LGBT History Month at Hackney Museum Commemorates Everyone but the Locals

by Pamela Rani Chabba | 11 February 2008
A smiling woman holding up a colourful montage of images in front of a wall-mounted display.

2004 Nadia Almada, a Portuguese transsexual woman who won the fifth series of the television show ‘Big Brother’. She received the most votes of any winner of the series in the United Kingdom, and raised the awareness of transgender issues in millions of homes. She came to view the exhibition in 2006. Courtesy of Hackney Museum.

Pamela Rani Chabba interrogates a wide-ranging display about sexuality in East London.

Explorations of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) experiences often go back to Sappho’s Ancient Greece and earlier, but few cast nets as far wide as a new display at Hackney Museum. This exhibition, running throughout LGBT history month in February, references Egyptian and Maori mythology, the cave paintings of Val Camonica in Italy, the 2008 Olympic Games, Nadia from Big Brother and much more.

The museum’s unimaginatively titled display, LGBT, runs in the small Platform area of the museum, which houses the temporary collections that change every six weeks or so. While it’s a shame that this space is not in a more prominent spot (it’s reminiscent of LGBT sections in dark corners of libraries and bookshops), the display itself is simple and effective. A wall panel charts major events and key personalities from LGBT histories across the world in chronological order. Maps and pictures bring the text to life.

The timeline begins in Ancient Egyptian mythology, with the gods Horus and Set, described as a couple in some versions of the stories that explore their rivalry. Set is depicted in these tales as seducing Horus and then having intercourse with him. Moving neatly to Ancient Egyptian civilisation, the panel then tells of what is thought to be the earliest recorded homosexual relationship, that between 2345 BC born Egyptian Pharaoh, King Pepi II Neferkare and his general Sissine.

A white marble bust of a woman with plaited hair.

620 BC Sappho was born on the Greek island of Lesbos. Although not much of her writing survives, that which does shows what many believe to be the first expressions of female love and desire. Plato referred to Sappho as ‘The Tenth Muse’.

Dating from around 8500 BC, cave paintings in Val Camonica, which include males in erotic positions, are probably the first visual representations of LGBT sexuality. Reproductions of the images can be seen in the display. From another continent and another age, theres an account of the matriarchal societies of 400 BC India, the Strirajya, communities of women who lived without men, often in lesbian relationships.

There are many examples of LGBT lives from the last two centuries. Wilfred Owen, Florence Nightingale, Lili Elbe, Audre Lorde, Dana International and Brandon Teena are all present and correct, but lesser known trailblazers are also remembered. From the 1800s - James Miranda Berry, who earned England’s first medical degree given to a woman but who chose to live as a man. From early 1990s fiction, there is Northstar, one of few out gay characters in the Marvel Comics universe, a superhuman who uses his powers for the betterment of society.

As the timeline approaches the present day, there are reminders of recent LGBT gains, such the December 2005 recognition of Civil Partnerships in the UK. From February 2006, you can see a picture of a lesbian couple celebrating the first civil partnership ceremony in Hackney Town Hall, across the square from this exhibition. This is one of the few references to Hackney LGBT life within the display, surprising for a museum which prides itself on focusing on the stories of those who live in the borough.

A pendant featuring a stern man - a long lock of curly auburn hair hangs over his left shoulder.

1564 William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon. 126 of his 154 Sonnets describe the love, yearning and admiration of a beautiful young man, many featuring the Earl of Southampton

Weaving together threads from diverse places and times is an efficient way of delineating the events and people who have shaped LGBT histories, of showing how LGBT individuals have always existed. Where this exhibition disappoints is in the paucity of reference to local LGBT lives. Visitors exploring other collections in the Museum learn about the people who have shaped Hackney, such as the non-Conformists of the seventeenth century who moved here in large numbers. Disappointingly there is no mention of how Hackney’s large LGBT community has enriched and diversified life in the borough.

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