Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Gunnersbury Park and a very unassuming frock


At Sutton House I run a community group called the Recycled Teenagers. They're a group of over 55s, who started off as a short term project around 20 years ago documenting the experiences of Caribbean women living in Hackney. The remit of the group has since expanded, and anyone over 55 is welcome. The group largely comprises people in their 70s and 80s. We meet three terms a year for and for about 8 weeks each term we meet every Friday afternoon, and take part in activities such as dancing, singing, working with artists, life drawing, creative writing and loads more.

The Small Mansion, Gunnersbury park
Last week, with the help of one of our volunteers, Sharon, I took the group across London on a trip to Gunnersbury Park, which is jointly owned by Ealing and Hounslow councils. I chose Gunnersbury Park partly because I've visited before and thought the Recycled Teenagers would enjoy it, and partly because my very close friend, who I met on the Museums and Galleries in Education MA, Ellie works there. She has a very similar role to me, and very kindly said we could come and spend the day.

Ellie, expertly demonstrating how to wash clothes
We split the group in half, and took part in two activities, one was wandering around the park and hearing about the history and the community projects that they do at Gunnersbury, and the other was an object handling and reminiscence session led by Ellie, and Sarah Gudgeon.

The museum is currently closed for renovation, due to be re-opened in 2018, so the bulk of learning and community stuff happens in the Small Mansion next door at the moment. Gunnersbury House, which sits in the middle of the park was built in the late Georgian period and later bought by the Rothschilds. The house and land was sold in the 1920s on the condition that it was to be open to all as a place of leisure.

In the handling/reminiscence session, we learnt about the roles and life of the domestic staff in the house in Victorian times. We also handled a variety of objects from the collection, and reproduction objects, on the theme of domestic service, including carbolic soap, a bed warming pan, irons, a variety of brushes and polishes, a jelly mould, and a load more. A lot of them were unfamiliar to me (especially the wooden butter shapers!) but were very familiar to the Recycled Teenagers, for whom they weren't just historic artefacts, but objects from their past. Led by Ellie and Sarah, we discussed the objects and they all reminisced about old jobs they used to have.

The item we spoke about most, both during the workshop, and afterwards, was a beautiful dress that Ellie showed us at the beginning. When I first saw it, I thought it was kind of underwhelming, but hearing the story about it changed my mind, and it really resonated with many of the Recycled Teenagers.

It's a plain lavender print work dress, it's hand sewn and would have belonged to a maid. It was donated to the museum in 1954 by a Miss Lilian Bottle, and came with a scrap of paper saying 'working frock, belonged to aunt, died, 1891'. It's dated as circa 1890 on the museum catalogue, but we can safely assume it was from earlier than that (thanks to Ellie for providing me more info about the dress!). That is all that is known about the dress. The stitching is so generous and beautiful, this was likely worn by a more high ranking maid who was 'on show' more. There are a few light stains on the dress, most probably because such dresses would have been passed down generations. Ellie told us that in spite of its humble and unassuming appearance, this dress is one of the most valuable items in the collection. The reason for this, is because most Victorian maid's dresses would have been passed down until they fell to pieces, or were beyond repair, at which point they would have been cut into rags and used as cloths for cleaning. That one of these has survived, been looked after by its owner, and then cared for by a museum, is really remarkable.


The next time I saw the Recycled Teenagers, we spoke about the workshop again. Everybody was still talking about the dress. I said that I thought it was exciting that the dress was the most valuable item in the collection because - and Joan, one of the Recycled Teenagers, finished my thought for me - 'it belonged to a normal woman'. It was such a lovely and rare treat to see an item that belonged to an everyday working woman, and to see it being revered, and spoken about with such tenderness and import. It was a lovely moment to see how this had resonated with a group of working class women from Hackney, who through a reminiscence session, had learned they had much in common with the kind of woman who might have worn this dress. I'm so excited to see how the dress is put to use once the museum transformation is complete, and I can't wait to revisit it. Thanks to Ellie, Sarah and Sharon for hosting such an inspiring day!



Monday, 6 November 2017

May Morris: Art & Life (& Lesbian Erasure.... again)

My favourite historic butch, Mary Lobb
I seem to start every blog post with an apology for how long it's been since I last blogged, so I won't with this one. But I will try to blog more regularly now that my thesis is out of the way. I want to post about some of the work I've been doing at Sutton House recently, a recent visit to Gunnersbury Park and some amazing interpretation at Nunnington Hall. But in the mean time, I want to address a glaring problem with the May Morris: Art and Life exhibition (on until Jan 28th 2018) at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow.

It is, of course, really lovely. Morris' talents have long been in the shadow of her father, so it's no wonder that such a comprehensive overview of her design and craftswomanship is so beautiful to behold. The problem I have with it is, perhaps predictably, the lack of mention of Mary Lobb.

To get up to speed with this particular bugbear of mine, check out my earlier posts about similar problems I had with Kelmscott Manor, former home of May Morris and Mary Lobb, and the artworks I made in response to it here, here, here and here. (I should note that an exhibition about Mary Lobb has just finished at Kelmscott, I didn't get the chance to see it, as it's difficult to get to Kelmscott if you don't drive, so I can't comment on how it covered their relationship, but it's great to see a spotlight on her).

First, I'll highlight all of the mentions of Mary Lobb in the exhibition, then I will address some of the objections I often encounter when highlighting the absence of a queer narratives in such exhibitions, with this one in mind.

Mentions of Mary Lobb in the exhibition:

  • A text panel about Kelmscott Manor begins: 'In her later years, the majority of May's time was spent at Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire, which she shared with her 'housekeeper, cook and companion' Mary Lobb'
  • A photograph of the pair on holiday in Wales in 1926
  • Two further small photographs of the two in Iceland in 1931
  • A caption for a photograph of May on a pony in Iceland from the same trip, which reads: 'William Morris first visited Iceland in 1871 and was captivated by the dramatic landscape. In 1926, May and Mary Lobb followed in his footsteps. They returned to Iceland twice more. One their last trip in 1931, they were accompanied by Mary and Margaret Pierce, whom May had befriended during her lecture tour of North America'
  • In a display case of jewellery, all of the items were given to the V&A by Mary Lobb. It fails to mention that this is because May bequeathed the majority of her money and belongings to Lobb when she died. 

Nowhere in any of this do we get a sense of the closeness between the two that would be evident with better interpretation. They lived together for the best part of 20 years, and hearsay has it that they shared the same bed, this seems to me that once again Mary Lobb's significance in May's life is being overlooked or swept under the carpet, whether platonic or otherwise.


The following are things I often hear in response to historic figures being read as LGBTQ, so I thought I would respond to them here. I also expect these would be the kind of defences people would make about Lobb's exclusion from the exhibition:

The exhibition was a showcase of Morris' work, not a biographical exhibition

That's not strictly true. The exhibition of work is shaped around a timeline of May's life, which includes biographical information throughout. Curator Michael Petry once said (I'm paraphrasing) 'if you mention the wife, you have to mention the relationships he had with men' (about a male artist), and since there is mention of the May's relationships with George Bernard Shaw, and Henry Sparling, so too should there be information about her relationship with Lobb.

There is no proof that their relationship was anything but platonic

There is also no proof that she was sexually attracted to George Bernard Shaw or Henry Sparling. There is proof that Lobb and Morris lived together. A few years ago I spent a day at the archive at the William Morris Gallery and asked to see all of the material relating to Lobb, so I know that there is plenty of material that shows that other people around them thought that there was an atypical closeness between them, or more to their relationship than merely companionship (in fact, I made a sound piece called The village folk had a lot to say about it using the words of their contemporaries verbatim).

Lobb was not a designer/ well known figure/ pre-Rephaelite beauty/ important enough to feature

All the more reason to include her. She was a working woman, and an important part of May's life. Figures like her are all the more relatable to visitors today than anyone else in the exhibition. I was first drawn to Mary Lobb because she is an androgynous figure, she instantly spoke to me in a way that many historic figures do not.

Lobb, and more specifically, the relationship she had with May Morris is not well documented enough

Indeed not, but curators and interpretation staff in museums draw conclusions every day. I'm not asking that they 'out' May Morris, but that they aren't dismissive of such an important relationship, or that perhaps they acknowledge that many, even in their lifetime, assumed the two were a couple.

The curators did not want to make any assumptions/ jump to conclusions

To say this, assumes heterosexuality as the default, or that May Morris being a lesbian, or bisexual is somehow shameful. How often do we assume that someone was straight with no proof? There's plenty of proof that Morris' relationship with Mary Lobb was a more enduring and important one than any she had with a man. I think it's not too far of a reach to jump to this conclusion.

Those are just some very quick thoughts about it. I'd be really keen to hear from anyone who visited, or was involved in the Mary Lobb exhibition at Kelmscott Manor, to see how they approached the relationship, and to hear if any more archival material was dug up in the process. That all said, if you want to have a look at a load of very beautiful embroideries, for free, then I recommend the exhibition. If you're looking for any mentions of the queerness of the relationship between May Morris and my favourite historic butch, Mary Lobb- then you'll probably be disappointed.



Be back soon.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Daily Mail vs National Trust (AGAIN)

These are obviously my own views about the recent Felbrigg debacle, NOT that of the National Trust.


As everyone knows, the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales is being marked by many huge heritage institutions, including the British Museum, Tate Modern/Britain, Historic Royal Palaces, V&A etc. It seems though that the only institution to be consistently ruffling the feathers of homophobic right wing rag commentariat is the National Trust. 

When the 2017 Prejudice and Pride programme was announced at the end of last year, Breitbart fascist Delingpole claimed the ‘once great’ institution had been sullied by the inclusion of LGBTQ histories, and name dropped my beloved Sutton House as being his former favourite property, now hosting the ‘nonsensical’ Sutton House Queered programme.

I’m currently at my family home, and I’m ashamed to say my dad buys and reads the Daily Mail. Today, amidst the political chaos in our country, the Daily Mail deemed the National Trust front page material. He made a joke about hiding it from me. He mistakenly thinks that my distaste for the Daily Mail in contrast to his reverence for it is amusing.

I know very well that the Daily Mail is reactionary, and barely based on truth. We all do. But earlier in the year when the rag bemoaned with outrage that the National Trust had CANCELLED EASTER, I could only roll my eyes, as the day before I had helped to hang a huge canvas banner emblazoned with the word Easter in front of a National Trust property. It was amusing because it was laughably reactionary, and also, very easily demonstrably not true. It also created the largest number of visits for the Easter weekend that Sutton House had ever seen.


Today’s headline reads MUTINY IN THE NATIONAL TRUST, and is in response to volunteers from Felbrigg in Norfolk who refused to wear Prejudice and Pride badges. In response to their refusal, the Trust asked them to move away from public-facing duties for the duration of the programme. Firstly, let’s just unpick the headline. 10 ‘furious’ volunteers out of a body of over 70,000 volunteers across the National Trust (ie 0.01%) is emphatically not a mutiny. It’s a mere drop in the ocean.

When the Prejudice and Pride programme began, the Trust approached it very carefully, working with and consulting many experts (including myself), such as Stonewall, curator of Queering the Museum and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery Matt Smith and Leader of the Leicester University School of Museum Studies, Richard Sandell. We worked together on a series of training days to discuss how various inevitable challenges could be met. Volunteers were always a great consideration. The Trust is so privileged that so many people devote their time, skills and energy to volunteering there, but sometimes volunteers can be difficult- anyone working in museums and heritage can tell you that much. I visited Seaton Deleval in Northumberland once and I had to walk away from an elderly volunteer who was using sexist language to refer to a Mary Eleanor Bowes portrait, when he noticed her portrait had caught my eye. Not everyone thinks LGBTQ history should be uncovered, they prefer that it should continue to be hidden, like a shameful dirty secret, and unfortunately, out of 70,000 volunteers, it’s inevitable that some of those would share that view. 

The news that the National Trust had stood firm on this ruling that volunteers must wear lanyards or badges reflecting the programme at the house was like music to my ears. Like a lot of large charities and organisations, the Trust has a set of values and behaviours that all staff and volunteers must abide by. These range from being respectful to people, to being willing to try new things, but also that we be advocates and ambassadors for the National Trust.



So often, as with many of my own visits to National Trust properties, the only people you will encounter as a visitor is a volunteer. It makes perfect sense then, that they be ‘on message’, for whatever is going on in the property at that time.

Pam Meecham, my PhD supervisor, has written about the Hello Sailor exhibition at the Merseyside Maritime Museum, and noted how some of the museum staff wanted nothing to do with the exhibition, and were vocal in their disapproval of it. It shouldn’t be behaviour that is tolerated from staff, and therefore should not be tolerated by volunteers. The difference is, volunteers are not contractually bound to sharing the values of the Trust, so the alternative, if they are not prepared to do so, is to take their skills elsewhere, and use their time where their values are in line with the organisation (the daily mail perhaps?). I think it’s very generous for the Trust’s stance to be to allow them to move their duties away from front of house rather than just showing them the door.

I obviously feel very strongly about criticisms about the Trust’s LGBTQ engagement, and take a lot of it very personally given my role in laying the foundations for it, and in building the programme this year (especially since I know that people like my parents are consuming the sort venom that is being written about it). It hasn’t always been easy, both from inside and outside the Trust, but reading that they were taking such a bold stance made me feel really valued, and genuinely moved by the Trust’s devotion to these important histories, and to making their properties more inviting and welcoming to LGBTQ communities.

I’m disheartened to see they have reneged this bold stance in the face of criticism from the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. They haven’t yielded to the ‘fury’ of volunteers, they’ve yielded to homophobia/transphobia. And if you change your course in response to hatred and ignorance, you give weight and merit to that hatred and ignorance, and say that those who voiced it are in the right. This is really disappointing, it feels like one step forward and too steps back and it’s exhausting.

The Daily Mail is the enemy of many people and many things and carries a lot of power given its colossal readership. But if you continue to worry about what the Daily Mail is going to say about every thing you do, and if you cave in to bullying from thick right wingers, you’ll never get anything done. The future members and visitors of the National Trust are not old white Daily Mail readers, so we really, really need to stop bending to the every wishes of old, white Daily Mail readers.



I feature on episode three of the National Trust's Prejudice and Pride podcast, speaking with Dr Gus Casely-Hayford and Clare Balding about hidden queer histories. The whole series is great, written by Museum of Transology's E-J Scott, check them out here.

Monday, 10 July 2017

"Get your acorns out!" - the National Trust at Pride

I've finally handed a full version of my thesis to my supervisors, so hopefully will have more time to blog, and I'm also planning on making the blog a bit nicer too, and adding more info about the exhibitions we've had at Sutton House this year.



This week has been a pretty unusual week for me at work. On Wednesday we hosted a member's event at Sutton House hosted by National Trust Director Helen Ghosh. I was delighted to be asked to chair the panel event, and the discussion was around making the Trust more diverse and inclusive. On Saturday, the Sutton House team led the National Trust's presence at Pride in London. If you'd have told me when I started researching and volunteering for the Trust in 2013 that either of these things were happening I'd have guffawed. It seems a very appropriate way to bookend the uphill struggle that has been my relationship with the Trust (and frustrations with the heritage world more broadly), and my PhD.



I've ranted on here before about how problematic I find Pride, and haven't attended for the past few years, opting instead for Queer Picnic, Black Pride or Trans Pride in Brighton, all of which embody what Pride events should feel like for me much more than London Pride.



I hate that Pride now presents an opportunity for institutions to stick a rainbow flag on themselves and be seen to be visibly supportive of a community they do shit all to support all year round. I hate that the organisers so consistently get everything wrong (as an aside I attended a winter club night they did at Scala and they had a men's queue and a woman's queue... yet they claim to be for the whole LGBTQ community...). I hated that a police man came up to me this year to ask for a selfie, I said no, and that he could have a selfie for every time the police have appropriately dealt with a hate crime I've reported... Pride is too corporate, too white, too cis, too homonormative, pats people and institutions on the back too much for being "allies" but for not actually doing anything, is hypocritical and blind to the genuine pressing issues that queer communities face around the country and the world.



So it was with a lot of anxieties and doubt that I agreed to march in Pride for the first time, and especially to march as part of a huge organisation. But I'm actually pleased I did. The Trust haven't always got it right this year when dealing with LGBTQ histories as part of the Prejudice and Pride programme, but I know that those who worked on it, and helped put together the Pride march are all coming from the same place as me. When we were first talking about Pride, I said I wouldn't be involved if we were selling memberships on the day- as I think it would be desperately inappropriate to do so. Instead, our presence should be to show support, to celebrate the work we have done over the last few years (especially at Sutton House!) and to celebrate our LGBTQ staff and volunteers.

This year at Sutton House, all of our programming has been related to LGBTQ themes. We have worked with (and paid!) exclusively LGBTQ artists, have given platforms to people that otherwise wouldn't have had them from the Sutton House community (such as Victor Zagon, who I will blog about more fully at some point!), we've worked with a young LGBTQ support group, we have explored queer themes with school groups and in our family offers. My exhibition Master-Mistress in 2014 was the first ever LGBT History Month exhibition in a National Trust property, we were the first to launch gender neutral toilets, we've been hosting queer club nights with Amy Grimehouse and Late Night Library Club for years, and I know that we won't stop just because the Prejudice and Pride programme ends. I'm very concerned about legacy, but for now, I was very proud to march as part of Sutton House in Pride, I have worked very hard to help educate a large organisation about LGBTQ heritage, I have called out staff in the Trust when they have got things wrong, and just because the Trust are now on the cusp of progress, I won't stop doing either of those things.



I love the National Trust, that's why I've spent over four years researching and writing about it, that's why I volunteered with them, and why I'm so pleased to have a job at my favourite National Trust house. Marching in Pride also made me realise how much affection my community has for the Trust too, even if sometimes it seems very conservative, or inaccessible, people appreciate the aims of Europe's largest conservation charity, and recognise our attempts to get better. Fear not- I will continue to hold the Trust to account and work with my equally passionate colleagues to ensure that this is just the beginning of making the Trust a better place for EVERYONE.

We met a lovely man called Martin from the London Gay Men's Chorus, who had been part of the Save Sutton House Campaign back in the late 1980s- I'm looking forward to getting in touch with him to start recording his memories, some of which we were lucky enough to hear over a pint after the march.



Also: huge shoutout to the man in the crowd that shouted "Get your acorns out!" as we marched past.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Museum of Transology

The Museum of Transology, curated by my dear friend and all round genius E-J Scott, is currently on at the Fashion Space Gallery until 22nd April, and is one of the best exhibitions I've ever clapped eyes on.


I'm so over Trans narratives being sensationalised, othered and shown purely as before/after stories, MoT is a refreshing move away from that, where trans people tell their own stories through the labels they attach to the objects they have donated.

The objects range from the sublime to the ridiculous; the obvious, the powerful, the bodily and the heartbreaking, to the banal and downright boring- and herein lies the genius of the exhibition; trans lives can be just as bureaucratic, just as tedious, just as everyday as cis lives- and presented here in such a beautifully designed and curated space, with stories told by and with the fair hands of the people whose stories they are, comes a lesson to all curators.

Nothing about us without us is a bit of a tired saying now, but it holds true, regardless the content of the exhibition, it will always be engaging, warm, funny and moving, if its subjects are involved from the very beginning, and given complete agency in choosing how their stories are included, shared and interpreted.

The beauty of MoT is in its simplicity, in its heart, and in its boldness of telling a cacophonous series of narratives from a community that is wildly varied and anything but homogenous. At no point does MoT attempt to tell a singular trans narrative, and this is largely because who better to tell us that no such thing exists, but the trans community themselves.

I'm very proud of E-J and everyone involved, and think that this exhibition should, and must, mark a cultural shift for those of us in the museum sector who want our practice to be more thoughtful, more socially just and accessible, and to genuinely move conversations forward.

Here's a sample of some of the coverage MoT has had:

BroadlyDesign History SocietyIt's Nice ThatLe CoolI-DElleIndependentDisegnoTime OutCBCWonderlandNot Just a Label

I'm also really delighted to say I'll be speaking on a panel about identifying, collecting and preserving trans and queer histories as part of the series of events supporting the exhibition.

It's called Trancestory: Now you see it, now you don't, and it takes place on 9th March at 7pm. For more info and to book, visit this page.