Monday, 31 January 2011

LGBT Blogging at the Museum of London

So how did it go?  In a word - wonderfully.

The god Mithras at the Museum of London
We kicked off with some introductions and were delighted with the variety amongst the large group that decided to spend their Saturday afternoon with us. We had a mixture of museum professionals, Proper Bloggers (eek - but no one rumbled me publically), historians, academics, social crusaders, followers of fashion (is that hat a tiger or is that tiger a hat? Either way I want one) and real bona fide first day in London tourists. Without exception everyone ticked more than one of the above boxes.

We were quite hyped.

After introductions, I talked about blogging in general (as below post). The fabulous Lucy Inglis then blew me out of the water with an off the cuff, on the money talk about the realities of history blogging with some pertinent examples from her own experience and a brief glimpse into Georgian London's Molly Houses.

This segued neatly into the Museum tour of LGBT objects. Kate led us through the galleries in pursuit of all things queer and beautiful. We took in gayish gods (Mithras), scapegoating mediavalists, cross dressing ladies of the night and the London Gay Men's Choir, stories of acceptance, denial misunderstanding and outright bigotry.  We saw through history the differences in perception of gender and sexual practices and how society's norms and attitudes changed depending on class, political background and the personalities of the individuals concerned.

Chevalier d'Eon - dressed like a lady, fenced like a man*

We were quite a large group and it was quite busy, so it is possible some of the other Museum goers may have been treated to some unexpected vocabulary (infrequent mentions of homosexual, sodomy, sex,... hello saturday aftenoon museum goer... ).  Some people scuttled out of our way as we bore down on them in a big Monty Python style group, but there was no other reaction.  To be frank, it hadn't even crossed my mind we'd get one until one of our group members pointed it out to me.  He was right, it was a naieve assumption to make given that you never know who you might meet.  Perhaps Mithras was smiling down upon us or perhaps, even better, people who would have taken offence are either extinct or realise they are in such a small minority there's no point.

Tour highlights included a wonderful moment when some of our group were delighted to hear for the first time of the relationship between the Emperor Hadrian and his lover Antinous.  Eye opening moments like that are hard to beat.

Elsewhere we had spontaneous double hosting when Lucy joined Kate to supply more fascinating detail in the tale of the dubious Samuel Drybutter and relate the story of the marvelous cross dressing Princess Serafina.  (Details of all of this and more on the UL page describing the tour).

This seems perfectly reasonable to me
Kate highlighted an interesting point when we reached the suffragettes.  In these displays there are no references to same sex relationships although diary entries from prominent members of the movement tell of a proliferation of sex politics at its core.  Instead the outrageous propoganda from the time, which villifies the suffragettes as sexless monsters and abandoners of the home is displayed alongside images of respectable marches and hand sewn banners, presumably to contrast the nonsense and the reality.  These new galleries were opened relatively recently and the relationships among the key movers of the suffragettes have been widely published as long ago as 2000.  Researching lesbians in the archives has moved on quite significantly since the days when unmarried/ unhappily married women were invisible.  It's hard to imagine what the reason was to leave out this part of the story.

Antinous out and proud at the British Museum
A recent (possibly WQL, yes) lecture by Richard Parkinson about the Queer objects at the British Museum highlighted that these things don't need to be shouted, just not glossed over.  His example was the exhibition label on the massive statue of Antinous that stood in the Great Court in 2008, seen by a good fraction of  that year's reported 1.3 million visitors which simply read "Antinous was the lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian."  No fanfare or hedging or debate, just a description in plain terms of their relationship.  More of this please.

When we got back to the Clore centre and had liberated the James Bond style pop up computers from their desks, everyone got down to blogging their thoughts about the tour.  After twenty minutes or so had elapsed it was sharing time and the results were outstanding.  Subjects ranged from eloquent descriptions of the day, to short essays on modern dilemnas with historical parallels, to inspirations for future work, to the very nomenclature and understanding of gender through the ages and the difficulties of dealing with it in interpretation.  All pretty impressive.  Some of these blogs can be found at the bottom of the UL article.

All in all it was a great afternoon, made so by the ever knowledgable Lucy and Kate and all the fabulous people who came to blog.  We should do this again some time.

*The Chevalier is not covered in the Museum tour - I just happened to find her whilst looking for pictures of Serafina/ A Monty Python Gilliam crowd scene and loved the image.  Link to the source on the Duchess of Devonshire's blog under image...

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Museums as curators of your very soul

Just read a point of view on the BBC website by Alain de Botton that claims:

"Museums should help us to live better lives, but they are little more than dead libraries for the creations of the past"

His full chat can be found here

Essentially he thinks that since Museums and Galleries are being touted as the new churches, they should re arrange and label their collections so that visitors can understand the objects in a more spiritual way and take moral and psychological comfort from them.   He argues  that current arrangements by art school or chronology are uninspiring and not "responsive to the inner needs of museum goers".  Suggestions for replacement captions include: "look at this image and remember to be patient" and "use this sculpture to meditate on what you too could do to bring about a fairer world".

The National Gallery - "little more than dead library for the creations of the past" 
Initially I thought good grief this is so naieve that, despite his claims to atheism, he surely must be some kind of rabid Christian, however a quick google search nixes this.  Computer says no, Alain is a philosopher who has written essayist type books with a sprinkling of self help and has a company that helps people lead "more fulfilling lives".  OKay.  That's the background, now let's look at what he has to say.

Alain thinks that Museums should be emulating churches in offering moral guidance though their interpretation of art, so that:

"There would be galleries devoted to evoking the beauty of simplicity, the curative powers of nature, the dignity of the outsider or the comfort of maternal nurture. A walk through a museum would amount to a structured encounter with a few of the things which are easiest for us to forget and most essential and life-enhancing to remember."

Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari - in the business of  "soul balancing"

Now I haven't been in a church where the art is labelled beyond the title of the piece. Art galleries title their paintings too as do museums.  Apparently the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice does operate on this principle and is commited to "rebalancing the soul with a highly eclectic range of works, including a fresco by Veneziano, a statue of John the Baptist by Donatello, Bellini's Madonna and Child with Saints and a large altarpiece by Titian.".  Alain I will take your word for it but it sounds like there might be a theme there and it's not paganism.

Last year the Tate ran a tube campaign encouraging visitors to make their own lists of paintings and art works for particular moods, which seems like a nice idea,  but very much highlights the personal nature of choice.  One man's calming introspective Francis Bacon is another man's nightmare on canvas.

To do what Mr Botton suggests would be to proscribe the visitor's emotional reaction to art.  As my flatmate said on being given the potted version of this article "it's like writing "you will like this" on food labels".  If anything people would be more likely to react against it and decide they feel the opposite way about a piece. 

A dinosaur poo - subject for meditation on the inner workings of the soul?
There are so many other arguements against this provocatively titled point of view - space on labels, academic value, the lure of information to the visitor, visitors' natural horror of being spoken down to, what one should meditate upon exactly when checking out a coprolite* etc etc.  However I think the biggest is that to my knowledge museums never have claimed to or desired to take the place of churches.  They are institutions dedicated to education, research and preservation.  They serve their communities best by offering them opportunities to engage with the past and learn from it to inform their own lives on their own terms.  No one needs to be told what to think about when looking at something.  Labels give information about an object, visitors are left to their own resources to decide how much more they want to find out or infer from that. 

Alain belittles the slogan "Art for Art's sake" as meaningless and suggests institutions use art to make "us kinder and better, more thoughtful and more generous...".  Which is all very nice but surely only we can do that for ourselves.

*fossilised turd

Friday, 7 January 2011

A blog about blogging. There is probably a special hell for people like me.

My outstanding friend and colleague Kate monster asked me to talk about blogging to the good people coming to blog LGBT history at the Museum of London.  "A cinch" I thought.  "I read and comment blogs all the time and write highly opinionated copy, this will be no problem."  As the day loomed (tomorrow naturally) I began to have DOUBTS.  "Maybe I should try out this blog business" I thought, "perhaps there is something difficult about it, maybe there are esoteric pitfalls and tribulations unimaginable to anyone who doesn't have a blog?"  So here I am blogging about blogging.  This is such an excercise in navel contemplation that I repulse even myself.  Please feel free to destroy it in the comments section and maybe I will write something better next time in retaliation.

A short history of Blogging

The word “blog” has now become a noun, a verb and an occupation allowing the creation of sentences like: Bloggers blog on their blogs, which are then blogged about by other bloggers creating a beautiful circle of blog.

Once upon a time, blog was a contraction of the term web log.  Web logs existed in the 90s and were maintained by computer programming enthusiasts as lists of tech savvy links and information sharing posts about the latest advancements in break through geekery.

Blogging is… speaking directly to your customers

These days no one talks about web logs.  They talk about blogs.  When they talk about blogs they envision something personal that operates like an online diary, in that posts are chronological and generally offer an insight into the mind and opinions of the writer.  Today’s blogs are comparable to opinion columns in newspapers.  They are both informative and topical.  They also allow readers to become involved with the blogger by posting comments under each post which will be answered by other users and by the blogger him or herself.

This type of blog has been around for about 15 years or so, the first recognizable en mass community blog was probably LiveJournal started by Brad Fitzpatrick in March 1999.

So much innovation, so new and exciting, but when you think about it nothing is truly new under the sun.  Samuel Pepys started his diary in Jan 1660, it has been put online here:  In content it’s not really that much different to a LiveJournal, it just needs more references to cats.

Blogs are used by individuals, companies and institutions to reach their readers/ customers/ visitors by becoming part of their daily lives in the same way as reading a newspaper used to be and checking your facebook updates is today.  Sounds simple enough, but in order to secure that position in someone’s life you have to earn it by being interesting, informative and above all entertaining.  Most personal bloggers achieve this by writing about subjects with universal appeal viz: raptors zombies and pirates.  This is so common that it has become a blogging in joke.

There are many many blogging platforms out there these days.  They can be roughly split into three categories based on length and originality of posts –

Macro blogs – These include custom blogs, which are sometimes stand alone websites such as Georgian London or in other cases they are attached to an institution like Museum of London.  Others are hosted by providers like wordpress or  These blogs usually contain original self penned posts that look at one subject in detail and are longer than a couple of paragraphs.  As a general rule they will be updated once or twice a week.

Micro blogs – These are the other end of the scale and include Twitter accounts where each post is under 140 characters and facebook status updates which are a bit longer.  The content of these is usually a mixture of self referential observation e.g. “I ate a cake, OMG”, opinion: “Jurassic Park is the best film ever”, retweets or shared posts (essentially recycling other peoples content with a credit) and links to “cool stuff” (usually raptor ninja pirate related).    These micro bloggers are your target, you want to be that cool stuff.  As a general rule micro blogs are updated once every 5 seconds.

Midi blogs – These sit halfway between Twitter and wordpress and are a crafty market filler for people who want to write a blog one day, but meantime are happy to recycle other people’s content in a Twitter “retweet” style.  Tumblr is the most popular of these and is an entertaining mixture of links, wry observational humour, informative posts, banal nonsense, images, videos and inevitably pirates zombies and raptors.  One of the strengths of Tumblr is the dashboard which allows the user to have a pick and mix approach to the site.  You choose some people to follow and then their posts are interspliced on your dashboard landing page.   Midi blogs are usually updated once a day around lunchtime…

Enough tenuous history please, skip to content!



With history blogs people are looking for information, dinner party anecdotes and links to share on their facebook wall/ twitter stream/ Tumblr so they can bask in the reflected glory of your erudition.  Your audience trusts you to be authoritative on your subject, but woe betide if you’re a bit dry as they also expect you to be entertaining.

People who read blogs are looking for quick and easy gratification.  To provide this and therefore be appealing, there are a few simple rules:

  • Write in plain English, long words are definitely cool for those who appreciate them, but sadly this is not the vast majority of web users.  Similarly text speak and emoticons (smiley faces) will appeal to some but are a big turn off for others.
  • Break up your content into short paragraphs of no more than 4 or 5 short sentences.  This is called chunking and makes reading a long piece of prose a less daunting prospect for your visitors.
  • Make sure you read all your comments and reply to them when relevant, this is essential to make your readers feel valued and encourage them to make repeat visits to your page.  It can also be very useful to you as occasionally readers will tell you something you don’t know or flag up a new area of research.
  • Post as often as possible.  People like to see new content and to feel that they are part of something immediate.  Once a week is adequate, more often is desirable.
  • Be excited about what you are writing, not to the extent of pointing out how amazing it is every other sentence or using multiple exclamation marks – a definite turn off for most people - rather by highlighting the exciting facts of your topic.  If you are writing about something that has recently undergone conservation for example, you could talk about how long it is since it last was cleaned or who might have used it last or the complicated chemical process.
  • Use lots of hyperlinks within your text that open into new tabs or pages, people like to be able to click into a topic if they want to find out more.  So in the hypothetical conservation post you could link to a page that details the process or describes a situation where the object could have been in use.   If you can hyperlink to yourself or a page within your organization so much the better, if not, there is no shame in linking to another museum or alternative source you can trust.  Wikipedia can be a viable option if you are confident the page is factual and unlikely to be attractive to a joke editor who might change it while your back is turned.
  • Use lots of pictures and don’t be shy of embedding videos.  Always credit these accurately.  If possibly provide the option for the visitor to click for a higher res version.  You can always watermark images if there is a likelihood they will be downloaded and used illegally.  Caption your images clearly.  For some reason people ALWAYS read image captions.
  • Don’t neglect other social media outlets, simultaneously micro blog using sites such as twitter and facebook to keep people’s attention on your blog.  Updates such as “Downstairs in the Museum of London looking at a gay Roman god” give people a taste of what’s to come in your next post.  On the internet, familiarity, far from breeding contempt, engenders a sense of camaraderie and loyalty and results in happy confident followers.
  • Remember that writing about something can change it.  Today we will be looking at a series of objects and historical references that have been picked because they provide evidence of lesbian gay bi and transgender people in the historical record.  By grouping them like this we are changing them by adding a new dimension to what they signify to people. 
The writer’s gaze defines and sometimes limits a subject – a good example of this is in the field of archaeological interpretation.  Up until a few years ago prehistoric man and women had definite gender roles.  Men did the killing and women did the cooking, so far, so not rocking the boat.  

A touching pastiche from the website  Note that the man is presenting the woman with what appears to be a dead beaver.  She is a lucky lady.

These gender roles were defined by predominantly male archaeologists working from evidence found in the burial assemblages of the elite members of society.  Sometimes women were found with knives and spears and men were found with weaving weights and cookery pots.  Most of the time both genders were found with beads and not much else.  Did the archaeologists and illustrators of history books allow this to worry them in any way?  Certainly not.  So up until the late 80s the gaze of these individuals defined the gender stereotyping of people who lived thousands of years ago, making it conveniently fit with our own. 

Thankfully we now have gender archaeology to set that right, but like feminism, it is too easily dismissed as the bleating of bleeding heart bra burners by its detractors who one can only assume think wistfully of the good old 1950s.

This aspect of blogging is good in that you can, by skillful writing pull out an angle of an object that will provoke thought and in some cases epiphanies in the minds of your readers. 

It is dangerous in that sometimes people FEAR CHANGE and don’t really want a new and exciting angle.  These people can become personal and angry defending their views in your comments box.  The best thing to do with them is talk to them reasonably and never ever be personal or angry back at them.  If they are mad enough they can be a positive asset as everyone loves a car crash and will tell all their friends about it thus driving your traffic up.

Blogging is… sharing opinions

Handled correctly most “negative” feedback can be turned positive, so don’t be scared about posting something slightly controversial as long as you can substantiate it.  By their very nature blogs are opinion based so are a perfectly valid forum for discussing new ideas without any stigma attached if you end up having to admit to any holes in your argument or theory.

I am now going to post this on my blog.  Feel free to come and tell me I’m wrong.  I can take it.

General useful
Blog about Caesar being gay:
Gender Archaeology in Paleolithic Art
Gender archaeology isn't really covered fully in one place on the internet, I'd recommend Handbook of Gender in Archaeology
Putting the gay into gaze: Dr Mechowski of the V&A discusses the female nude and lesbian spectatorship:


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