These are verbatim transcripts of interviews, reflecting spoken rather than written language.
INTERVIEWER 1: It is the 26th of November, 2021, and we are at Wellcome Collection, London, to record a live story interview for the Out and About: Queering the Museum project at RAMM. My name is Jana Funke and I am interviewing Rowan today, so thank you for being here. We are asking everyone as part of this project to choose any object from the collections that you can connect with in some way. So can you tell us a little bit about the object that you’ve chosen and also maybe describe it to us?
PARTICIPANT 1: Yeah, so the object I’ve chosen is a taxidermy Luna moth. They’re very beautiful minty-green moths with these long winding tails, so they’re quite a beautiful moth that I think gets mistaken for a butterfly quite a lot.
INTERVIEWER 1: And why have you chosen it? I mean, why does it speak to you or why do you connect with that object?
PARTICIPANT 1: Yeah, so when I walked around the museum to choose an object, I kind of had an idea of what kind of object I wanted to do and then that kind of went out the window when I saw the Luna moth. [laughs] Because it just felt perfect. I have a tattoo of a Luna moth on my right forearm and I think it just really connected with that and the way I feel like I’ve been able to use tattoos as a way of kind of reclaiming my own body, so it really resonated with that.
INTERVIEWER 1: Are you happy to say a bit more about that? About tattooing and I guess this idea of engaging with your body through tattooing?
PARTICIPANT 1: Yeah. So I definitely, I think I am someone who was always very much always like, I don’t want a tattoo, I don’t like tattoos, I find lots of tattoos ugly. [laughs] But I think eventually at about 21 I decided to get a very small tattoo of a bee and all my tattoos are insects and at that point, I just, the feeling I had from getting that tattoo meant that I wanted a lot more. I’m going to get three more tattoos tomorrow. [laughs] But I think there’s just something really lovely about as a trans non-binary person feeling very disconnected with your body, being able to use tattoos as a form of visual art to reclaim that space of your body and reconnect and be able to fall in love with your own body in that way.
INTERVIEWER 1: Absolutely and your tattoo is really beautiful, so [laughs] not ugly [missed] [00:02:33]. What about moths? Is there something in particular about moths that speaks to you? Or is it more the taxidermy aspect of it?
PARTICIPANT 1: I think it’s a bit of both. I love both. I actually used to come to the RAMM growing up. I’m an illustrator now and I used to go as a child and go and do drawings of all the taxidermy, so there’s that lovely resonance for me but also I’ve always loved insects a lot, I’ve always loved moths and I’m always really fond of moths that look like something else, so I also have a hummingbird hawkmoth tattoo, which I remember seeing for the first time as a child and being completely mystified because they look like a tiny bird. They look exactly like a hummingbird. They move like a hummingbird. [laughs] And there’s something about being viewed as one thing but being something else that I think is really speaks to me quite a lot and I think again with the Luna moth, they’re often assumed to be butterflies but are actually a moth. I think it connects to a lot of personal ideas of queerness and gender and how you relate and how the world relates to you as well.
INTERVIEWER 1: Yeah, I think that’s really interesting. And when we walked around the museum and when you pointed out the moth, I mean, I thought it was a butterfly and I guess it does challenge, how do we categorise objects, things, people, just by looking at them and how we can get that wrong, and I think a lot of the RAMM collections raise that question about categorisations and attempts to categorise things and how that can also fail and not always be very helpful, so I love that idea of something being different from what it might appear to be or seem to be. I can definitely see the queer trans resonances of that. So I guess building on that, do you think another LGBTQ+ person might connect with the moth if they saw it or do you think it’s quite a unique relationship that you have with that object?
PARTICIPANT 1: I think it’s interesting because I think it definitely feels like a very personal one. But I do know lots of queer people like moths as this kind of, I don’t know, lots of people don’t like moths or they are scared of moths, but a lot of the time people can’t tell the difference between a moth and a butterfly, as you said, so there’s this kind of fondness for these kind of slightly benign [laughs] creatures who are just minding their own business, so I think queer people would resonate with it and would often, like there are narratives that use butterflies and caterpillars as this visual narrative for transness and that kind of like moths as an alternate version of that as this less clear, less linear, like, what is it vibe. [laughs] But it definitely has a lot of personal resonance from my personal interest in taxidermy to my love of insects as well.
INTERVIEWER 1: That’s really interesting. I can definitely see that with butterflies there’s often this quite linear and also problematic like coming narrative of transformation; being one thing and then emerging as another, which I mean people might want to challenge for many reasons and I love what you say about moths, offering us a different way of thinking about that. That’s really interesting. About taxidermy, I know you’ve done some work on the Humboldt monkey as well, [missed] [00:06:05] I mean what is it that draws you to taxidermy? I mean you know that I used to have a huge phobia around taxidermy, so I am curious to hear. Also maybe as a child what it was about seeing taxidermy and drawing it and that’s really interesting.
PARTICIPANT 1: I think a lot of it is my love of nature growing up so it was definitely like my special interest as a child was insects and birds and nature and I think being able to see them in this scientific way and I love the big cases of pinned butterflies and moths and insects where you can see them in that beautiful scientific context and yeah, using them as this kind of means of practising drawing and learning to draw was very formative for me. And I think I love this kind of thinking about these early scientific uses of them as well and thinking about Victorians catching butterflies and learning about them and thinking about them as scientific objects for the first time. I definitely, to be clear, I feel very against taxidermy that’s from hunting. It’s definitely like scientific antique taxidermy I’m interested in or ethical taxidermy. And yeah, I think there’s just something about that I always found really interesting. I started collecting taxidermy at about 17. I got a duck. [laughs] Called Peter. [laughs] And then another duck called Melvin and all my taxidermy is either birds or insects. And I don’t know, I just find them very beautiful and I like thinking about them, and their histories as well, so one of my Victorian birds, I’ve got a little pied wagtail and it came with its museum label attached, in French, like a handwritten Victorian museum label and I love thinking about all of those layers of it as well as kind of creatures with histories and also objects with histories and the way people have interacted with them.
INTERVIEWER 1: Oh, that’s really interesting. How objects are categorised and classified within collections and the museum context, that is really interesting. So I guess related to that and thinking about the museum as a space and the collections and now your voice in a sense being part of that archive and becoming part of the collection alongside other LGBTQ+ voices; so how do you feel about having your voice in the museum? A museum that you know growing up and that you’ve visited many times and what is the importance for you of I guess being part of this project?
PARTICIPANT 1: I think for me it feels really important. A lot of the work I do is in looking at queer museum topics and looking at how we can shift narratives within museums but from a more personal context as well, growing in the South-West, and kind of being closeted for most of my teens, I think being able to have come to the museum as a teenager and heard people openly talking about their sexualities, openly talking about their genders, would have been so transformative for me whereas I don’t really think I heard anyone openly talking about those until I was older, so I think feeling these connections and reconnecting with a space that is really special to me and being able to tell my own story but also be part of thinking about the stories within it, was really nice and powerful.
INTERVIEWER 1: Absolutely and I love this idea of someone listening to your voice and then wandering into the butterfly room and then yeah, looking at that moth, knowing it’s a moth! First of all. And looking at it in quite a different way, potentially.
PARTICIPANT 1: Yeah, I think it’s always nice being able to recontextualise objects that seem quite mundane as well, like as you said I’ve done quite a bit of work on this taxidermy Humboldt monkey as well and I think people always find it really funny when I talk about it because it does seem like such a random object that you can then spin this whole history and context about and I think that’s nice, being able to see how other people interact with objects and respond to things, which is not always like the traditional way of interacting with a museum. You just see an object in a total, with a label, this is what the object is.
INTERVIEWER 1: Absolutely. And I mean that’s what I would love for the installation to achieve, is to say that you know there are so many different ways of looking at objects and different stories that are attached to these objects, so I think that’s a really important point. So one other question that I had was I guess, what do you hope other people and specifically LGBTQ+ people might take away from the installation?
PARTICIPANT 1: I think one of the main things always is thinking about interpretation in museums as being able to feel like it’s for you as well as being an abstract place. I think lots of people feel out of place at museums or feel like it’s not aimed at them and so feeling like these kind of narrative and stories and personal elements you can resonate with are for you, I think is really powerful and important and I think also being able to like I know as a young queer person growing up in the South-West, I felt very, like I loved growing up in Devon but it felt very disconnected from it in a lot of ways. I moved to London two days after I turned 18. [laughs] And I used to come home and see my mum for a few days but I never really would spend that much time in Devon because of having like a weird relationship with it from growing up queer and I think it’s been really powerful being able to reconnect with it and like look at queer local histories as well, so I grew up right next to Powderham Castle and thinking about William Courtenay who is a figure I was kind of tangentially aware of, has been really amazing and thinking about these queer histories right next door. Daphne de Maurier as well and kind of start thinking of myself less as this lone queer figure and being part of this landscape of [missed] [00:12:36] history has been really nice and has helped me reconnect with my love of the South-West in a lot of ways, so I hope yeah, both of those things, like creating a space that feels welcoming, that resonates with queer people, but also helps them kind of resonate as a whole with their area as well.
INTERVIEWER 1: That’s a really beautiful way to end the interview, so thank you so much, Rowan, thank you.
PARTICIPANT 1: Thank you.
[00:13:05] End of transcript