Monday, 15 August 2016

#OutInOxford: A new cross-museums LGBTQ+ community project

On Saturday 13th August, LGBTQ+ individuals and allies came together with staff from the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Museum of Natural History to take part in a workshop to develop what will be the University of Oxford's first cross-museums trail celebrating LGBTQ+ life. The trail will be written by the LGBTQ+ community responding to collections that form the University of Oxford museums. As an ice-breaker (any excuse for staff to bring out their favourite handling objects) staff chose items from the object handling collections to pass around and facilitate discussion. Challenges such as 'smell the gourd, guess what it held' (cow’s milk, cow’s blood and ash if you were wondering) and 'look at the pickled specimen, tell me how many tentacles an octopus has' (none, who knew?) ensued...

Pitt Rivers Museum handling objects: Maasai milk bottle (Kenya,, Brass fattening bowl (Nigeria,, Carved wooden mask (Kenya, and Finger Woven bag or bilum (Papua New Guinea,

Specimens from the Natural History Museum's handling collection: OUMNH.ZC. Loligo forbesii Veined squid preserved in fluid, OUMNH.ZC.2981 Hyaena cranium and mandible

The cross-museums trail will explore objects with 'Queer stories' or objects that have a resonance with the LGBTQ+ community. Objects we'll explore come from collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum, the Museum of Natural History, the Ashmolean, the Museum of the History of Science, the Bate Collection and the Bodleian Libraries. The interpretation for the trail - which will be available for free, both digitally and in hardcopy - will be written by volunteers from the LGBTQ+ community. Having non-curators write the interpretation is an exciting aspect of the project as we'll hand the curatorial 'controls' over to experts from the LQBTQ+ community. Volunteers will pick an object that means something to them, using it as a starting point to communicate their own feelings and thoughts on LGBTQ+ history and experiences in Oxford and beyond. 

As well as handing objects, the workshop focused on discussions of how to approach the trail: who is the trail for; what terminology are we comfortable with; why are we doing it; how do we make it relevant, accessible, powerful? After a lot of thought, it was decided that the trail will be used as an engaging tool for the LGBTQ+ volunteers to communicate Queer histories with 'straight' as well as wider LGBTQ+ audiences. Volunteers debated on the terminology that the trail should use and agreed upon LGBTQ+ as the acronym that people felt most comfortable using. Queer was also a term that people felt it was important for the project to own. Finally, workshoppers agreed upon a title for the trail, #OutInOxford...we're looking forward to taking over Twitter with the hashtag once the trail is ready to launch! 

Stonewall Glossary of Terms aided discussion on terminology 

We also asked big questions like 'do Queer spaces currently exist in Museums' (answered with a resounding 'NO'), and explored whether museums should run more Queer projects and the potential benefits to the LGBTQ+ community and wider society. 

It was fantastic to meet so many volunteers with fascinating perspectives on the collections and with much to say about LGBTQ+ history. People who had never met before bonded over cake, smelly gourds and non-existent octopus tentacles, discovering shared experiences and learning about individual differences. It was also inspiring to see staff from all different departments working together with real excitement. We welcomed 21 volunteers in person (with some coming from as far as Hull!) and will be working with another 20 people remotely. We learnt a lot from the day, meeting brilliant people, making new connections and developing new ideas: there was a genuine buzz in the room and we're looking forward to running with the momentum to create something truly collaborative and unique! Through this project we hope to spark collaborations that will continue long beyond the trail launch. Look out for the launch event and other activities, also to be curated by LGBTQ+ volunteers and organisations, in February 2017.  

The trail project has been funded by the Oxford University Museums Partnership thanks to an application conceived and submitted by Beth Asbury, Assistant to the Director at the Pitt Rivers Museum. February 2017 spin-off events, curated by the local LGBTQ+ community, will be funded by VERVE, a Pitt Rivers Museum project funded largely by the Heritage Lottery Fund

Jozie Kettle (VERVE Programming & Communications Officer)