inspired by attending an international conference in 2013, the UnStraight Museum.
The project was funded by Object Stories and was originally intended to have a broad colour-based theme… until the pair suggested doing something more interesting instead.
As a result of their work researching LGBTQ themes, they’ve become known for their expertise in the museum, a nice example of front line staff being encouraged to develop knowledge that’s useful for the organisation as a whole.
Interestingly, this subject expertise extended to the audience too, with one audience member keen to share his encyclopaedic knowledge of several artists featured, adding another, unexpected layer to the tour.

About the LGBT Trail

The tour picks out 10 items which represent the gay experience of Brighton, ranging from contemporary household names like maverick transvestite potter Grayson Perry and the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen, to more historical artists such as Gluck and the Bloomsbury Group’s Duncan Grant.
Following the Trail
These items are identified with tasteful pink case labels and all are also handily detailed in a bright yellow folded pamphlet available on the front desk, so you can always follow the trail independently, though of course the guided tour is the cherry on the cake.

Grayson Perry Difficult Background
From this I learnt that Grayson Perry sought refuge form a troubled childhood in fantasy worlds built around his faithful teddy bear companion Alan Measles and shared a squat with Boy George in the early 80s. His single item in our collection, called appropriately enough A Difficult Background, was acquired for a song before he became something of an art world celebrity, after winning the Turner Prize and many memorable TV appearances.
Some artworks on the trail are easier to find than others. There’s no missing Glyn Philpot’s wonderfully evocative portrait of Acrobats Waiting to Rehearse looming gloomily down on us from upon high in the 20th Century Gallery, but you’d be forgiven for overlooking his splendid Silver Loving Cup (and even Perry’s pot escaped my attention until the day of the tour.)
We’re given some background on the artists, covering their lives, major relationships, career trajectories – and of course their sexuality and sexual identities. Given the long, slow march towards equality, as you’d expect these stories often touch on personal tragedy and fraught personal lives (‘sorry there IS quite a lot of death and darkness in this tour, isn’t there?’ Robert himself comments towards the end!) but there are celebratory notes too, especially when we come to the section devoted to the origins of Brighton Pride.

Brighton Pride display

Brighton’s Gay History

Of course Brighton has a sizeable gay population – Britain’s largest – and to be honest I’ve always been curious about why this is. The tour doesn’t attempt to give any definitive answers to this question, (and it could easily make a weighty research project for someone) but it does reference various plausible factors such as Brighton’s status as a place to escape day-to-day life – ‘Soho by the sea’, the influx of available men during the First World World War – and once again the Prince Regent takes some credit here too. (Seaside tourism, Brighton’s licentious nightlife and arts scene, is there anything which cannot be pinned to the colourful monarch I wonder?!)
LGBT Exhibitions
The tour made me wonder about the broader subject of LGBTQ representation in museum and gallery collections. Has there ever been a call for Brighton to have its own dedicated gay museum or indeed for the UK to have one?
Would such a project be welcomed by the LGBTQ community anyway or would it smack of ghettoism? Kelly and Robert seem to think there may be call for one – and that Brighton is setting itself up as the obvious contender.
There has not been a dedicated gay exhibition in recent years here, though several previous ones (1995’s Fetishism: Visualising Desire and 2008’s On The Pull) both had clear LGBT strands to them.

There are also plans for a major retrospective on pioneering trans artist Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein personally donated her own clothing to our fashion collections) in 2017, perhaps to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act, and its effective ‘decriminalisation’ of same-sex relationships.

Does the Museum actively collect LGBTQ material?

Collections Management Curator Katie Hobbs confirmed that while there is no official LGBTQ collecting policy as such, the museum is now actively reviewing its strategy:

‘Collecting LGBTQ related objects isn’t currently one of our themes, but we are indeed in discussions about this, and we’re reviewing our policy. There is a definite desire at RPM to be able to illustrate LGBTQ stories which are so central to Brighton over the next few years, but it’s worth noting that objects with associated LGBTQ stories are already acquired under each collection strand, but just not highlighted as a theme. I am of the feeling that we should have a plan which clearly details what RPM is actively collecting over the next 5 years and why. It would allow us to be much more strategic, and responsive to our audiences.’

Part of the reason for this is that the now disbanded Our Story project was working towards this goal, with a tacit agreement that they would focus on LGBT collecting, with the Royal Pavilion and Museums supporting where needed. Since disbanding, some of their materials can now be found in The Keep.

Alexander McQueen LGBTQ Trail label
Gay Museums Elsewhere

New York’s Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art claims to be the world’s first and there’s a handful of other independent ones scattered elsewhere (in Tuscon, San Francisco and Berlin). Meanwhile a campaign for a national LGBT museum in the US continues.
The tour also reminded of a fabulous documentary about Andrew Logan, the brilliantly eccentric organiser of the long-running Alternative Miss World, whose purpose-built studio the Andrew Logan Museum of Sculpture remains Britain’s only dedicated museum of a living artist.

The Q Word

Despite the huge leaps the LGBTQ community has made in gaining equality and acceptance in society, the nuances of sexual identity are still an understandably emotive subject, so terms of reference matter.
A 2011 article on the Museum Association website helpfully rounds up a variety of recent LGBTQ exhibitions, while the comments section of the piece hosts a debate (albeit polite by internet standards!) about the relative connotations of the term ‘queer’. See also this post from fashion designer Jed Pheonix (who features in our Renegade fashion collection) about what the queer identity means to her.
It seems entirely fitting that the Royal Pavilion hosted the UK’s first gay marriage in March 2014, while Brighton Pride have recently been in touch to discuss and plan future events.
It was interesting to learn that LBGTQ interests are being factored into the Museum’s collecting policy too, so who knows how big this part of the collection and trail will be in years to come?
If you’re at all interested in LGBTQ culture in Brighton then this tour (currently run on an ad hoc, on demand basis) is certainly a great starting point.

Jools Stone, Blogger in Residence

Further Resources

What do you think? Should Brighton make more of its gay history and how?