Gay History - A Trail Exploring LGBT Heritage In London Collections

By Kate Smith | 10 February 2006
a photograph of a curved display banner with the words 'Queer is here' printed on it

Gay history is no longer off limits for museums, as demonstrated at the Museum of London. John Neligan © Museum of London

Follow this trail and location map to find out where gay and lesbian history lives in collections and displays - formerly a tricky subject for museums, now a heritage that is being celebrated.

For many years Section 28 of the Local Government Act made exhibitions about gay and lesbian life risky ground for museums, as it banned anything that might promote homosexuality to schoolchildren. A scattering of exhibitions and collecting projects did happen without prosecution, however, notably the Museum of London's Pride And Prejudice exhibition in 1999.

The law was repealed in 2003, and February 2006 sees the second Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) History Month. There's a renewed interest in collecting and displaying LGBT histories, and as the subject begins to emerge from the backrooms and into public displays, we take a look at venues where you can explore gay history in London.

In Victorian London, museums were themselves homophile places. The Greek statue rooms at the British Museum were one place where Victorian men could go and look at the male form without fear of arrest. It's appropriate that one of the closing scenes of EM Forster's gay novel Maurice is set in the museum, where Maurice's lover threatens to reveal their illegal relationship to a passing acquaintance.

Photo of heads of Greek statues on columns in a gallery

Greek statuary at the British Museum - a lure for admirers of the male physique. Courtesy the British Museum.

The historian Matt Cook quotes one gay man who got a completely carried away looking at the statues: “I revelled in the sight of pictures and statues of the male form and could not keep from kissing them.” (If you're going to the British Museum, we don't recommend that you try this.)

By contrast, The Museum of London has just launched a small foyer exhibition capturing modern gay life. Queer is Here runs until March 5 2006 before touring London libraries. It includes a decade of photographs of Pride events by Peter Marshall, as well as looking at gay activism, health, coming out and bullying in schools.

The exhibition also features oral histories taken from the British Library Sound Archive, including one from Antony Grey, an early gay activist whose campaigning helped to make homosexuality legal in 1967.

The proportionally large number of gay actors, designers and writers means that the in Covent Garden is full of material from some rather glamorous gay lives. Noel Coward's slippers and dressing gown, John Gielgud's case and materials by Edith Craig are all permanently on display.

There are also temporary exhibitions about Oliver Messel, the set designer, and Michael Redgrave, whose bisexuality was a closely kept secret in his lifetime. The Unleashing Britain exhibition describes the main movers in the pre-60s theatrical scene, many of whom were gay.

black and white photo of Noel Coward in a suit with a flower on the lapel

Noel Coward, famed for his dry wit. Courtesy the Theatre Museum

Joe Orton has proved to be one of the most enduring names from 1960s theatre. Islington Local History Centre holds an archive of material about him - much of it consisting of library book covers that he and his lover Kenneth Halliwell elaborately defaced.

Islington Library Service will be displaying a small exhibition of the defaced book covers at different venues in 2006, showing first at Finsbury Library between March and May.

book jacket with the title Queen's Favourites and a pair of male wrestlers pasted in front of a palace wall

One of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell's defaced book jackets

The Women's Library shows how lesbian histories and the history of the women's liberation movement are intertwined and includes the papers of individual gay women such as suffragist Vera Holme, physician Louisa Garrett Anderson and campaigns such as Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp.

It is currently collecting material on civil partnerships, and is keen to hear from any lesbian couple interested in having their ceremony recorded for posterity.

poster of three couples kissing under the heading kissing doesn't kill, greed and indifference do

Poster from Graphic Responses to AIDS. Courtesy V&A © Gran Fury/Avram Finkelstein

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s 1996 exhibition Graphic Responses To AIDS collected more than 100 posters from around the world, a substantial number of which deal with gay sex, produced by gay groups. The images variously warn, campaign, get angry, celebrate and reassure.

While not on public display, the originals can be accessed without appointment in the V&A's little known but excellent Prints and Drawings room at the top of the building. After searching for the images you want on computer, they will generally put the original prints in your hands within 15 minutes.

a photograph of the interior of a large room decorated in Ottoman style

The Arab Hall at Leighton House. Lord Leighton was a man of ostentatious taste! © Leighton House Museum

There are a number of London museums dedicated to historical figures who may or may not have been gay.

Asked by George III why there were no women in his life, Handel replied that he was just too busy composing. Anyone wishing to entertain other theories won't find information either way at Handel House Museum, because there is no hard evidence in the historical record. But you can discover many other things about the composer's life and his circle.

The same applies to Florence Nightingale and Lord Leighton.

Lord Leighton certainly moved in gay artistic circles, and one of the paintings now on display at Leighton House Museum shows a crowd of fashionable people at a Royal Academy opening. Among the crowd is Oscar Wilde, wearing a white lilly - a symbol of the Aesthetic movement.

shows a poster of a man in drag and the writng, sin dykes a play for the nineties

From the Queen's Jewels exhibition. © rukus! Federation

Outside museums, the LGBT community itself is creating a growing number of public events about gay history. Rukus! is gathering an archive of black gay and lesbian experience over the past 20 years - especially based around the club scene. Their touring exhibition The Queen's Jewels is on show at Carnegie Library in London during LGBT History Month 2006.

The elegantly titled House of Homosexual Culture is another new project allowing Londoners to discover, discuss and enjoy gay cultural heritage.

Kairos in Soho also runs walks of homosexual Soho, exploring the gay links of the area stretching back to the 17th century. Meet outside the Admiral Duncan pub on Old Compton Street at 2pm each Sunday (costs £5).

All these strands are uniting in growing plans for an LGBT museum in London, an idea that's gaining support from City Hall and across the museum sector. At a moment when gay equality is making such strides - with pictures of happy gay and lesbian couples splashed regularly across the newspapers - it's an appropriate moment to look back at how we reached this point, and get a clearer historical picture of homophile lives.

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