These are verbatim transcripts of interviews, reflecting spoken rather than written language.
INTERVIEWER 1: So it’s the 27th of January and we are at the University of Exeter to record a life story interview for the Out and About: Queering the Museum project at RAMM. My name is Jana Funke and I am interview Jaz Weyer Brown [00:00:13] today. Thank you for being here.
PARTICIPANT 1: Thank you for having me.
INTERVIEWER 1: So the first question we are asking everyone is we’ve asked you to choose an object from the RAMM collections. There’s so much material there. So could you just tell us which object you’ve chosen and describe it to us?
PARTICIPANT 1: I’ve chosen a brick. It’s a brick from the Mesopotamian period. It’s believed to come from Nebuchadnezzar’s palace in Babylon. We don’t know exactly if it was but that’s what was claimed when it was donated to the museum. There’s a cuneiform inscription on it which is, it’s their writing, so there is a bit of text on it, I don’t read ancient Mesopotamian and that’s not the reason I chose it but it’s a lovely little brick.
INTERVIEWER 1: Absolutely, thank you so much for that description. So why this object? What drew you to this particular object?
PARTICIPANT 1: I was drawn to this object because I was looking into Mesopotamia and ancient Babylon, particularly their worship of the goddess Ishtar, and Nebuchadnezzar, he was the master, the emperor of Babylon for a period of time and he built the Gates to Ishtar, which is this huge, fantastic monument, with loads of cuneiform writing, loads of sculptures, loads of animals decorating it, to celebrate the goddess of Ishtar, and I was interested in the goddess of Ishtar because she has a lot of worshippers and specifically cults that worship her who identify as gender non-binary and a lot of the worship of her actively encouraged people to be non-binary, to identify outside of the gender binary and there’s various poems and scraps of information that we have about her where people believe she actually had the power to turn people from man to woman or woman to man and I just loved that there’s, thousands and thousands of years ago, about three millennia BCE, people gender non-binary who had a space in society and a very honoured space. Ishtar is one of, or Inanna, in certain cults, she is one of the most revered goddesses, like the equivalent of Zeus or Hera in the Greek pantheon, and she is celebrating gender non-binary people which is amazing and I just loved that representation. We’ve always been here. This is not a new fad now, we’ve literally been around for thousands of years and had a place in society.
INTERVIEWER 1: That is amazing. I didn’t know anything about this really, which I think is often the case, that there’s so much LGBTQ+ history and often we are just not exposed to that, we are just not taught it, so I think that’s really interesting to hear.
PARTICIPANT 1: Absolutely.
INTERVIEWER 1: So I guess the next question is do you think another LGBTQ+ person would connect with this?
PARTICIPANT 1: Just from looking at a brick? Probably not. But that’s why I think projects like this are so important, because it is, it’s going in and diving in and pulling out that history and making those connections when they have been hidden or not celebrating in the way that they could or not talked about as much because for a lot of history it’s been illegal to talk about those kinds of identities, particularly in western society, so that’s why maybe not just from looking at the brick, but once you draw out the society I hope a lot of LGBTQ+ people would really connect with seeing themselves back in history and back that far in history as well and you know, concrete evidence that people like us have always existed and always been understood to be part of the human experience.
INTERVIEWER 1: Absolutely, I mean that is so important. How did you get into this history? How did you find out about it?
PARTICIPANT 1: YouTube. [laughs] I’ve always been interested in mythology. I’ve always loved mythology and I think part of that is as a kid who is not seeing yourself represented in modern day stories or the typical romances or action movies that are about, going back to those more ancient stories that carry more fundamental human truths and gods that turn into animals or people that turn into other kinds of people or romances that fall outside the binary, you see yourself represented a little bit more, even though when as a kid I didn’t really understand why I was drawn to those stories, but they always resonated with me, those ancient texts, and so yeah, I fell into a YouTube hole of watching ancient mythology and came across the story of Ishtar or Inanna going down to the underworld and she is rescued by, a decree goes out from the queen of the underworld that no man and no woman can rescue her. No one can be sent down to free her, so one of the other gods creates, it’s a translation, but the words are someone who is not man or woman, who is both and neither, to go down and rescue her, and so when she is brought back up to the living world she honours them and gives them this special space in society and so I was just fascinated by, oh, that’s a character like me in this really ancient story and that’s when I started to look into what the more historical basis was for how these people did fit into that society.
INTERVIEWER 1: That’s amazing and it is so important to discover these histories that we can connect to, absolutely. So building on this, I guess, how do you feel about having your voice represented in the museum? Being part of this installation and what is the importance to you of this project, or projects of this kind?
PARTICIPANT 1: It feels amazing to have my voice represented in the museum. I mean I grew up in museums in a lot of ways. I was running around RAMM in particular a lot while my mum worked at Exeter University, so it’s really my home museum, so to have my own voice and my own perspective there amongst those objects is incredible and I feel walking through museums is almost like an exercise in empathy, in that you get drawn to particular objects or particular stories and you can’t always elicit why, but when you are looking at things, you feel like, oh, there’s something about this history that feels a little bit of me, or there’s something about this that’s really chiming with how I’m feeling at the moment. So to have but quite often in traditional histories you’re told like oh yes, you can see yourself as this is how the women dressed, or this is how someone of your social class would have experienced things or the area you grew up in, but your queer part of you knows it’s not in museums because that wasn’t part of history, quite often we get written out, so to have something in a museum that’s saying yes, that part of you too, that part of you is here and it’s celebrated and it’s absolutely part of all of our history and how we got to be to who we are is amazing and I’d hope that maybe someone else who is questioning or unsure or even just doesn’t know anything about it would maybe listen to all of these objects and maybe something would chime with them and they might be like, oh, that’s a bit of me, that’s part of me I didn’t think anyone was speaking to and it’s right here in this amazing museum, being celebrated.
INTERVIEWER 1: That’s such a beautiful way of putting it and it kind of speaks already to the next question that we have, which I guess, what do you hope other people will take away from the object, your story, the installation as a whole? Is there anything that you would like to add?
PARTICIPANT 1: I mean for my object in particular I would just like to say, we are not a fad, we are not some new-fangled thing, we have been around for thousands and thousands of years and we have been part of this society and it’s about time you made us part of society again. I could go into so much detail about how it was these particular, it was the gala [?] [00:07:51] where the cults were represented and they were just typically priests, but they had to sing in a female way and a lot of them took female names and is this part of trans culture? All the way back then. And how gender has always been a construct, it’s been roles in particular forms that we put on each other in order to find ways of connecting, or in order to formalise different ways of society, but it’s not who we are inherently. It’s a social construct and the people in Babylon thousands of years ago absolutely understood that, so say you were a man who wanted to worship an [missed] [00:08:30] with the singing, you’d go, okay, so I need to take some more female aspects and that will be a bit more female, but then a lot of them went home to their wives and their children and were very traditionally male or some of them, I mean there are statues, there’s a statue in the British Museum of someone who is described as “a person man woman” and that’s the inscription on there, so there are all these concrete evidence where I can turn around and when people say, oh, trans people haven’t always existed, or non-binary people is just this new-fangled idea, I can turn around and go actually, no concrete evidence, here are the receipts. And so I’d hope that other people watching this exhibit, whether you’re queer or not, that you feel empowered to turn around to those dissenters and say no, look, look at this amazing history. It’s always been here and look at the way that queer identities have been peppered through, I know a lot of people are taking their own perspectives onto other objects and identifying their own queer lives within them and I just love that idea of being able to turn around and being like look, queer life has always been here and it’s been peppered through the whole way through and we can all find things that chime within us and it doesn’t matter if that doesn’t chime for you because it’s here for me and go out and find what works for you and your story within these objects.
[00:09:45] End of transcript