November 21, 2023 - 4:15pm

Museums in this country are becoming a laughing stock. In the latest example of capture by dogma, references to the early third-century emperor Elagabalus at a museum in North Hertfordshire will in future refer to him as “she” in an attempt to be “sensitive” to his pronoun preferences.  

“Elagabalus most definitely preferred the she pronoun, and as such this is something we reflect when discussing her in contemporary times,” says Lib Dem councillor Keith Hoskins, who is executive member for arts at North Herts Council. I’m surprised to hear anyone speak with such certainty about Elagabalus, who died 1,800 years ago. Are they now holding seances in Hitchin?

How such “preferences” are established is hilarious in itself. The museum consults notable authorities such as Stonewall and — I’m not making this up — the LGBT wing of the union Unite. They have offered advice, it seems, on how to make sure that the museum’s “displays, publicity and talks are as up-to-date and inclusive as possible”.  

Up-to-date and inclusive? Museums are about periods of history which were anything but inclusive, and they can’t be made so retrospectively. Elagabalus was a wildly immature boy who became emperor at 14 and was assassinated four years later. Almost everything that’s been written about him is contested, and much of it has been dismissed as a hostile invention by the regime that followed.

It’s also worth pointing out that Latin uses third-person pronouns (she/he) much less frequently than English, because the subject of a verb is understood rather than stated. I’m sure the LGBT wing of Unite would be happy to confirm this fact, which will be familiar to anyone with even the most basic knowledge of Latin. 

Suddenly we’re being offered a partisan version of the past, in which individuals are labelled according to ideologies invented about 20 years ago. It has even affected the British Museum, whose blockbuster Stonehenge exhibition in 2022 included items from a burial site in East Anglia with the caption “Gender Neutral”. 

It claimed that the presence of a necklace and a dagger in the same grave “suggests gender rules were being transformed”. Does one of this country’s national museums really believe that our ancestors sat around a fire, stating their pronouns and discussing their gender identities?

It’s tempting to think that the British Museum might be better occupied looking after its collections, some of which appear to have been sold on eBay, than imposing anachronistic notions on the past. But there is a serious point here. Most people don’t have time to go to archives and study original documents. They expect to be able to trust museums, assuming that what they’re being told is backed up by scholarship, not a piece of fashionable propaganda. That assumption no longer holds. 

A couple of months ago, the University of Leicester published guidance on “trans-inclusive” practice in museums, galleries and heritage sites. It argued that museums should be places where children can explore their gender identity and misrepresented critics, claiming that “objections to trans content frequently intersect with homophobia, misogyny and racism.”

Preposterous claims about historical figures are the inevitable result of refashioning history to suit a modern obsession. Museums have no business claiming that a Roman emperor was a woman or that Stone Age people were gender-neutral. That’s propaganda, not education — and it erodes public trust. 

Joan Smith is a novelist and columnist. She has been Chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board since 2013. Her book Homegrown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists was published in 2019.