These are verbatim transcripts of interviews, reflecting spoken rather than written language.
INTERVIEWER: So today is the 26th of January 2022. And this is a story interview for Out and About: Queering the Museum Project at RAMM. My name is Natalie McGrath and I am interviewing Simon Bowkett. [?] [00:00:19] Hello Simon.
PARTICIPANT 1: Hello Natalie.
INTERVIEWER: How are you doing?
PARTICIPANT 1: I’m good! Yeah, I’m good. I’m a bit tired because it’s that time of year. Looking forward to spring. But otherwise good.
INTERVIEWER: Excellent. So I’m going to start and ask you some of the questions that we’re thinking about with this. So we’re asking everyone to choose and object that they can connect to. So can you tell us which object you’ve chosen? And can you describe it to us?
PARTICIPANT 1: Sure. So I wandered around the museum, I spent an entire Saturday afternoon wandering around, trying to find something really cerebral that I could sound incredibly intellectual talking about. And I kind of spotted a few things. I remember there was a fabulously painted Italian harpsichord that I thought was just fabulous. But I was really sort of thinking, well I love it, I love the campness of it. But I can’t pretend it particularly connects to me or speaks to me. So what I settled on is rather a bit more ordinary, I guess, in terms of its daily use. But it’s a big old bowl, dish thing. And a kind of an amphora jug, from Ancient Greece. And the reason I went for those, the dish particularly is a big dish. So I would imagine that would be holding food for more than one person. And similarly the jug. I’m sure I could get through that just of wine all by myself, but it kind of looked like it’s kind of made to be shared, if you know what I mean. And they’re both decorative, they’re both painted. And I was just kind of imagining in Ancient Greece, somebody hosting friends, family, whatever. And just chewing the fat over a fabulous bit of Mediterranean food, and kind of rich Mediterranean wine.
And the reason that connects to me is, throughout my general identity, but also within my queer identity, I really thought about the importance of places where we eat and particularly drink together, and how having those places and having those people around me, has been so important. So I think if Doctor Who shows up and whisks me back in time in the TARDIS, I think I’m, almost regardless of which part of history I land in, I’m going to be all about the food and the drink, and the people.
INTERVIEWER: Brilliant, thank you. I think that it’s really important, that notion of places and where people can gather. And we might come back to that.
PARTICIPANT 1: Sure, yeah. Yeah.
INTERVIEWER: So I think you’ve said, you’ve been really articulate, but tell us a little bit more. Why this particular object? Or objects in your case, because you’ve chosen this complementary pair. You know, and… in terms of what drew you to it as you were walking around the museum. You know, visually, what kind of-?
PARTICIPANT 1: Yeah, yeah. So, and this is going to sound a bit cheesy and corny. The minute you start talking about queer history, you know, people almost immediately go back to Ancient Greece, because of everything we know about it. Or we think we know about it. You know, Ancient Green culture was particularly tolerant of queer relationships that spanned gender identities. It wasn’t at all unusual, as we know, for men and, sorry to be a bit patriarchal about this, but it was still a society that was largely organised around male power. But men to be married, to have families, but also to have, you know, as we know, male lovers and so on. And obviously because I identify as bisexual, that kind of speaks to me. So I kind of found myself in the Ancient Greek bit. And of course you’ve got some really impressive stuff like, you know, some the helmets and the kind of weaponry, and that kind of thing. But frankly, that’s never been me. I was never likely to go off and join the armed forces or anything like that.
But the… the sort of central elements of the home that are about hospitality, that are about celebrating your relationship with people through preparing food and sharing your wine, is something that to this day I still love. The kitchen is my place to decompress from my working day. So I actually get slightly irritable if my partner wants to do the cooking. Because there is nothing better for me than being holed up in the kitchen, stick on a podcast or some music or something, and just spend an hour or two preparing something. And if more people are going to show up at the house too, enjoy it even better. So that’s the bit that kind of really spoke to me. In terms of visually, there is a whole section in the RAMM as you know that has kind of dishes, you know, kitchenware and so on from Ancient Greece. But these are big. They stand out. And for me, there is… you may be able to tell, I’m quite an extrovert. So I really energise off people, and just having lots of people to cook for, I really enjoy. I don’t experience that as stressful at all, I just really, really enjoy it. And I was looking at these things and thinking, whoever my Greek counterpart was back then, they must’ve loved that. Because look at the size of that dish. Look at the size of that amphora. You know? This is somebody who hosts, this is somebody who…
I then read the little card, and it said this may well have just been decorative. Which kind of spilt the illusion for me. But! Let’s go with it, let’s assume they used it, and they just loved having, you know, friends and family round. And that’s… that’s the bit that kind of really spoke to me.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, I think that, that’s a good place to kind of think about the importance of gathering. Particularly for queer and trans people, and how we gather, and where it’s safe. And that the spaces are available to us. So I just wondered if you might say something about that.
PARTICIPANT 1: Yeah, that’s… I think that’s a really interesting point. I think, you know, you go back to Greece and Rome and so on, and for, you know, fairly obvious reasons, the baths were one of the central points for, you know, kind of queer people to meet queer people. But once the kind of bathing aspect moved into private homes through history, then you start to see the shift of queer meeting spaces being more organised around either entertainment or particularly around food and drink. And so everything from the kind of, you know, the Molly Houses of the 18th century, you know, some of the balls that were held in the 19th and early 20th century. These were kind of imitations of the feasts and the balls and the banquets that mainstream society would have had, but underground. You had the emergence of cafés and bars and nightclubs. All organised around sort of food, drink, dancing, entertainment, and just like you say, creating these safe spaces to come together and to be.
And I feel that’s so important, because I think all of us in our sort of growing up, coming out stories, have that phase of our lives that’s very… where things are very internal. You know, the whole, who am I? Why do I find myself feeling like this? And when I compare that to everything I’m seeing on television, the lyrics I’m listening to in songs, I don’t fit. This isn’t, you know, the usual kind of relationships. It’s only when we come together that you get the power of that, you know, ‘it’s not just me’. You know, this is something, an experience, an identity, that is shared by many, many other people. So I really feel strongly about the need to have those spaces even now. And I recall, I was involved in politics for a while, and I remember having something to eat. Again. With a senior politician, shall we say. I won’t name or shame anybody. But we had this whole conversation about, you know, do we still need queer spaces? Do we still need gay pubs and clubs? And so on. And I remember this person saying to me ‘well, I’m not sure we do. I can go out anywhere in the place that I represent and, you know, I never get any comments or push-back or hostility. You know, my partner and I are able to just go out and enjoy a meal anyway. So do we still need these things?’
And I had to sort of point out, with the greatest of respect, you’ve got a platform. You know, you’ve got a status, you are perceived a particular way, which is kind of good gay. You know, you’re in a settled relationship, responsible job, wear a suit. You know, your partner’s in the same boat. If you were, you know, I don’t know, a person of colour, non-gender conforming, you know… it’s going to be slightly different. And particularly from a different socio-economic class, you know, you are still going to feel alienated, with very few role models that you can identify with. Very few depictions of your kind of tribe, if you like, in popular media. So even now I think it’s so important. And I’m very aware, you know, I’m middle-aged, white, male, professional. Also currently in a long-term relationship with a female partner. That I have the privilege of ‘passing’, in inverted commas, in a way that most, you know, normal earthlings out there wouldn’t read me as queer. But I still think it is really important that we go and support, you know, particularly younger queer people. Queer people that have got identifies that, you know, rarely existed frankly in, you know, in my youth. And I see them facing some of the same challenges that I might’ve faced in the, you know, mid-’80s a bisexual coming out. And for their sakes, I just think it’s really important that we have these meeting spaces.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, that’s really interesting, thank you. That was a really nice kind of lead in to the next question of, do you think another LGBTQ person would connect with the object that you’ve chosen?
PARTICIPANT 1: Erm… I can think of a few that would. I think most people do, yeah. I mean, I think, you know, we’re still massively social animals. You know, regardless of, you know, sexuality or gender identity, or race. I think as human beings, you know, just about every culture has put food, drink, hospitality, entertainment, celebration, feasting, as a really important cultural value. And that, you know, the codes around how you eat, drink, and entertain, are quite rigid in lots of ways. You know, they have very specific purposes within culture. What I’m interested in is, I guess, is how as a queer community, we kind of adapt that through, you know, through different generations. I know that you’ve just entered into my age bracket Nat. And when I turned 50, I had the great privilege of just taking a bit of time out, and my partner and I went over to New York, because it was also the 50th anniversay of the Stonewall Uprising. And there was a nice synergy there. So we went over there for World Pride, but particularly for the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. And we made something of a pilgrimage, you know, to the Stonewall Inn itself. And it was just wonderful hearing from some of the people that were there.
And we had a really happy accident. We were on the subway to go to the Queer Liberation March, which was this totally no cops, no corporates, demonstration, ahead of the main Pride itself. But while we were on the subway, there was a… the sweetest senior, shall we say, who was fascinated by my partner’s t-shirt, and finally came over and asked that we… are we on our way to the demonstration? We said yes. And yeah, we said it’s just a great honour to come here for the anniversary of Stonewall and so on. And it turned out that at the time Stonewall was happening, she was a trainee paramedic. And she was on her way home from a night shift when it was all kicking off. And she then was telling us about how she then spent most of that night treating people who had been injured in the rioting. But she went on to tell us about the significance of Stonewall to her. She was a lesbian woman. And how even though it was mafia-run, even though they knew the drinks were overpriced and watered down, it was their place. And that’s, you know, because I was kind of saying, you know, some people would say while all that effort to fight for something that ultimately was organised crime, ripping off the queer community, exploiting the pink pound, if you like, in modern day times. And she said ‘but it was ours, and we didn’t have anything else’.
And it was just the place to go and be together, and drink together, and dance together. And it didn’t matter if you were a Manhattan stock trader, or you know, an unemployed Puerto Rican, you know, drag queen, which was the terms they used at the time. This was the place where you could come together, and none of that mattered. And I think that’s the bit that we connect to when we think about eating and drinking, and this is why people love festivals and that. You know, it’s those kind of opportunities to come together and to feel that we are with our own tribe. But also where some of those normal labels don’t matter so much, you know? We just kind of enjoy the basic humanity of, we all need something to eat, we all need something to drink. You know?
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, that’s brilliant Simon. There’s definitely something running through all of what you’re saying about ancestry, which I think, stimulated by the object you’ve chosen. And I think that’s really lovely. How do you feel about having your voice represented in the museum?
PARTICIPANT 1: Erm… yeah, well it’s interesting you ask me that question after talking about ancestry. There is something… there is something about starting to see myself as an elder, which is, on the one hand horrible, because I just don’t want to think of myself like that. It’s also rather terrifying, because I think it’s a huge responsibility. But I… a couple of years ago I started working in a government department as a civil servant, in London. And one of the plus sides of that is that we’ve got the most fantastic LGBT staff network. I mean, I’ve never worked anywhere big enough to have one before. But having one of this scale is enormous. And not only and LGBT network, but we’ve even got our own bisexual network, which is amazing. But on my first day going into the office, I looked around and I thought, oh my goodness, everybody looks about 12. I mean, they’re all like, fresh out of university, super ambitious, and so on. And it was just really interesting, talking to some of the LGBT network members, and especially some of the younger queer lads, about… It’s a Sin had just come on, as a series.
And just talking about the whole HIV/Aids crisis. And so often they were saying ‘I had no idea that that happened, I had no idea…’ We had one night out where we wound up in Soho, and we went to, you know, the Admiral Duncan. And I was saying to them, you know, ‘you know about the bomb, right?’ And… ‘no’. And I was thinking, that was only ’99. But of course, you know, half of this lot were literally getting born around that time. [Laughs] So why would they know about it? So there is something about, I think, some of us as more senior members of the queer community having our voices, you know, recorded and heard, because I think it’s really important that we don’t lose that oral history, that narrative, that sort of golden thread that has always run through. And I, you know, I benefitted from that when I was, you know, in my sort of teens and 20s. Listening to the guys that had had to go through a period when our sexualities were criminalised. And getting my head around that, you know. Guys that had had to go back in the closet because they were serving in the armed forces, you know, as part of national service and things like that. So I just think it’s really important there’s a sense of the baton being passed, you know, from generation to generation.
INTERVIEWER: So the final question is, and in a way you’ve touched upon it already, but what’s the importance of this particular project for you?
PARTICIPANT 1: I think it’s important on a number of levels. I’m really interested to see what other people have chosen. And connected with, and their reasons for that. As I said, I energise off other people. Always have. And I’m sure that will cause me to view objects that I probably wandered past on that Saturday afternoon, and didn’t even register that this might be significant to somebody. And I’m always really interested to see what people connect with and why. So that’s going to be interesting. The sense of learning from the generations that have gone before, I think is really important. But the other thing I think is really important is, I was a city councillor when the RAMM reopened. And I just remember how proud the city was, having this… you know, and it is a stunning museum. You know, I remember we won Museum of the Year while I was still on the council. And we’re enormously proud of that. I think it’s really important that the queer community is quite overly and explicitly represented here. Because we know that Exeter itself has got a vibrant LGBT culture, but also quite a rich queer history here. And I think it’s really important that that side of the city’s story is represented in this place. I think for that reason, it’s phenomenally important.
And the fact that this is in partnership with the university as well, so you also have the platform that, you know… our academia has locally, to kind of amplify these voices. And also to archive them, to make sure that these are captured for future academics and researchers, to make sure that these stories are not lost, is going to be really significant as well.
INTERVIEWER: Brilliant, thank you Simon. Is there anything that you think ‘I wish I’d said that’? That you haven’t already articulated so beautifully?
PARTICIPANT 1: I don’t think so. I will probably think of a load of things when I listen to what everyone else has said. And that’s probably when I’ll be thinking ‘damnit, I wish I’d said that’. But no, I think… no, it’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a lot of fun doing the thinking around it. And I think the next time we have you and Josie over, we’ll just have to make sure it’s a Greek dish that we dish up.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you Simon. That’s excellent, thanks.
[00:20:13] End of Transcript.