What should an LGBTQ museum be? Approaches vary.

LONDON — “It looks like a religious object,” said Joseph Galliano-Doig, director of Queer Britain, a new museum here, pointing to a heavy oak door in the main exhibition hall.

Painted a sickly shade of mustard and studded with steel rivets, the door also had a small peephole for prison guards to peer through. “That’s why Oscar Wilde was martyred,” Galliano-Doig said, “it’s just awful.” From 1895 to 1897, Wilde was incarcerated for the crime of buggery, destroying his reputation. He died in exile and in poverty three years later at the age of 46.

The object towered above Queer Britain’s inaugural exhibition, a stark reminder of the danger and taboo that homosexuality represented a century ago. But Galliano-Doig also saw it as representative of “the door that was kicked down and led to all the joy you can see here,” he said, pointing to nearby artifacts telling of the slow journey of the LGBTQ Britons towards equality over the past century. .

Queer Britain, near London’s King’s Cross station, is Britain’s first LGBTQ museum. It joins an international network of archives, as well as institutions like the Schwules Museum in Berlin and the American LGBTQ+ Museum, which is due to open in New York in 2026. At a time when public discourse around issues such as trans rights has a material impact on the lives of LGBTQ people, the directors of these institutions have thought carefully about how to frame queer history, and they have come to different conclusions about how best to institutionalize these radical movements of marginalized people.

In less than five years, Queer Britain has grown from a concept to a house of bricks and mortar, led by Galliano-Doig, a former editor of Gay Times magazine, alongside a diverse group of council members of administration and administrators. The museum’s inaugural exhibition, which is free to enter, celebrates 50 years since the first London Pride parade in 1972.

The walls displayed political props chronicling the fight for LGBTQ rights in Britain and included notes from the first Parliamentary AIDS meeting and banners from this year’s Trans+ Pride parade, held ten days before the opening of the ‘exposure. Other exhibits highlight key figures in local LGBTQ activism and famous Brits like Ian McKellen, Elton John, Derek Jarman and Virginia Woolf.

One of the most striking exhibits shows a rainbow hijab worn in 2005 by a representative of the Muslim LGBTQ organization Imaan at London Pride, where the group gave a defiant speech after members said they lived Islamophobic insults other walkers. While many of the museum’s objects symbolized triumphs for LGBTQ rights that belong to the past, these garments invoked ongoing and complex debates regarding Islam and sexuality.

Galliano-Doig wanted to represent diverse queer experiences, he said, and create a museum where visitors not only see, but also feel seen. “During those first few months, it was not uncommon for someone to come in here and burst into tears,” he said. “A lot of LGBTQ+ history has been about erasure. For us, that means: we are here and our stories deserve to be told.

The earliest antecedents of Queer Britain are the institutions that opened in the 1980s in response to the AIDS crisis. “People started getting sick and dying, so there was a sudden need to document these stories that seemed to fade away very quickly,” said Ben Miller, writer and historian who co-hosts ‘Bad Gays’. podcast, in a recent video interview. This led to the founding of the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco and the Schwules Museum in Berlin, both in 1985.

These spaces tend to focus on local stories. The Schwules Museum notes that it was in Berlin that the term “homosexual” was first coined and is currently hosting an exhibition about a renowned gay activist squat in the city called Tuntenhaus. The IHLIA LGBTI Heritage Archive in Amsterdam has a collection representing over 150 countries, but also regularly publishes oral histories of older Dutch LGBTQ people.

Queer Britain is just one of the new LGBTQ institutions in London. “We’re always trying to see how we fit in with other queer spaces like Queer Circle and the LGBTQ+ Community Center,” said exhibit curator Dawn Hoskin. The shift from archives primarily for scholars like IHLIA and the Bishopsgate Institute in London to public showcases of LGBTQ history reflects a growing interest in these topics across Europe and the United States, fueled by a steady stream new books, podcasts, and even a landmark series on Discovery+ called “The Book of Queer.”

Why is all this attention on homosexuality now? “People who were part of the early waves of the recent queer liberation movement are coming to an age where they are reflecting on the legacy and what the future of the movement looks like,” said Ben Garcia, executive director of the upcoming American Museum. LGBTQ+. “There are a number of people who have moved from the hot moment of activism into a more thoughtful space.”

Galliano-Doig emphasizes increased visibility. “There’s a blossoming of people going out these days,” he said. “It becomes impossible not to recognize that we are anchored in the community. This has been accompanied by advances in LGBTQ rights in Europe and the United States over the past two decades, including same-sex marriage and gender recognition acts. It also means that there is more support and funding available for specialist institutions like these museums.

Organizations like Queer Britain have a lot to celebrate, but the triumphs for LGBTQ rights are only part of the story. In many countries around the world, people of diverse genders and sexualities are still locked behind doors as impenetrable as Oscar Wilde’s, whether physical, social or psychological. Same-sex relationships are still criminalized in about 70 countries, and women and people of color are often still marginalized within LGBTQ communities. In a speech at the recent London Trans+ Pride, actress Abigail Thorn described how “legally and politically” trans people in Britain “are not allowed to control their own lives”.

Even tangible progress is complicated: Different groups within the LGBTQ umbrella often have different legal rights, rights that aren’t necessarily guaranteed, as evidenced by the U.S. House of Representatives’ recent push to codify the protections of the same-sex marriage after Justice Clarence Thomas suggested the Supreme Court “should reconsider” past rulings. How should museums represent such sensitive and politically tense issues?

Existing spaces take different approaches to balance political advocacy with the celebration of diverse genders and sexualities. While Galliano-Doig called Queer Britain a “gay-run space for everyone”, meaning they have one message for LGBTQ and heterosexual audiences, Birgit Bosold, board member of the Schwules Museum, described this museum as having rather a “dual role: advocating with the general public for the recognition of queer heritage as part of collective history and challenging the problematic discourses that dominate within the community. queer.

The Berlin museum does this in part by highlighting marginalized groups within the LGBTQ community. A recent exhibition focused on intersex people and another will open in September on homosexuality and disabilities. Bosold said these projects were beginning to address historical biases in the wider culture and within the museum itself – when she joined the board 15 years ago, the museum was still acting as if it was run by and for exclusively cisgender gay men, she said.

“We try to have a critical and interesting conversation, to have a point of view, to have an argument,” said Miller, who also serves on the Schwules board. “We don’t want to become a place where people come to receive a pre-digested version” of queer history.

Garcia envisions the LGBTQ+ American Museum to be a space that engages visitors in activism and teaches them about history. “As a gay person working in a queer organization, our lives are inherently political and controversial,” he said. “Our movement must grow both within traditional institutions and outside, pushing against them. We are a museum that sees itself not just as a documentarian of the queer liberation movement, but also as part of it.

While Queer Britain’s opening exhibition seemed more cautious than Schwules’ explicitly political stance, this may just be a starting point. “We’re trying to get a sense of the kaleidoscope and variety of what this museum could be,” Hoskin said. The team plans to listen to the community, Galliano-Doig said, and evolve as it finds its voice and identity as an institution. If all goes according to plan, they will move to a much larger space within five years.

As they grow, how these museums decide to present LGBTQ history will remain a pressing question. “From the earliest days, history has been a tool in the construction of queer identity,” said Huw Lemmey, Miller’s co-host on the “Bad Gays” podcast. “Museums are not independent reporters of the past, they are part of an ongoing process of identity formation, so the stakes are very high.”


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