Friday, 21 November 2014

Sutton House LGBT History Month exhibition- updates!

Just thought I'd share a few updates about the LGBTQ sonnet project exhibition to be exhibited at Sutton House in February 2015.

The exhibition will open on the 4th February, which is also when the house reopens after the closed season. The private view will be the following evening, on the 5th, and we're toying with holding a second event to follow up on the success and interest of this year's panel discussion. I'll keep you posted!

Here is another teaser of the exhibition, featuring snippets from 5 of the contributions so far:

126 sonnets - teaser video [three] from Sean Curran on Vimeo.

I really can't express how pleased I am with all of the contributions so far! You can listen to the sonnets so far here.

The exhibition will be taking place in the chapel, here are a few pictures of the space for those of you who have not visited yet (obviously it will look very different once the exhibition is in place):

I'm also delighted to say that the posters and promotional material will be designed by a super talented queer artist, more on this soon, but I'm really excited about it! In other great news, this year's Master-Mistress exhibition and the upcoming follow up will receive a brief mention in the National Trust magazine that goes out to members, a readership of approximately 4.5 million...

I'm also hoping to soon be able to reveal some other LGBTQ related things that will be taking place at Sutton House during February and beyond, it's really great that the success of this year's exhibition is increasing the visibility of LGBTQ identities and narratives more widely throughout the property, I can only hope that other National Trust properties follow the lead soon.

By November 30th I should know for sure exactly how many more contributors I will need as, for various reasons, some of the original contributors are no longer able to commit, so I will be posting a second call out in an attempt to fill the final few spaces by the end of December, so that I have plenty of time to experiment with how the audio and the videos will work in the exhibition space.

A huge warm thank you to those who have already contributed and those who are planning to, this exhibition would literally be nothing without you all!

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Meet Tate Britain with Peter Tatchell

Given my own experience of delivering tours, and the (much more impressive) work of the likes of Andrea Fraser, Claire Robins and David Hoyle, I'm really interested in the potential the role of the tour guide in heritage sites can have in disrupting and subverting dominant narratives and canons, so when a friend told me about Peter Tatchell's tour of Tate Britain, I was interested to see how far the celebrated human rights activist could challenge the Tate Britain's largely white (supposedly straight) male chronology.

The event is part of a programme of alternative tours featuring the likes of Antiques expert Geoffrey Munn, gardener Alys Fowler and someone from the Hairy Bikers (no, I don't know what that is either).

The blurb on the Tate Britain website claimed the tour would be about 'unearthing hidden stories of LGBT subjects and artists. Who were they and how were they represented? How might we imagine their lives and experiences? What clues to the existence of LGBT individuals, communities and societies can be found in the works? What work has been done uncovering this knowledge? What do these images tell us about the development of the rights we enjoy today?'

I was a bit sceptical before hand that it would be more like 'Meet Peter Tatchell with the Tate Britain', but I actually enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. Tatchell seemed quite nervous for the first few exhibits he spoke about, speaking to his notes and the artworks rather than to the audience, but I can totally empathise with those nerves, especially when you're not an art historian and have only researched the works for the sake of the tour, but he soon loosened up and became more engaged and engaging. The works he had selected were largely because of the queer way in which they could be read, the ways in which they challenged masculinity, or because the artists were known to be, or could be easily read, as LGBTQ. Naturally, as with anything of this nature, the majority of the stories told were about gay men, but Tatchell apologised for this at the end of the tour, and rightly identified that the collections on display were mainly by men.

The tour included artworks by Simeon Solomon, Gilbert and George, Duncan Grant and various others. While Tatchell was a bit shaky on speaking about the artworks, or the stories behind the earlier classical stuff, his strength was in making links with contemporary issues and politics, particularly when recounting the OutRage! Kiss-in in 1990 in Piccadilly Circus to protest the arrest of gay couples for showing affection in public, the protest took place under the statue of Anteros, the god of requited love, he told us this story while standing by a small sculpture of Anteros in the same pose. The key here of course, is that if a people are willing to pay for a tour by a well known figure, they probably aren't expecting a typical museum tour and instead want to hear the anecdotes and interpretations unique to that person.

A glaringly tedious point for me, which is partially due to the layout of the Tate Britain, was that this tour was chronological. Surely the first, and easiest step to undoing conventions of a typical tour is to disobey the linear way in which museums encourage us to think.

While a bit too polite for my taste, the tour was an interesting experiment by Tate Britain and an enjoyable evening, and helped to tease out some of the 'hidden histories' (which is becoming such a tired phrase) that I hope will be made more apparent in the interpretation in the museum following events like this. Tatchell did a great job in what was clearly outside of his comfort zone, and his passion for justice and in recovering these suppressed stories was palpable.

An exciting aside; Tatchell has agreed in principle to contribute to my Sutton House LGBTQ sonnets project- I hope he finds the time to do it, as his voice will be a really interesting addition. I'm hoping to have some more exciting updates about the exhibition soon, so watch this space!


Friday, 7 November 2014

Lines of Dissent - 12th Annual LGBTQ History & Archives Conference

I'm really pleased to share the flyer for the London Metropolitan Archives' 12 Annual LGBTQ History and Archives conference, run in partnership with the Raphael Samuel History Centre this year. I've been part of the conference steering committee for the last two years along with a great team, and this year I've been asked to host a practical workshop about queer homes. The focus this year is on LGBTQ genealogy and family history.

The conference takes place at the London Metropolitan Archives on December 6th, tickets are just £10, or £7.50 for concessions. You can book tickets here.

I hope to see many of you there!

Monday, 3 November 2014

The National Trust at the Balfron Tower

In September last year I was involved as a tour guide in the National Trust London Project's Big Brother takeover. It was such an interesting experience that when I heard about their pop-up opening of Flat 130 in Balfron Tower I was eager to be involved.

I had, unknowingly, known about Balfron Tower from 28 Days Later, being a huge zombie film enthusiast (arguably it's not a zombie film, as the 'infected' aren't dead, but yadda yadda), as Cillian Murphy's character takes refuge there with other survivors. Interesting that I knew a building originally envisioned as a socialist utopia as the refuge from complete nightmarish dystopia. It also turns out that my good friend currently lives in the tower as a property guardian, albeit 21 floors below the flat that the National Trust temporally opened.

The experience was quite different to the Big Brother opening, partially because of the considerable amount of research that was required before the tours (the Big Brother tours were quite small in comparison, and as a fan of the programme I didn't really need to learn much), as well as the anxieties that many, including me, had about the project. I was uncomfortable in the direction that the building was going, as it is being developed and sold as luxury apartments, the original social housing residents having, mostly, been "decanted" (i.e.: booted out) since 2010. I was also uncomfortable at how the tours could be read as voyeurism- touring largely white, middle class people around an area that is mostly social housing, not to mention the potential for disturbances that could be caused to the current residents (a few remaining social housing tenants, property guardians and artists from Bow Arts Trust), however, my initial concerns quickly vanished once the project got underway, as the Trust had taken great steps to ensure limited disturbance to the residents and local communities, they offered free community group tours to ensure that those who lived and went to school locally had the opportunity to see the flat and experience the tour, and part of the income from the tickets will be donated to the Residents Association.

The enthusiastic visitors on the tours, and the other volunteers I worked with shared my discomfort with the direction the building was being taken in, and by being reflective about that in our conversations, it became clear that everyone was there out of an interest in modernist architecture and the socialist values imbued in it by Ernő Goldfinger. The conversations we had on the tours about our own experiences of social housing, high rise living and East London meant that the tours were more self aware and critical than perhaps your average National Trust tour. I tried to make sure that the tone of the tours was not one of fetishising the building as an icon, but instead getting to the core of the social values that Goldfinger intended to be enacted by such a building, and how it has been, and is being, undone.

Flat 130 is the one in which Goldfinger and his wife Ursula briefly lived in in 1968. Part publicity stunt, part "empirical" research, the Goldfinger's used their time there to inform the future Trellick Tower, by finding out what residents thought about living there. They only occupied the flat for two months, so the Trust decided to go down a more fantastical route rather than trying to recreate what would have been a very sparse flat. Instead, Wayne and Tilly Hemingway were invited to create a 1968 flat for the imagined family that moved in after the Goldfingers. The idea was that all furniture was from 1968 or earlier, assuming that families would have inherited furniture from earlier to bring with them. There were, however, a few anachronisms, and perhaps the furniture would not have been reflective of a family in social housing, but my questions about the logic of presenting well researched fiction rather than, say, the empty flat, were soon challenged when I saw how much visitors enjoyed the flat, mostly because of the nostalgia it triggered. One woman said it was strange seeing somewhere that looked so much like an old flat of hers being presented as a museum piece.

I gave tours on three days, and was asked to Duty Manage the volunteers on three more. The tours were such a success that the initial run was extended. The tour guides were all volunteers, and the turnover of recruitment and training was a lot quicker than usual National Trust endeavours- and definitely the better for it. The dynamic and diverse range of guides and styles of tours made the project feel fresh and exciting, and it proved, to me at least, that being a Tour Guide is not necessarily something you get better at with experience...

A huge thank you to Roshan and Katherine, and many others, for making the project such a great pleasure to be a part of it, and I really wish it was a happier story for what happens to the tower next.

I made a little video of the flat:

Flat 130, Balfron Tower from Sean Curran on Vimeo.