Wednesday, 26 September 2012

"not meeting the needs of the space" or censorship?

Just a very quick post today, it's my last day of working at the IOE Library, my PhD starts officially next week - it's all very exciting!

I thought I would just flag up this article on the Huffington Post Gay Voices site (which is well worth following, it's great for LGBT news- specifically in the US).

Jeff Larson's 'Men In Living Rooms' Photography Exhibition Pulled From LGBT Stonewall Museum

I suppose I should also prefix this with a "NSFW" (not safe for work) though I don't think it's in any way inappropriate. It's a particularly interesting article in light of what I said about the Hunterian Museum in my last blog post.

I'll post some thoughts about this when I have more time.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Comment books and penises at the Hunterian

I can't believe it's taken me three years to get around to visiting the fantastic Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, which is only about 15 minutes away from the Institute.

For those of you who aren't familiar, the museum very much takes a cabinet-of-curiosities approach and contains hundreds and hundreds of specimen jars containing animal and human parts, including a wide array of diseased innards, human skulls, and perhaps most shockingly, several preserved foetuses. Not only is it fascinating in content, but the Hunterian also offers a commentary of sorts about the changing nature of museums as well.

I visited the temporary exhibition, which is about the anatomy of an athlete to tie in with London 2012, and aside from an interesting model of a paralympian wearing running blades, I found the actual exhibition pretty unremarkable. There was a comments book, which I had a flick through. The people who had written in the books were largely responding to the permanent displays and were fairly unanimously positive, they also seemed to be mainly written by children. One particular comment stood out to me, initially because it made me laugh:

I couldn't get a great picture (there was a tour group right behind me and there was no photography allowed so it was a bit stealthy/rushed), but it says 'the penises were disgusting' followed by what appears to be a name crossed out. Initially I didn't think much about this, but on my way home it got me thinking. While I agreed they were fairly disgusting, they were no more so than the specimens of diseased teeth, or tumorous organs or the vast hernia collection. The penises were also far from the most alarming exhibits, the foetuses and the child's face with smallpox were far more controversial and potentially distressing.

So, perhaps I'm reading too deeply into this, but who is likely to have singled out the penises as the most offensive exhibits? I'd like to surmise that it was a stuffy and prudish conservative with nothing better to do, but it's far more likely to have been penned by a child, probably on a school trip, and- let's face it- probably a boy.

I'm really interested in the issues around displaying the nude in art galleries especially where it concerns children, I find it strange that children aren't shielded from classical nude paintings and statues but that parents (and Daily Mail readers) are funny when it comes to their child being confronted with contemporary nudes. I'd never thought about the ethics and potential controversies of showing actual physical genitalia in specimen jars without including age warning signs. I suppose it's a similar sort of thing with the classical paintings. When vaginas, breasts and penises are displayed as scientific, labelled specimens they become just artefacts, detached from anything human, detached from anything sexual. But if a photographic exhibition including nudity were shown, the gallery or museum would have to be extremely careful about informing parents of young children about the content in advance.

Personally, (and I'm sure some will be horrified at the thought of this), I think children should be exposed to naked imagery in art and in science from a young age. I imagine the main cause of the comment above was shame. From a young age, being sheltered from anything remotely sexual or to do with sexuality makes us feel that the nude body, and genitalia are something to be hidden, or to be ashamed of. It's common sense that this promotion of embarrassment and shame is destructive, and only serves to perpetuate the intensely poor self-body-images that almost everyone these days seems to have. If a young boy, out of curiosity, spends a long time staring at a row of jars containing penises, even if they are detached from a human and severely deformed, perhaps he feels the only way he can explain this is with disgust, because God forbid someone should find this interesting, like I did. And even I to some extent felt a bit of shame looking at them, even though I didn't spend any longer looking at them than I did at the foetuses or the disemboweled lizards or the cat with rickets, but because I too am a product of the cloud of shame that hangs over our sexual organs. It's something that really desperately needs to be challenged.

Aside from my ponderings about the nature of a (potentially meaningless) comment in a comment book, I thought I'd recommend comment books as a great source for research to Museum Studies students, they're a great way of seeing what the people who matter think works/doesn't work. And, as above, a throwaway comment can make you laugh, and make you think more widely around an issue.

Yesterday I visited the Superhuman exhibition at the Wellcome, it seemed smaller than their usual exhibitions, but aside from the brevity it is, as always, well worth checking out, though it ends in mid October, so get there soon. One thing I found funny; there were a group of disinterested looking school students there, aged maybe 16 or so, and I overheard several of them saying things such as 'Have you chosen what you're going to research?', 'I can't find anything I want to research', 'Stop messing about, I need to find something to research!' and so on, which struck me as the worst possible way to get a school group to engage with an exhibition: 'go in there and find something to research', I imagine that laziness will have come from the teachers, rather than the museum staff. Another hint for Museum Studies students- eavesdrop on other museum visitors, nosiness is an endlessly fascinating resource- use it wisely!

LGBTQ and Friends at the Institute of Education

A small group of LGBTQ staff and students from the Institute of Education (IOE) met in July 2012 and decided to set up a LBGTQ and Friends Network. When I started here three years ago as a Library Assistant I was stunned that there was no LGBT group at all, and after various failed attempts to get something off the ground we have finally managed with the help of the new Equalities Manager Ammara Khan.

Initially we will be a signposting service and a social network. We figured it was best to merge staff and students together, since the IOE is mainly a research university, the lines between the two are often blurred anyway and with few undergraduates it would be difficult to get a student-only group off the ground.

We are currently developing some basic webpages to announce our presence, we have been included in the new staff handbook and have an official email address, and I have been responsible for setting up a twitter feed @IOELGBTQ.

It's really great to see so much progress in such a short space of time, and along with the Race Equality Network, we are contributing to the Institute's equality agenda and making sure that everyone is represented.

Feel free to follow us on twitter, particularly if you are a London based student, but everyone is welcome! I also recommend to students from other institutions to look at what is offered for LGBTQ students and staff, and to look at how you can contribute, or if there isn't anything offered, how you can help to develop something.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Free LGBT films at the British Museum

This saturday (22nd September), there will be four FREE showings of LGBT films at the British Museum.

11.00–12.30 Queen of the gypsies: a Portrait of Carmen Amaya
Biopic of the great flamenco dancer Carmen Amaya.
81 mins, 2004, Cert E

13.15–14.40 Shinjuku Boys
Set in a Tokyo nightclub where the hosts are women who live as men.
Followed by a Q&A with director Kim Longinotto
53 mins, 1996, Cert E

14.45–16.25 Call me Kuchu
The story of activist David Kato’s fight against Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill
87 mins, 2012, Cert E

16.30–18.00 The Angelic Conversation
Judi Dench recites the Shakespeare sonnets that were written to a man, as two men explore their own desires.
78 mins, 1985, Cert E

They are all free, but booking is recommended. For more information and to book go here.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Making the case: the value of heritage education

On Thursday 6th September I attended the last day of the GEM (Group for Education in Museums) conference at the Xfi Centre at the University of Exeter. The theme of the conference was Making the case: the value of heritage education and day three was about HOW to make the case. Exeter was quite unlike I'd imagined it to be, very sparse and sleepy (and extremely hilly!).

The day began with a keynote address from Sandra Stancliffe from English Heritage, who looked at the fragile and often difficult to negotiate relationship between schools and museums. She claimed that over the years, education hadn't really changed that much (not sure how much I agree with that!) and that education and heritage run parallel with each other, only occasionally intercepting, the question she tried to answer was how to improve that interface. She said that museums and heritage sites need to move away from providing an 'Argos catalogue' of educational sessions towards more bespoke and tailored services, which isn't to say that every class from every school need be catered to individually. Museums need to make the case for being involved in the co-production of local area-based curricula, an example she used was a school not using a nearby (and free!) Norman Castle because they "weren't doing the Normans", Sandra's advice: "Do the Normans then!" The National Curriculum tried to move away from thinking in terms of block subjects towards more interdisciplinary fluidity. Chris Watkins of the IOE (my own haunt) uses a Turkey metaphor, apparently after being locked in a shed for a long time, once released, the Turkeys will not necessarily run straight out. Is Michael Gove's enforced "freedom" for teachers a good thing? Will some run and others stay? Schools, for many heritage sites, can make the most long term impact, and the relationships need to be nurtured and mutual.

Sue Wilkinson, a museums and heritage consultant then spoke about bids, in a talk called Building and Advocating a successful case for heritage. While I'm not currently involved in making bids (thankfully, it sounds like a minefield!) there were still some points I found interesting that I have stored for future reference, she said that many unsuccessful projects are clearly written around a bid, where really the bid needs to come from the project. Bidders need to prove a need for their project, show awareness and understanding of the local, regional and national context, show evidence of their track record and make sure that their proposed project is rooted in partnerships (with schools, other heritage sites, local communities etc.) She concluded by saying that the four Ps to remember when preparing a bid, are Project, Partnerships, Process and Presentation.

The next part of the morning was split into three optional breakout sessions, which all included a practical element. One of these was my breakout session called Making our cultural practice more genuinely inclusive: queer and feminist approaches. I split the session into two, looking first at abstract ideas of queer (ie: queering the canon, I made reference to the timeline at the Tate Modern and the frieze at the Wellcome) and then a critical look at some examples of including LGBT narratives, including the British Museum, the Maritime Museum in Liverpool, Birmingham Art Gallery and many others. For the practical session, I returned to a more abstract version of queer and asked the delegates to think about how they could use the site of Gibside Hall in education. Gibside Hall was once the property of Mary Eleanor Bowes (1749-1800), known widely as the 'unhappy countess' was once the richest and most sought after heiress in England. Her tumultuous marriage to Andrew Robinson Stoney is well documented, but the National Trust, who have owned Gibside since 1965 fail to acknowledge the less salubrious elements of her life, including her three self-administered abortions and her interest to a feminist audience due to her education and her attitudes to sex, marriage and children. The activity was an informal discussion and a sharing exercise, some of the ideas that came up were about looking at recruiting artists as 'problem solvers', creating projections onto the ruined site, using drama and hot seating, incorporating contemporary voices, drawing upon her royal links, and using her as a focal point for asking questions about abortion, which removes it from visitors having to reflect personally about what is still a very divisive and controversial subject. An interesting point made was that in interpreting the site, we must be wary not to allow her to become defined by her abortions. I then showed the group my own interpretation of the site, which can be found here. I will probably blog about my Gibside Hall project at greater length in the near future. I hope that this session proved as a useful introduction to queer and feminist approaches and helped the museum professionals present to think differently about the narratives that are absent in their own institution. I'm really grateful for all of the interesting contributions in the session.

In the afternoon I attended two workshops, the first was The case for support - how museums can help vulnerable young people by Jo Ward, the newly appointed deputy director for GEM. Working with young people is something I haven't looked into much (partially due to my fear of children), but Jo identified a group that I had never really considered, which were those vulnerable children in the transitionary period between primary and second school. She spoke about many ways that museums and heritage sites can support them during this potentially difficult time. She spoke about transition summer schools, and showed us some animations that children attending had made, she said that animation making was a great way of empowering and involving young people, as it is easy to do, and everyone can have a role, she recommended it as a great tool for learning new skills. She also mentioned the arts award, and how schools sometimes embed it into the curriculum, it requires self-directed learning and builds skills and is a well recognised award, and apparently an awful lot of fun to be involved with. The key is knowing what support schools need and being able to offer it.

The next workshop was about Sustainable online learning programmes by Samantha Elliott from Bolton Library & Museum Service. Samantha showed us some of the great online tools that had been developed in partnership with d2 Digital, specifically around the World War II and the Egyptian collections. I particularly liked the World War II scrap book, which made use of oral histories and is an engaging visual way of bringing the collections to a virtual audience. They can also use the scrapbook template for future interpretation of other collections.

This was a great networking opportunity and my first event as a member of GEM. It was a real honour to be asked to deliver a breakout session and was my first time of presenting my research so far to a non-LGBT audience. I look forward to continuing to share and learn from the experts in GEM. Look out for my write-up in the next volume of the JEM. (The pictures are from my breakout session and are featured here with kind permission of Susannah Stevenson from GEM)

Monday, 10 September 2012

The Pansy Project

Just a quickie today. I'm forever banging on about the Pansy Project to whoever will listen, as I think it's one of the most subtle and innovative ways of recording an otherwise difficult to capture intangible part of our queer heritage. I mentioned the project during my GEM breakout session, which I will be blogging about shortly.

Paul Harfleet is an artist who plants pansies at the sites of homophobic abuse. Using his own experiences of homophobia in Manchester, Harfleet has managed to create something beautiful out of something very ugly. He photographs the pansies and names them after the abuse that was used. "Titles like "Let's kill the Bati-Man!" and "Fucking Faggot!" reveal a frequent reality of gay experience which often goes unreported to authorities and by the media. This simple action operates as a gesture of quiet resistance, some pansies flourish and others wilt in urban hedgerows."

For me this is a brave and peaceful form of activism, with a really beautiful output. You can find out more about the project here. You can also follow Paul on twitter here.

The first image is "Die Queer! Die Queer! Die Queer! Die Queer! Wyatt Close, Birmingham, For Ben Whitehouse, the second is "Queer Fucker!" Tottenham Court Road, London, both used here by kind permission of the artist.

Friday, 7 September 2012

The legacy of London 2012

It was with a groan of despair when I found out that the new minister for Culture, women and equality was this woman:

It is she that is responsible for the legacy of London 2012, which no doubt she will do a dreadful job of. However, the preservation of this summer of sporting activity perhaps will manage without her, as it has provided its own glorious legacy that will outlive Maria Miller and the dreadful coalition government.

I am surprised that I've taken to the London 2012 games so much, I am quite emphatically not a sporting fan, I get really uneasy about the notion of 'patriotism' (which is often only one step removed from racism), and the fact that the London transport system comes to a screeching halt if there are leaves on the track was leading me to expect a summer of pure misery.

The thing I wasn't expecting is that the Olympics and Paralympics aren't really about sport, and aren't really about borders and flags, they're about people; individuals and collectively. They're about people from all over the world cheering for the winners and losers, regardless of which colours they were wearing, they're about celebrating human spirit and endeavour, and most importantly they were about having a bloody good time.

I worried that my enthusiasm for the Paralympics wouldn't be as great as for the Olympics, because of the gap between them, but if anything I have enjoyed them more. Channel 4's coverage has been brilliant (aside from the incessant adverts), and has focused on human spirit in a non-sentimental and non-patronising way. I love that so many of the presenters have disabilities, and really hope that this will continue post-Paralympics.

The Olympics and Paralympics have also been a great platform for women, a huge reason why I find sport so difficult to digest normally is because women's sport is so often considered secondary. Women such as Jessica Ennis, Ellie Simmonds and Nicola Adams have been some of the most celebrated athletes in the games, with no inference that their achievements are any less than those of their male team-mates.

I also love how many holes in our government the games have exposed. The Tories' loathing of our immigration rates have made their support of our GB athletes such as Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis look laughably hypocritical, and George Osborne being booed when giving medals at a Paralympic event was surely a highlight of the London 2012, it's disgraceful to expect that the response would have been any different given the Tories' lack of compassion for people with disabilities.

Perhaps the sour point is that even in something as all-embracing as London 2012, the number of 'out' LGBT athletes is tiny, while the opening Olympic ceremony gave a brief nod to the richness of the LGBT community in the UK, the measly proportion of out athletes simply confirms the inherent homophobia in sport. By my calculations only 0.16% of the near 14,000 athletes competing outwardly identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. This is not enough! Although I will use this opportunity to include a picture of the lovely diver Matthew Mitcham, who embraces his sexuality and is a real stand out in terms of how freely he speaks about it. (the picture is from his facebook fan page)

I have always been annoyed by how much of our newspapers are dominated by sport, but the London 2012 games have shown me that Sport has what I've always believed the Arts to have, which is the potential to empower, inspire and bridge gaps between people. That's not to say my enthusiasm for sport will continue post London 2012- as our football culture in the UK is an embarrassing display of bravado, machismo, misogyny, racism and homophobia.

The games have been a triumph, and I look forward to seeing my home city of London continue to bask in that triumph for many years to come. For all of my initial cynicism, I stand corrected.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Iris Murdoch letters at Kingston University

This is my first attempt at blogging from my iPhone- so apologies if the formatting goes wrong.

The Centre for Iris Murdoch Studies at Kingston University has just acquired 250 letters from Murdoch to Philippa Foot thanks to £107,000 of Heritage Lottery money.

Philippa Foot was one of Murdoch's closest friends. The pair met as students at Oxford. Theirs was a tempestuous relationship, and they were lovers. The collection is a great acquisition for the Centre, thought to be the most extensive authority on Iris Murdoch in the world, and aside from providing an interesting social history of Ireland, holds great significance for researchers looking at same-sex relationships.

My friend Alex is studying literature at Kingston Uni and is a massive Iris Murdoch fan, and queer, so I know she will be eager to get her paws on these letters!

More can be read about it here

and more about the Iris Murdoch collections here

The sixth annual Iris Murdoch conference takes place on the 14-15th September.