It’s Pride Month in 2021 and everywhere you look there are places of museums at the banks at your local supermarket wave the rainbow flag. But it has not always been so.
In fact, it wasn’t until 2017 that the UK’s premier arts institution, the Tate, mounted its first exhibition celebrating queer British art. The date marked the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalization of male homosexuality in England. Organized by art historian Clare Barlow, who was brought in to examine the history of queer art through her own experience as a lesbian in the 1980s, she explored 100 years of work by artists and subjects very diverse sexualities and gender identities, from from the coded desires of the Pre-Raphaelites to representations of and by queer women, to sex in London’s Soho in the 1960s.
We caught up with Barlow, who is now a curator at the Science Museum, about her own journey into the world of museums, the historical exhibit at the Tate, and the institutional work that remains to be done to open up the museum spaces to LGBTQ + communities. .
Can you tell us about your personal experience of entering the museum world? What prompted you to pursue a career in the field?
I have always liked museums. No matter who you are, your mood, or what questions you have in your life, there will be someone or something in our collections that can speak to you. It is a privilege to present to visitors the fantastic objects, the beautiful works of art and the incredible stories that we hold in our collections.
Your research interests are varied, and include the history of the body, as well as issues of gender and representation. Was there anything in particular that made you more interested in studying queer art history?
I think it was my own experience as a lesbian in the 1980s. Back then, a lot of people seemed to have this weird idea that being gay was a new thing and if everyone just kept quiet about it. , that would disappear again. There was very little representation in the media, especially lesbians. I didn’t even realize there was a history of homosexuality until I was in college, let alone how diverse it would be. Researching queer stories has helped me during my coming out by showing me that we are part of a large community, not only globally, but also over time.
Four years ago you were curator of Queer British Art at Tate Britain, which marked the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalization of male homosexuality in England. Before that, how did the institution get involved in queer art stories?
Many national museums have a long history of queer art, through tours and public events or through a record label discussing a particular work or artist, and Tate is no exception. I think the big surprise, however, for all of us who work on the show was the range and diversity of work that could be considered queer, and how queer themes run through what is sometimes described as being queer. the canon of British art. The exhibition was an opportunity to join certain points and show that queer art has always been part of our heritage.
The exhibition traces a little over 100 years of history, from 1861 to 1967. Can you tell me a bit about your experience digging into queer stories from that time? What challenges have you encountered?
I think one of the big challenges when researching queer stories for any period is finding the material, either because the recordings don’t survive or because they were never created in the first place. . Many files have been destroyed, often by families wanting to “heterosexualize” someone’s life after death. It’s also very rare that someone in the past leaves a steaming letter, saying the equivalent of “you and me last night in the bushes, this is what we did, this is what I got.” felt, what I am now. Heterosexual couples rarely leave this kind of evidence and it is even rarer for same-sex couples, who can face dire legal consequences if caught. There is also a terminology problem. People have understood and described their desires and gender in all kinds of ways, some of which can be deeply personal. Modern terminology often does not do them justice. That’s one of the reasons I love the word queer: It covers a whole range of identities, experiences, and relationships.
In recent years, some contemporary queer artists have resisted reading and interpreting their work solely through a queer lens. Why is it a problem? How did you distinguish queer art from the work of artists who happen to be queer in your work?
Interestingly, this question is often asked about queer work, but less about the work of straight artists. Queerness is a lens through which a work can be explored – it is not the only lens, nor the only aspect of a work. We need equality so that artists can choose to explore the queer aspects of their identity without fear. But it’s not the responsibility of queer artists to always explicitly create work on queer aspects of their identity, just as straight, cis artists don’t always explicitly create work about the experience of being straight and cis.
As the LGBTQ + rights movement has progressed, many signs and meanings of the queer community have been adopted into the mainstream, and some contemporary heterosexual artists have been criticized for using queer images in their work. Can an explicitly straight artist make queer art?
Calling something a “queer work” is a very broad label, and the identity of the artist is not the only way a work can be queer. Sometimes the strangeness is in the eye of the beholder. One of Oscar Wilde’s contemporaries, the critic Graham Robertson, greatly appreciated the strange possibilities opened up by Walter Crane’s use of a male model for Venus in his painting. The Renaissance of Venus, although Crane only chose a male model because his wife didn’t want him to paint naked women. We also found many examples of art postcard collections that had been put together by queer people as a kind of touchstone for their identity. Some of these may be obvious works by queer artists, but in other cases, the collector may have found something of themselves in the work. A man had a collection full of paintings of people in military uniform and it wasn’t until later in the album when we came across a group of erotic photographs that we realized this was his problem. Were the original paintings strange? Maybe not, but the collection certainly was. There is obviously a difference, however, between this kind of communal claim and so-called “queerbaiting,” when queerness is brought up in an attempt to tempt a queer audience, but is never explicit.
Outside of Tate, you’ve worked in museums, including the National Portrait Gallery, the Wellcome Collection, and the Science Museum Group, in various roles since 2005. At that time, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the way whose studies and queer art are understood?
It has been an exciting time to work in this field. Museums have become more aware of the queer stories they have in their collections and have been much more proactive in their thinking about how to share those stories with the public. There has also been a greater emphasis on intersectional representation, as museums engage in all the diversity of queer lives and communities.
Institutions aren’t limited to wall displays, and many would argue that what goes outside the walls can be just as important. How do you make sure the exhibitions and institutions you are involved with are safe and inclusive spaces?
Museums belong to everyone. We have visitors from all walks of life, identities, experiences and opinions. It is important that we listen to our audiences and work in partnership with them to understand how we can best serve them. This process can be difficult for everyone involved, and it is important to support everyone throughout it, but it is necessary if we are to serve people better. Being more inclusive means thinking about all aspects of our visitors’ experience. At the moment, I am delighted that the Science Museum is about to install a toilet for changing places, a toilet with lifts and changing rooms for adults. Having facilities that anyone can use opens the museum to a whole new audience. The seemingly unsexy things in museums are just as important as our most glamorous exhibits.
Where have you observed that institutional change has yet to occur?
There is always more work to be done. Every day there are new items to find, new stories to explore, and new people to learn. To take an example from the Science Museum, 20 years ago we could have told the history of medicine only from the point of view of the medical staff, but today the voices of people with disabilities are represented at the heart of the five spaces. which form our “Medicine: The Wellcome Galleries. We must continue to question ourselves, listen to our audiences and explore new ways to develop and unlock our collections.
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