Friday, 29 August 2014

Rainbow Jews: help to save a legacy

Just wanted to share a fundraising initiative from a really great project.














I've mentioned the Rainbow Jews project before, but for those of you who are not familiar, this project is pioneering, in that it records and showcases Jewish lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) history from the 1950s to today. For the first time ever in British history, it captures the voices and experiences of Jewish LGBT people in the UK through oral histories and archive creation.

Like so many great queer heritage initiatives, it is volunteer-led, and the financial support from the Lottery Heritage Fund grant has now finished. Led by Surat Knan, the Rainbow Jews have done great things, they have launched an exhibition which is now set to travel the country, they have collected oral histories from a much overlooked community that otherwise would have been lost, and they have, with the support of the London Metropolitan Archives, began to gather material for an archive collection.

There is still so much to do though. Donations will work towards achieving the following:

  • covering staff costs for a part-time project manager, who will coordinate the volunteers, and continue to promote our key activities, such as: 
  • getting this wonderful exhibition around the country to further share these amazing stories and experiences, (already confirmed Leicester, Birmingham and Liverpool/Homotopia as from 31 August 2014; with more possibilities e.g. Belfast). 
  • creating over 5 events such as launch receptions, film screenings and talks while touring. 
  • disseminating education resources, and co-facilitating sessions at school, youth groups etc.
  • recording and processing of over 10 new oral histories, especially of Jewish LGBT pioneers in remoter UK regions. 
  • collecting more memorabilia and fostering our archive collection at LMA

The page to donate (and to find out more about the fundraising project) is here. Let's all ensure that this great heritage project doesn't join the long line of brilliant grassroots queer initiatives that have faded away due to a lack of funding.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

call for volunteers for LGBTQ exhibition

Following this year's Master-Mistress exhibition, the staff at Sutton House have invited me to curate a follow up exhibition in February 2015.

In Master-Mistress, four brilliant volunteers contributed their voices by reading from Shakespeare's Fair Youth sonnets. For Master-Mistress Take 2, we're going to have all 126 of them read and recorded, and exhibited at Sutton House. This might sound very ambitious, but this is where you can help!

I'm looking for 126 people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, queer or intersex (or any combination of) who would like to take part in this.

What I will need from you:

  • a self recorded reading of a sonnet (I will assign the sonnets to make sure we have no duplicates), if you have a smart phone you will be able to do it on that, if you are unable to, or don't have a phone that can record sound, then I can help you record it. The sonnets all take approximately 1 minute to read.
  • a 10 second 'moving selfie', a video (again, just use your phone, and again if you don't have the technology, we can help you out) that serves as a portrait of you, of your face or your full body, or if you're not comfortable showing yourself, you can send a clip of something personal that captures an element of you, an object, an item of clothing, a place, or whatever you want (get in touch if you're short of ideas and I can help).
  • Your permission to use both the sound recording, and your videos in an exhibition, promotional material for the exhibition and online.

The sounds and clips will help to create an immersive audio-visual experience at Sutton House in LGBT History Month in 2015. Once the exhibition is over, there will be an online space to bring all of the material together, so that together we create a legacy that lasts beyond LGBT History Month.

Please email SuttonHouseLGBTQ@gmail.com If you want to contribute- get in touch and I can assign you with a sonnet to read, or if you want any more information, or have any questions, get in touch too.

We're aiming to have collected all 126 sonnets by November, so get in touch as soon as you can!

Also, please share this post widely with your networks, it's a really exciting opportunity to be involved in a ground breaking community sourced project and exhibition in a National Trust property!

Here is an example of one of the readings from last year:


Sonnet 93 from Sean Curran on Vimeo.

You can hear the other three here.

I visited the house today, and was shown around the new breakers yard, which is gorgeous, do go and visit, here are a few pictures from it:



Saturday, 23 August 2014

notes on Taipei

My Taipei trip feels like an age ago, I've been quite slow in blogging about it, it was such a brilliant (albeit exhausting experience), apologies for my tardiness.





















I attended the 'Museums and Education in the 21st century: local and global discourses' conference at the National Taiwan Normal University in June with fellow PhD student (and artist for my Master Mistress exhibition) Judith Brocklehurst, and three academics from my department.















I won't recount the conference proceedings, but the two days were varied and rich and truly international, there were papers from Taiwan, the UK, Australia, China and more. We met some really interesting people and made some really great connections for the future.














I wanted instead to share some of the pictures I took while I was there, Judith and I stayed for a few days following the conference, and visited several heritage sites which helped to contextualise some of the issues that we had been discussing and hearing about throughout the conference.

The first site we visited was the National Palace Museum in Shilin, which holds one of the largest collections of ancient Chinese artefacts in the world. The conference organisers kindly arranged for us to have a tour from an extremely knowledgable voluntary tour guide, though due to the size of the museum we only scratched the surface in the few hours we were there (also we were treated to a delicious meal in the roof top restaurant!)
















We then went to the Shihsanhang Museum of Archaeology, which, aside from being one of the most interesting museum buildings I've ever seen, seemed quite incoherent in terms of the odd dialogue happening between the jarring architecture and the rather archaic nature of the exhibits within it, including rather dated dioramas and model human architects aplenty.























The next day we visited the Lin Family Mansions and Gardens. I was really keen to see what historic houses in Taiwan looked like, and how they were as a visitor experience in comparison to UK historic houses. Unfortunately the tours were only conducted in Mandarin, and Judith and I felt our language skills weren't up to enough to join them, so we mainly spent time in the gardens. The rain was torrential, but this is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been to. It is one of the most complete surviving examples of traditional Chinese garden architecture and was structured around a series of ponds.






















It was beautifully crafted to accommodate the wet weather, as it was almost entirely under cover, you could walk almost all the way around it without getting wet. It was also great so see groups of teenagers using the space to just hang out, I can't imagine a group of teens here, spending their free times just chatting in a national trust garden (partially because they aren't free!). A really interesting thing was the interpretation sign at the front which was in Mandarin and English, the English one gave a brief overview of the entire history of the house (it was occupied by squatters at one point, a surprising parallel with Sutton House!), with the only unaccounted period being the 50 years (until 1945) that Taiwan was under Japanese rule, a really interesting omission in a country that seems to wear the Japanese legacy of architecture, food and subcultures quite proudly. The gardens had been built around, so closely that there were rather run down high rises with mesh screens in front of them looking over the gardens. A really striking juxtaposition.


















As an aside, we visited the gay area of Ximen, which was one of the only places that we encountered where there seemed to be any sort of bar culture that resembles our own, the stairway leading to a walkway around the top of the bars had its walls painted in rainbow striped and had a small photographic exhibition called Rainbow People.
























There was a theatre next to the gay bars called the Red House Theatre, most of which operated as an artists market, and there was a small exhibition about the history of the building and the area, including a small exhibit of material relating to queer culture. I gather Taipei is quite Westernised in terms of its approach to visibility of queerness, which was lovely to see.





















Our next trip was to Tamsui, which was at the end of one of the MRT lines (the metro system). It was one of my favourite days, even though we were still in Taipei, because it was at the mouth of a river and felt quite seasidey, the climate was completely different, the skies were blue, and the humidity was slightly more bearable because of the sea breeze.























We visited Tamsui Historical Museum, a former British Consular residence, which felt very much like an English country house (apart from the humidity), and oddly enough they had an exhibition there called 'Everlasting vision of William Morris', including various Morris pieces of furniture, the focus was on the preservation of historic buildings, and the origins of SPAB (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings). It was very unusual to see an exhibition in a historic house that was about the process of protecting historic houses, a really refreshing approach.




















Next day we went to the Taipei Fine Art Museum, which had a very Tate Modern feel about it, but more coherent, and MUCH cheaper. We went to three exhibitions, but my favourite was a retrospective of the work of Dean-E Mei, who I was unfamiliar with before. Due to the time he lived, studied and practiced in New York, Dean-E Mei has a really interesting perspective on Taiwan, and his own national identity.



























Right by the Fine Art Museum was the Taipei Story House, which was a really weird faux Tudor building built in the early 1900s. The house was used in a really interesting way, as apart from the first room, which gave a brief history of the building, the rest of the house was devoted to temporary exhibitions, telling a single story, in this case, it was the history of fortune telling. There were walls filled with Tarot cards, and various ways for the visitor to learn various elements of fortune telling, a woman helped us to tell our fortunes using numerology, by drawing out three numbers from a little velvet bag, my fortune was something along the lines of 'pretty face' and Judith's elicited shrieks of horror and fear from the woman, who had to ask someone else to try and translate it sensitively...






















Then we headed to the Lin An Tai Historical House and Museum, which was odd as it claimed to be the oldest historic house in Taipei, but had been deconstructed and relocated in order to make room for a new road. We only had half an hour or so to see the house as it was about to close, but it was great to see the interior of a traditional Chinese house as we hadn't seen the inside of the Lin Family Mansion.























On our final full day, we visited the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, and were just in time for the changing of the guards, which was a gloriously camp choreographed affair, because the building was so open, there was no air condition, it was so insanely hot in there as we were watching the guards change I could feel sweat running down my legs, the guards must have been suffocating. There was a very nice moment where a security man mopped the sweat from their brows and the back of their necks, a weirdly tender moment between men with massive guns.






















It was such a great trip, an honour to be able to talk about my Sutton House exhibition to an international audience and meet so many people doing really great work in museums around the globe. It was also a brilliant opportunity to see so many amazing sights (and sites) in a country that otherwise hadn't really been on my radar of places to visit.

I also made a little video of some of the moments I captured while I was there, including the changing of the guards at the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, and the torrential rain at the Lin Family Mansion and Gardens:

 
Taipei from Sean Curran on Vimeo.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

A trans* icon at the Museum of Liverpool







































Last week I visited Liverpool and finally got to see the April Ashley: portrait of a lady exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool. The year long exhibition (running until 21st September 2014 update: extended until 7th December) was co-curated by Homotopia and funded by HLF. It's focus is on the life of April Ashley, but is shaped around a timeline that charts the developments nationally and in the US for trans* people more generally.

April, who is now 79, was born in Liverpool and moved to Paris in the 1950s where she started transitioning. She is one of the first people from the UK to undergo gender reassignment surgery, and was famously 'outed' by the Sunday People in 1961 with the headline ''Her' secret is out', after which she struggled to work again in the UK, where formerly she had modelled for such publications as Vogue. A mainstay in British headlines since then, Ashley has become a highly regarded activist for trans* issues.


The exhibition is quite small, and occupies an interesting space overlooking the rather ugly sweeping staircase, but as such, it attracts visitors who might otherwise have avoided or not been interested in it, as it is not really a separate space from the main flow of the museum. There were a surprising number of families with young children at the exhibition when I was there.

Alongside the ephemera from Ashley's life and some original artworks, is an interactive screen from which you can listen to oral histories from a variety of trans* people. I only listened to snippets from two of them (I wasn't overly keen on the interactive thing), but you can read them here, and listen to a few here.

The most interesting part of the exhibition for me, was the recreated cabaret stage area, which was paying homage to Le Carousel in Paris, where many gender variant people found refuge and worked as performers in the 50s and 60s. The screen on the stage showed short films from and about trans* people, and was a really nice feature.

It's a respectfully done exhibition, the language and pronouns used are all refreshingly appropriate, and the balance between a singular narrative, and a wider social and legal landscape is just right. Not long left to visit if you haven't already.





















'Miss April' by Ben Youdan (2012)





















(It was tricky to take a picture of this one without it being a "selfie")

Monday, 28 July 2014

Trans Pride Brighton



The 2nd Trans Pride in Brighton this weekend was the perfect antidote to my frustrations with last month's Pride in London. I blogged about it here. Some of the feedback I received from that post was that if I want to feel included, I should volunteer. I don't think this is necessarily the right attitude to take, suggesting that those who don't feel welcome should get involved, it's passing the buck, and saying you are welcome, but we're not going to go out of our way to ensure you feel it. Pride, and the response I got from someone based on me venting my frustrations, became the anti-Pride.

HOWEVER, myself and a friend headed down to Brighton on Saturday for Trans Pride. Building on the success of the first one last year, which I unfortunately only heard about retrospectively so didn't attend, Trans Pride held events over three days, with a film night on the Friday, a picnic on the Sunday and the main event on the Saturday. Unfortunately, we missed the march due to some train hold-ups at London Bridge, but the march was the first of its kind in Europe. Sarah Savage, one of the organisers, said in her opening remarks that it was emphatically a march, not a parade, as there is still so much to be angry about, as well as lots to celebrate. Caroline Lucas, MP of Brighton Pavilion (and the only MP that I actually have any faith in) said in her speech that 'tolerance is not enough' and addressed in particular the dreadful representation of trans* people in the media, and fighting for the opening of a Gender Identity clinic in Brighton and Hove.

For me, Trans Pride was exactly what a Pride event should be. It was celebratory, but its undercurrent was one of anger, action and protest. The main stage showcased the talents of various trans* and queer musical acts and spoken word performers, intersected with information about trans* services, including from the sponsors of the event, Broken Rainbow. The environment was relaxed and peaceful, and the crowds that gathered were warm and richly diverse.

One of the more moving speeches of the day came from one of the organisers Shabah Choudrey, who spoke about their own frustration at being a trans masculine person of colour at Pride events, and reminded us of the role played by trans people of colour in the Stonewall riots and in queer activism before and since.

Trans Pride has no corporate sponsorship. The venue of the event was not bedecked with Barclays flags. It was free to enter, the food and drink stalls were reasonably priced, water was handed out for free. The volunteers and security staff were helpful and even the presence of the police lacked the sinister edge it normally does at Pride events, they seemed to be there to protect those of us there, rather than to control our behaviour.

I look forward to Trans Pride growing and growing each year, and hope that as it does, the community spirit and grass-roots nature of it doesn't dilute at all, and that the voices become more and more and louder and louder. I met so many lovely people who were taking great strides to making the world a safer and happier place for gender variant people, and unlike at London Pride, I came away feeling empowered, inspired, part of something and PROUD.

I did, however, get quite sunburnt knees, but that's no one's fault but my own.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Collecting the contemporary




















Just a quick post to mention this upcoming publication, Collecting the contemporary: recording the present for the future, by MuseumsEtc, which features a chapter by my entitled 'Let’s Talk About Sexuality: Capturing, Collecting and Disseminating LGBTQ Oral His- and Her-stories', in which I ruminate the challenges specific to the gathering and displaying of queer oral histories in museum spaces. The book is edited by Owain Rhys and Zelda Baveystock.

Collecting the contemporary aims to address (amongst others) these questions:

  • How best should we engage with contemporary collecting? 
  • Should we collect to fill gaps in the existing collection? 
  • How best to record modern urban life? 
  • How might we best engage with minority communities? 
  • Should we aim to link past and present?

There is a special pre-publication offer of 15% discount if you order it now, so request your librarians to buy it!

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Kelmscott Manor: a reply

If you read my previous post, you will know that I recently emailed staff at Kelmscott Manor to voice my dissatisfaction with the interpretation of Mary Lobb there. After chasing up the lack of response with the Kelmscott Manor twitter feed, I was given a direct email address for someone, and received a response the same day.

The response is as follows:

Dear Mr Curran,

Thank you for your recent comments, which I was pleased to receive. There are, as you will know, many people who were connected in significant ways with the Manor, and since arriving in post relatively recently Sarah Parker (Property Manager) and myself have been working on ‘unlocking’ some of the many narratives connected with them and addressing this in new interpretation for our visitors. This season new labels were installed throughout the Manor, a new Room guide was introduced, and in addition we undertook a research project with volunteers during our closed season, of which Kelmscott Manor’s Wider Cast of Characters was the outcome. Having made these initial steps we are undertaking additional research with the assistance of interns and aim to improve interpretation still further, incorporating, of course, Miss Lobb.

I was very interested to see that you describe yourself as having some degree of knowledge about Miss Lobb, and would be delighted if you would like to share this with us, in particular any relevant archive sources of which you may be aware. As she was a pivotal figure in May Morris’s later life we are eager to ensure that our visitors are given a more rounded picture of her than is, admittedly, currently the case.  It is regrettable that you have taken this omission to be in any way deliberate, and I would like to assure you that this is far from the case; Miss Lobb’s sexuality or physical appearance are certainly not informing factors but the reality is that when running a visitor attraction with a small team, lack of time and resources unfortunately, are.

I would like to thank you once again for your observations and look forward to your response.

With all good wishes,

Kathy Haslam

This is a great response, and I am so pleased to see it has been taken seriously and that it looks like they are committed to looking into this and expanding Mary Lobb's biography in the house to include a more sympathetic and less one dimensional interpretation of her.

I will keep you posted.

To celebrate, here's a lovely picture of Morris and Lobb, taken from the William Morris Facebook page (I presume it's not actually his).


Thursday, 3 July 2014

a letter to Kelmscott Manor

On Wednesday myself and a few of the lecturers and students from my department hopped on a minibus to Kelmscott Manor in Lechlade, Gloucestershire, the former home of William Morris. I was keen to visit to see how the relationship between Morris' daughter May and her 'companion' Mary Lobb was addressed.




































I'd found out about Mary Lobb by a chance conversation with a Central Saint Martins student when I lectured there. She had written an essay about photographs of May Morris and suggested I might be interested to know she had a close relationship with Mary Lobb who had previously worked on a neighbouring farm. When May died in 1937 she left £12,000 to Lobb. Mary Lobb seemingly took her own life two years later. You can read a nice little summary about Lobb here.

I was really distressed to see only a very brief mention of Mary Lobb in the house, which was a small caricature of her, accompanied by a quote from George Bernard Shaw: 'I was soon on the garden flag way to the ancient door of the Manor House. It was opened by a young lady whose aspect terrified me. She was obviously strong enough to take me by the scruff of the neck and pitch me neck and crop out of the curtilage; and she looked as if for two pins she would do it as she demanded sternly who I was. I named myself apologetically....'


In the final room, there was a booklet containing biographical information about other people mentioned in the house, but Mary Lobb was not one of them. Her only mention in the house was through the eyes of someone who did not know her and clearly did not think highly of her, and while there was a photograph of her with May beneath, the main visual representation of her was a rather cruel caricature from behind. Annoyed and saddened by this, I spoke to two volunteers about her lack of mention and they both shrugged, one of them rather shiftily. I decided to write an email to the staff at the house:

Hello,

I am writing with a query from a recent visit to Kelmscott Manor. The house was very beautiful and I was pleased to see so many visitors. However, I left the house with a rather sour taste in my mouth due to what I felt was a misstep and an oversight in the interpretation in the house. I'm referring specifically to the way in which Mary Lobb is portrayed.

I had some knowledge of Mary Lobb before I arrived at the house, and when I finally got there I was not only surprised at how little of her story was told, but extremely saddened that she was only mentioned as a figure of fun, while the deep affection that May Morris had for her was not mentioned at all.

Alongside the caricature of her in the small nook coming from the right hand garret, is a cruel description written by George Bernard Shaw. While this is really interesting, and definitely has a place in the house, it should not stand as the sole representation of a woman who clearly played an important part in May's life, important enough to inherit everything of May's that wasn't donated to the University of Oxford when she died. The obvious counter to this would be John Betjeman's account of her and their warm relationship, which is alluded to in the guidebook.

In the final attic room I came across the 'Wider cast of characters' booklet and assumed that the brief mention of Lobb would be elaborated upon in it. Surprisingly, in spite of the rather remote and tangential figures to whom there are pages are devoted, there was no further mention of Mary Lobb. I asked two volunteers about this oversight, neither of them knew why her story was demoted to a mere footnote of ridicule, so hopefully I can get some answers this way.

The exhibition in the display space by the ticket office mentioned Lobb briefly, but I believe that this is insufficient. There was no mention in the house of the fact that the two slept together in the same room, or about the controversy their relationship caused, or about how May's affection was so strong that she bequeathed most of her possessions to Lobb. I can think of two possible reasons for this oversight, the first is that those who oversee the interpretation at Kelmscott Manor are not willing to explore the relationship between May Morris and Mary Lobb because they do not wish to be faced with the possibility that the relationship could be considered, in contemporary terms, a lesbian one. Secondly, and equally as concerning, is that in a house full of Pre-Raphaelite beauties, Mary Lobb is not considered sufficiently beautiful to warrant covering her role in May's life in any great detail.

Either way, to demote a person to a mere caricature is unkind. I eagerly await a response about why this is the case, and hope that by raising this matter, it can be addressed and that the bond between May Morris and Mary Lobb can be given the attention it deserves in such a beautiful and important heritage site as Kelmscott Manor.

Best wishes,
Sean Curran
scurran@ioe.ac.uk

I really hope they will respond, I'll be sure to post it here if they do. I think heritage sites must be held accountable for their treatment of the narratives of people with non-normative identities, to overlook them is both irresponsible and distressing for queer visitors and their supporters alike. For those who think this is excessive, I hope you never have to experience finding the rare historical figures that you can relate to being reduced to a figure of ridicule. People like Mary Lobb and May Morris are part of a still barely visible queer heritage that can contribute to legitimising contemporary queer identities, especially when encountered by children, who see themselves as outsiders or marginalised because of who they are.

In spite of this, Kelmscott was really beautiful, and worth a visit!

I'll blog again soon about my Taiwan trip.