What diversity lives in the ocean, yet to be discovered by humans?
These starfish were collected near Nova Scotia, Canada in 1873 as part of the Challenger Expedition. HMS Challenger, a repurposed warship, undertook the first large-scale oceanographic expedition, discovering over 4,000 previously unknown species as it circumnavigated the globe between 1872 and 1876.
When seahorses reproduce, it’s the male, not the female, who carries the embryos in a kangaroo-like pouch. Seahorse has become a term for transgender men who carry and give birth to their children. Jeanie Finlay’s documentary Seahorse (2019) follows Freddy McConnell, a transgender man, throughout this process as he becomes a new father.
Go Fish (1994), an American film written by Guinevere Turner and Rose Troche and directed by Troche, is considered a milestone of lesbian cinema. A low-budge indie shot in black and white, it follows a group of Chicago lesbians in the 1990s. After ten months without sex, Max is desperate to meet women but is unimpressed by her roommate’s suggestion that she date Ely. Ely, already in a long-distance relationship, isn’t initially interested either. Eventually, however, their relationship tentatively blossoms. The film is notable, especially for its time, for not centring around the ‘coming out’ story or ending in tragedy for its lesbian characters. Instead, it simply depicts a group of friends navigating love and daily life together.
In their memoir Life as a Unicorn (2019), non-binary drag performer Amrou Al-Kadhi reflects on keeping sea creatures as a teenager. They learn that physical transformation, including changeable reproductive organs, is common in many sea creatures. Admiring the free-moving, colourful and shape-shifting bodies of fish, coral and anemones, Al-Kadhi feels a new sense of belonging in recognition of their own gender fluidity. Al-Kadhi’s short film Anemone (2018) explores similar themes: Anemio, a non-binary Nigerian teenager struggling to express their gender identity, feels comfortable working at an aquatics shop amongst the formless marine life and begins to transform into a sea anemone.
Fish and Elephant (2001) is often referred to as the first mainland Chinese film about lesbians. The film was an underground production (the script and print weren’t submitted to the Film Bureau for approval) using non-professional actors. The two leads, Pan Yi and Shitou, were discovered at a Beijing lesbian bar by director Li Yu. Xiaoqun (Pan Yi) is the elephant keeper at Beijing Zoo and keeps a fish tank at home. Her conservative mother is determined to find her a husband before she turns thirty, unaware that her daughter is a lesbian. Xiaoqun eventually moves in with her new girlfriend Xiaoling (Shitou). Xiaoling’s ex-girlfriend Junjun appears in their life as a fugitive after murdering her father. Fish and Elephant won the Elvira Notari Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 2001.
What sea creature, real or mythical, do you most identify with?
Sometime between 1809 and 1811, along a stretch of what is now known as the Jurassic Coast, a young girl discovers, along with her brother and father, a strange-looking fossilised skull of about 5 metres in length. The father, Richard, is a cabinetmaker by trade who harbours a passion for collecting fossils; his daughter, Mary – just a child of about 10 or 12 at the time – shares his interest in the developing field of geology and often accompanies her father as his fossil-collecting sidekick. Like her father, she has little formal education – her interest and knowledge of the subject instead originating from the research she undertakes independently into the natural sciences. Over the course of many days, they work to unearth the remains of the peculiar creature that they have found. It is a species unknown to the scientific community in England at the time, appearing on first glance to resemble a kind of primordial crocodile; it is later determined to be a 201-million-year-old marine reptile called the Ichthyosaurus (or ‘fish lizard’). This is not the only discovery that the young girl, Mary, will make over the course of her life, or even her most significant contribution to the field of palaeontology. Although often side-lined by the scientific community due to her gender and class, this young girl would latterly become one of the “greatest fossilists the world ever knew”: Mary Anning (1799-1847).
Her life and work might have become more familiar to many within the last year thanks to her recent portrayal in the 2020 film, Ammonite, by Kate Winslet. Much like 2021’s The Dig (a film which covers the discovery of the Sutton Hoo collection), Ammonite attempts to rehabilitate Mary Anning’s scientific reputation from relative obscurity – Illuminating the oft-erased, yet vitally important work undertaken by figures whose personal circumstances frequently relegates them to the footnotes of history. Ammonite, however, goes beyond that: it both showcases Anning’s scientific aptitude and charters her developing, romantic relationship with a young woman called Charlotte Murchison.
Within the film itself, these two strands often work in tandem: the process of physically digging up silt and dirt for these fossilised remains ultimately parallels Mary and Charlotte’s attempts to interrogate their own sexual desire; the unearthing of the literal ammonite precipitating the more metaphoric discovery of their love for one another. Geology and palaeontology, in other words, becomes a metaphor for their queerness. In much the same way that contemporary interest in fossil-hunting was largely motivated by a desire to learn about the origins of life on earth, geology becomes a vehicle of self-discovery and revelation for these two women. Queer love, the film proposes, is as ancient and worthy of excavation – or engagement and memorialisation – as the fossils that Mary discovers.
Responses to the film by those who claim descent from Mary Anning herself express interesting reservations about the historical accuracy of this queerness. For all that Mary’s work has undoubtedly revolutionised our understanding of prehistoric life on earth, the details of her life remain largely unknown. Although Mary neither married nor had children, critics maintain that the film’s portrayal of her queerness is unsubstantiated and often point to how the exact nature of Charlotte and Mary’s relationship remains speculative. In a national newspaper, Barbara Anning expressed her reservations about the film’s attempts to queer the past:
“I do not believe that there is any evidence to back up portraying her as a gay woman. Do the filmmakers have to resort to using unconfirmed aspects to somebody’s sexuality to make an already remarkable story sensational? This adds nothing to her story.”
Queerness, in other words, becomes an anachronism and an apparent facet of the film’s wider campaign to mould history according to its creators’ beliefs. The film director, Francis Lee, highlights within his response the limits of adopting a historical outlook which views heterosexuality as a consistent default:
“After seeing queer history be routinely ‘straightened’ throughout culture, and given a historical figure where there is no evidence whatsoever of a heterosexual relationship, is it not permissible to view that person within another context?”
Why is it, Lee asks, that we view absence of evidence for any sexuality as confirmation of Mary Anning’s heterosexuality? Why is heterosexuality seen as a historical truth – one which is almost impervious to doubt or reassessment- whilst queerness is viewed as anachronistic, something which is merely supplied in order to add extra entertainment value?
Ironically, criticism of the film’s perceived inaccuracy fails to recognise how this self-same capacity to imagine an infinite number of possible natures and lives is a fundamental aspect of palaeontology, and one that Mary herself had to exercise. The fossils that Mary discovered over the course of her life lay physically and metaphorically beneath the surface; they needed to be literally dug up and examined in order to be understood. The secrets and information they contained- the lives that they testified to- relied on the burden of that evidence. At a time before Darwin’s theory of evolution, such ideas about the origin of life were still heavily informed by church doctrine. Much like those who criticise Ammonite’s portrayal of Mary Anning’s sexuality, absence of evidence for life that preceded humans was seen as sufficient validation for this belief system.
In light of how queer lives are often buried or erased over the course of history, and the need to often express queer love via coded, subliminal means, we can perhaps discern a comparable impulse between the processes of queering the past and paleontological research. In both, we must think beyond conventional ideas about the past and open our minds to what lies hidden beneath the surface. To queer the past is not to compromise its veracity, but to recognise that the past is a shifting, dynamic variable which can continue to yield revelations and thereby influence the present. In much the same way that Mary Anning’s contribution to palaeontology and geology has been downplayed due to the prejudices of the contemporary scientific community, queer history can be seen more as a relegated presence than an absent one. Indeed, by attempting to metaphorically unearth queer voices, do we not resemble palaeontologists like Mary Anning, as we mine beneath the silt of history for kernels of past life that have long been erased?
This bust depicts a bacchante, a female priestess of the Roman god Bacchus, also known as Dionysus in Graeco-Roman religion. The female followers of Bacchus were also known as maenads. Graeco-Roman deities played an important part in the Victorian discourses of aestheticism and decadence, and Dionysus was an especially important figure to the author Michael Field, the pseudonym of Katherine Bradley (1846-1914) and Edith Cooper (1862-1913).
Aestheticism and decadence were all about challenging mainstream values and were associated with sexual dissidence, evidenced by the multiplicity of queer proponents, including Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, Vernon Lee, Edward Carpenter and Amy Levy. Classical studies played an important role within these discourses. It’s easy to see Dionysus’ appeal to a queer audience. Dionysus was the god of wine and hedonism, a concept appealing to certain queer aesthetes such as Oscar Wilde. He was also seen as a foreign god, giving him a sense of otherness that those of marginalised gender and sexual identities may have identified with. Dionysus was seen as an object of male and female desire in Rome, according to works by Lucian and Euripides. In visual presentations of the god, he often has an androgynous look. For the ancient world, this was a celebrating of youthful masculinity, which has homoerotic connotations, and for the Victorians, androgyny and effeminacy were certainly associated with queerness.
Whilst many figures who engaged with aestheticism and decadence were interested in classical studies, few were as committed as Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper. Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper were an aunt and niece who wrote together under the name Michael Field, but were also in a lifelong romantic and sexual partnership. Most of the scholarship surrounding them focuses on their literary contributions to aestheticism and decadence, and one of the most important scholars on them was Ivor Treby, a queer biochemist and poet who collected sand samples and donated them to the museum. For more on Ivor Treby check out Caleb Parkin’s work. Bradley and Cooper worshipped Dionysus, until their conversion to Catholicism in 1907. They studies ancient Greek together, which informed their erotic language towards each other. They had shrines to Dionysus in the gardens of their shared home, as well as what they called a “bacchic library”. In their diary they described “the Bacchic altar”, and the ritual they performed when they moved from their family home, The Durdans, to an independent home, 1 Paragon; “Then Michael has lighted the alter + we have knelt together naturally, simply […] These lights will be lit again at Paragon – we carry our sacred fire”. They wrote a verse drama, Callirhöe and Fair Rosamond in 1884, which tells the story of the erotic conversion of a virgin to the cult of Dionysus, and her becoming a Maenad. They were referred to as “Bacchic Maenads” by Logan Pearsall Smith and “Greek women” by Robery Browning.
But what can we learn from their identification with this historical and mythical figure? Maenads have come to embody female rebellion, unruly sexuality and gender inversion. It is likely this is what Bradley and Cooper were channelling in their maenadic lifestyle. The history of maenads is not as simple as that, and there is a great deal of uncertainty and mystery around the rituals of the Bacchus cult. However, what we do know is that women marched into the mountains with wine, removed their clothes and let loose their hair, and carried out a series of ritual performances such as orgiastic dancing in order to induce delirium. Men were often involved in these celebrations in later periods, and these rituals were an accepted part of civic life. However, they were eventually banned in Rome due to their notoriety. We can see the appeal of these rituals where women were able to do things they were unable to do in everyday life for Bradley and Cooper, two women living a life quite different from the expectations for women at the time.
On 31st March 2021, we were thrilled to host a conversation between project researchers Elliot Falkus and Rowan Frewin for Trans Day of Visibility. Elliot and Rowan discussed the importance of trans visibility in museum spaces and heritage sites and addressed some of the challenges we face when trying to engage with these histories and make them more accessible. They also proposed ways in which the ongoing erasure of trans and non-binary lives in the past can be addressed through new methodological means. After their rich conversation, we opened the event up for questions from the audience.
We also put together a list of resources for people keen to learn more about trans history, culture and politics! This is an incomplete and growing list, so please email us if you want to add texts or resources.
Elliot Falkus is a recent graduate of the University of Exeter. He has career goals in creative writing and reconciliatory heritage. His work with the Out and About project consists of research and writing on the objects within the RAMM’s collection, highlighting the history of trans people in popular media, the legal history of LGBT+ people and communities in the UK, and historical and literary interpretations of queer figures.
Rowan Frewin is an English graduate and freelance illustrator. They are particularly interested in examining ways that we can re-frame trans history as well as looking at ways that information about LGBTQ history in general can be made more accessible. They have recently published the A Potted Trans History zine.
On 9th April 2021, we organised an online workshop led by project co-directors Nat McGrath, Ellie Coleman and Jana Funke together with Holly Morgenroth, one of the curators from RAMM. As part of the workshop, participants shared their queer objects from home. We also explored the museum catalogue to think about the challenges and joys of trying to queer objects in the RAMM’s collections.
Scar care cream made by my boyfriend for me to use after my surgery in order to soften and loosen the scar tissue. On the sides he put an anchor and two inter linking chains and on the lid there is a protective rune. The image shows the front of a large circular jar with shiny silver holographic vinyl on the front. The vinyl is cut into the shape of a joyful dancing figure and the words scar care cream with two little stars adorning them. In the jar is a creamy off-white cream made from a mixture of butters, oils and perfumes.
Leather harness made by trans owned company, Aslan Leather. Never used only worn as bought in between the second and the third uk lockdown. A black harness is hanging from a wooden bed post. It has silver buckles and rivets and there is an emblem of a lion wearing a leather cap on the front.
Cracked and dyed raw quartz crystal. The quartz is shaped like an irregular and many faceted cylinder with blue mottled cracks and crystalised protrusions jutting out. This crystal was used as a phallic prosthetic to place between my legs as I sat in the shower. It was the only way I could bathe my body for a series of months as I waited for hormones.
The remaining scab from my nipple graft that I found like a pulled tooth in my bed one morning after two months of recovery. The scab is a small, perfect, dark brown disk retaining the irregular texture of skin on its surface. It is laying on cotton wool in a blue archival box. The night before I found it, I had a dream where it had fallen off. I held the scab to the light and it shone around the room with the multi colours of a stained glass window. When I got up and looked in the mirror to discover it had fallen off in reality too, it was the first time I had seen my chest unobstructed and laid completely bare since surgery.
The morning woke abruptly. The house shifted in its sleepy state, unable to lie still against the dust and the sun. Floorboards started to creak; laces started to be tied. It was time to move. I felt for the warm body next to me and it stirred softly, giving small noises of discontent. ‘Time to leave’ I whispered in her ear. She turned over, looking at me with sad, half-closed eyes. Giving a small nod, she pulled the bedding tighter against her, creating a barrier between us. She held my wrist tight, forcing it down, nails gripping into my skin. There was little we could or should say. Noises were coming closer and closer, signalling the end of our time together. The door shuddered, anxious of the duty it had to perform. Glancing towards it and knowing that it would soon have to open, I put my hand lightly under her chin and brought her close to me. ‘I’ll be back’, I said in the smallest voice I could find. Again, she nodded, first with a slight and almost imperceptible motion, then again with more force, so that hair unloosed further from its ribbons. I picked up the stream of linen lying on the floor and started to wind it round and round and round myself. Once bound in it I dressed, until finally cloaked and concealed I could leave.
Out on the street dawn was already receiving visitors. Carts rushed up and down, vendors set up their stalls and the stench was rising. I hurried home taking, as always, a new route. It wasn’t a long way back, but sometimes I would double over on myself, nervous always that a local would spot this cloaked stranger who had such a liking for the street. There wouldn’t be trouble back home so long as my brother hadn’t disturbed the house coming back late at night. In that case, my absence would surely be noticed. But as I returned, slipping in at the back, all seemed still. The day could begin again.
I can’t say that I was much liked by my family. The whole family was swallowed up by the interminable grip of business. There seemed to be little need or room for me. Not being a son, I could contribute little, although I did my fair share in the workshop when required. For the most part I was left alone. They seemed in no rush to marry me off. Cheaper to keep me than to pay another to keep me. I knew, though, that my time was running out. Soon I would have to be given over. It was a horrible thought. On those nights that I was not with her, I would lie thinking about what was going to be forced on me. Sometimes I imagined wildly that my chosen unwanted would not want me either and that we could live two distant, separate lives within the household. Other times I felt with graphic intensity the terrible duty that would be required. On those nights the sheets turned damp from sweat, of cold, dripping fear.
As I dressed for the second time, this time in the inconspicuous clothes of a young woman, I ran the scenes of last night through my mind. She was still on me: her weight, her smell, her feeling. The thought made me half mad with such a confused rush that I had to sit down. The stool rocked uncertainly underneath me. I felt myself to be turned inside out, half wild with despair and pleasure. The situation was so impossible that I laughed with a choke, spluttering quickly into quietness. The room straightened itself up properly again. Time to work.
Work was duty after duty. Task to perform, small, menial, endless. But I had free roam of the streets and I was my own person out of the house. Not being of class enough to limit my movement, as long as I kept my wits about me the streets were mine to perform. I liked best of all to shadow behind beautiful men, noting the swagger of their hips, the placement of the hand, the kick of the boot. I would mime the kick under my skirts, storing it all for later when I could become alive before my love. As my girdle clinked against my legs I would imagine it to be heavier, the weight of a cool sword on my thigh. Always, I was watching. If I could, I went down to the waterside, though this was easier said than done. I so obviously did not belong there that my presence attracted enough attention to cause trouble. But I wanted to learn, I wanted to look. So I trailed through the grime, head tipped down enough to see but catch no-one’s eyes. Calls and whistles soon followed me. I had just enough street sign to gesture a few select obscenities; enough to stun them to allow for me to dive away. I chose my clothes carefully on occasions I wanted to make it waterside.
Within the city, which still seemed vast and uncontainable, I had one lover and one friend. My love was trapped in the day, bound by her wealth to remain indoors. I didn’t know how she could bear to be so observed. My life was invisible. It had only gained shape through her regard, filling in with every kiss, every touch. Without her I could feel that shape flickering. It was ready to lose form without it. I would take only her look, I vowed. I would not be seen by any other. My one friend, a girl from a friendly neighbouring workshop, had an invisible enough life too. She was not like me, but we had known each other for so long things like that didn’t matter anymore. I could trust her, and her me. On more than one occasion I had played the part for her sake, delivering secret messages t to her sweetheart, a sickly-seeming boy with little hopes other than for her.
Today I decided to go and visit my friend. And on my way, the incredible happened. A cart went barrelling down the street, too fast. Someone called out for the driver to be careful at the corner, but it was too late. Two carriages collided, the fall of the horses pulling the second carriage over at a sickening speed, so that all was noise and confusion. The world seemed to explode with things. Wares were suddenly suspended in the air before crashing down in a hopeless wave. Everywhere people seemed to rush about, and the smell of shit and blood newly mingled together in the air. Things spread across the street, turning the road into a living, crawling carpet. Towards me, a single sovereign rolled to me with solemn intent. I picked it up and looked at it. I had never taken anything from the street that wasn’t mine before. But following some impulse of the coin I placed it within my skirts. Turning slowly on my heel, I walked straight out of the scene and through a clutch of streets. My head didn’t turn to the side for an instant. I knew, though, that my cheeks must be flushed as I could feel the heat rising and constricting my sides. My head span. Coins were not normally mine to keep. But this – my fingers itched irresistibly for it – was for me, and my love.
I knew without fully knowing what I should use it for. It was too paltry a sum to buy my independence outright, but it could allow me to realise myself. I headed for the market. I wanted a dead man’s clothes. Before reaching the market, I passed through the streets of the goldsmiths and lingered longingly there. My pound would not stretch far in this district. But at the tattier end, where used items were sold, there I could find what I wanted. It was there, waiting for me. Its shine was the lick of my love’s lips, its soft curves all-feeling. The sovereign longed to be reunited with its brood. I argued for it, pleading for it to be allowed to come home with me. Eventually, wrested from its owner, it was mine. I caressed it all over.
The trip to the market brought its goods too. With pennies left, I was back in my solitary room, pacing until nightfall. In the dark I awoke to return. This time it was for the last time. With a half regretful glance back my old home, I left. Slipping through soft veils of shadow I arrived for her. I found my way through the usual means and soon I was pressed close by the candlelight, feeling for her against coarse linen. She wondered at myself, as I stood proud in my market self. I was anew and for her. My hands found the ring and pressed it over her unsuspecting finger. My betrothed, I told her.
As it had each day before, the morning woke again. This time I left intact. Bound, attired, I promised her I would return. How, I did not know yet, but I would return. I would not let her be taken by another. We chose this together.
The pulp fiction novel Odd Girl Out by Ann Bannon was published in 1957. This was the first novel Bannon wrote in the Beebo Brinker Chronicles, and it was the first lesbian pulp fiction book I ever bought. I was inspired to buy it after listening to a talk by historian Dr Amy Tooth Murphy on the golden age of lesbian pulp fiction. Dr Murphy’s talk was the first time I had properly understood the LGBTQ+ history could be possible as an academic field. It helped me to develop a love of historical lesbian fiction and a pride in my own identity.
During the first lockdown last year, Jana found a small oil painting painting by Mary Stella Edwards online. It is signed using her pseudonym “ALLETS” – Stella spelled backwards!
Mary Stella Edwards and Judith Ackland were two painters and artists who lived together and collaborated, spending much time in their cabin in Bucks Mills in North Devon. The Royal Albert Memorial Museum own some of Edwards’s and Ackland’s paintings, and we are keen to explore their life and work as part of this project.
Queering the Museum: Creating, Uncovering and Celebrating LGBTQ+ Heritage at RAMM (Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery)
We are looking to commission 2 QTIPOC (Queer/Transgender/Intersex People of Colour) performance makers or writers to each create a short digital piece in response to the RAMM collections (https://rammcollections.org.uk).
The performance piece should also respond to one of the Out and About: Queering the Museum project themes:
Home, Belonging and Exile
Freelance Fee: £1,000 (excl. VAT)
Start: 22nd March 2021
Location: Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter
This commission is part of a 12-month project funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Curators and engagement specialists at RAMM will work together with Prof Jana Funke from the University of Exeter and socially engaged artist and writer Natalie McGrath to empower lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities in the South West to uncover, create and share existing and new LGBTQ+ heritage at the RAMM. LGBTQ+ heritage embedded in the rich collections at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery (RAMM) will be revealed and celebrated as part of this major new collaboration.
As part of this commission, artists will work with Natalie McGrath who is this project’s Writer in Residence and its Creative Heritage Producer, Prof Jana Funke (University of Exeter) and Eleanor Coleman (RAMM).
Creative and dramaturgical support for writing/performance processes will be given by Natalie McGrath.
What are we looking for:
Short digital performance/creative writing pieces between 5 and 10 minutes in duration, to be written and performed by the commissioned artists. The content created will be shared digitally, and commissioned artists will also be asked to speak about the work produced at an online event.
Pieces will be in response to RAMM collections to make visible LGBTQ+ Heritage.
Please submit an expression of interest including:
Name, contact details and current address.
A 300-word pitch (written or recorded audio/video) of what your initial idea in responding to RAMM collections might be.
(Please note it is okay for this to change throughout the process. We recognise that ideas evolve.)
A 200-word summary (written or recorded audio/video) of your experience as a performance maker to date, including a list of any web links and publications (print and digital).
An example of your work (e.g. link to a short film, website, piece of writing). No more than 5 pages maximum for written pieces.
What you would hope to achieve by being part of this project and in undertaking this commission? OR: Why is it important to you to be part of a project such as this? No more than 200 words (written or recorded audio/video).
The deadline for expressions of interest is 5th March 2021.
Selected performers shall be informed by 19th March 2021.
Project will take place between 22nd March – 31st May 2021.
Online event date is TBC (May 2021)
Submissions will be reviewed by members of the Queering the Museum Core team.
Decisions will be made based on programming a variety of responses that are dynamic in presenting a range of queer perspectives to a live audience.
Please submit your expression of interest and supporting material to Prof Jana Funke (email@example.com). We welcome inquiries via email and are happy to discuss the project informally. Please contact Jana if you have any questions whatsoever (firstname.lastname@example.org).
In light of the nature of this position, we consider the candidate’s racial/ethnic origins and sexual and/or gender identity to be a Genuine Occupational Requirement in accordance with Para 1, Schedule 9, of the Equality Act 2010. Therefore we are only requesting applications from people of colour who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, transgender, non-binary, gender diverse or gender-questioning.
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