The University’s museums unite to highlight lesbian, gay, bisexual and related heritage in their collections.
A US banknote stamped by activists to underline the presence and economic contribution of LGBTQ+ citizens
The Out in Oxford trail was inspired by a pioneering example set at the British Museum by Richard Parkinson, now Professor of Egyptology at Oxford. He says: ‘LGBT history is absolutely everywhere. But no-one talks about the fact Hadrian had a male lover; everyone talks about the wall.’ The silence is no worse at Oxford than anywhere else, he stresses. ‘It’s just that no-one thinks about it.’
Parkinson worked for more than two decades as a curator in the Egyptian department at the British Museum (where he is painted by Simon Davis, right). Part of his research there focused on same-sex desire in ancient Egypt. He launched a groundbreaking ‘Same-Sex Desire and Gender Identity’ trail at the British Museum in 2009, inviting visitors to explore relevant artefacts in the museum’s collections, accompanied by his book, A Little Gay History. Beth Asbury, a project manager at the Pitt Rivers Museum, was inspired by a Parkinson lecture to create Out in Oxford, which launched this spring. You can enjoy a preview gallery right here.
Parkinson says: ‘If the British Museum could do it, any museum could show there was LGBT stuff throughout world history. Shouldn’t every museum in the country have just one item on display that’s relevant to LGBT history, to make good the silence?’
Curators from Oxford’s museums suggested items for the trail, and volunteers who identify as LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and others) — or allies — wrote about their favourites for the Out in Oxford booklet and website. Asbury is currently working on a trail app with audio descriptions, which will be launched at Oxford Pride next month. ‘I'm sure that is just the tip of the iceberg of what could be done,’ she says.
In a world with ‘so many stereotypes about what it is to be gay’, Parkinson argues that it is important for young people especially ‘to get a sense they’re not alone in world history, and they don’t have to be a disco bunny to identify as a young gay man — there are lots of other historical models’.
He adds: ‘That’s why I really like the diversity of the trails. Any culture has same-sex desire and this is a way of showing people how limitless and natural it is. It’s not a modern aberration which has been imposed on other cultures, as is often claimed.’
Writer, actor and broadcaster Stephen Fry has commented: ‘To see that our people looked at, considered, explored, generated and played with ideas of sexuality with as much freedom, imagination and insight as ours comes as a relief, a confirmation and an enchantment.’ Out in Oxford has been nominated for a Museums and Heritage award.
Parkinson was a consultant for Desire, Love, Identity, an exhibition which opened at the British Museum last week to mark half a century since homosexuality was decriminalised in England and Wales. Under the title No Offence, the exhibition will next year come to the Ashmolean, where it will be supplemented with local museum artefacts including many identified for the Out in Oxford trail. Parkinson hopes No Offence will be a ‘lightning rod’ to bring together LGBTQ+ researchers and activists at Oxford.
Painted wooden maiden mask © Pitt Rivers Museum (accession number 1972.24.67); US banknote countermarked ‘Lesbian Money’ © Ashmolean Museum (HCR6426); portrait of R B Parkinson in the British Museum
by Simon Davis (2007) and photograph of Parkinson both courtesy of Parkinson.