The curation of objects from Henry VIII's flagship borders on narcissism
Gay men and lesbians from the past have proved a fruitful area for historians interested in those who lived secret and proscribed lives. Writers such as John Boswell and Alan Bray have patiently illuminated lost existences, recovering evidence their subjects would have felt compelled to conceal or destroy. However, the principle that drives good historians and curators, to understand how people of the past saw themselves differently from present day attitudes, has been apparently lost.
This week, the museum dedicated to Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose, published a blog post about “Queering the Mary Rose’s Collection.” Visitors to the ship were invited to consider objects like a mirror which may bring “queer people […] a strong feeling of gender dysphoria”. A nit comb is important because “queer people […] subvert and play with gender norms [to] find hairstyles that they feel comfortable with.” (Presumably nit-free.)
More than that, a gold ring reminds us that “queer people” have often regarded themselves as married. Probably not with this ring — but, anyway, it happens these days. Rather curiously, none of this engaged with what British sailors have done since the dawn of time: namely, have sex with each other. But “queer people” are often, I find, a bit prudish like that.
Institutions including the National Trust, English Heritage, Historic England, and Historic Royal Palaces are connecting curators through a “Queer Heritage and Collections Network”. This aims to “map the needs of the heritage sector in relation to LGBTQ+ histories”. Of course, the word “queer” has been appropriated by an activist sector of the gay male community within the last 30 years and then, more recently, has even been extended to heterosexuals to claim a comparable “otherness”. Whether this latter usage could be fairly applied to anyone at all before the year 2010 seems most unlikely.
Still, it seems clear to the whole sector that gay and lesbian people, famously baffled by and uninterested in art, culture, and all that, urgently need a curatorial guide to lead them to the doors of a museum. Enter the juvenile satraps of the Network’s Steering Group, for whom understanding the past is evidently a secondary concern.
It is unusual and deplorable that, before sharing its blog post, a museum like the Mary Rose didn’t say, quite firmly, “sorry – this isn’t good enough for us to publish.” It is perfectly reasonable for the author to incorporate her personal experience into a conversation with friends, and tell them what she feels when she looks into a mirror. But a historic public institution with a job to explain lost, past lives is just wasting our time and its own by letting people witter on about what it’s like to be them in 2023.
There is a more serious point to be made here. Gay and lesbian history had an enormous struggle to emerge into serious consideration, and it was the dedication of scholars like Boswell and Bray which brought it there. What serious and talented historian or curator now would think of dedicating his or her career to the subject? Who would want to say that they are working on networks of working-class gay men in 19th-century Manchester, for instance? An academic interlocutor would say “queer history, I suppose” and mentally lump them in with people who think looking at a Tudor mirror reminds them of being a bit different when they were, like, struggling with issues. Thanks, but no thanks.
The end result may be that bad work drives out good, and selfless scholarship runs aground, driven by people who aren’t half as interested in the past as they are in telling you all about themselves, at length.