These are verbatim transcripts of interviews, reflecting spoken rather than written language.
INTERVIEWER: So today is Monday the 31st of January 2022, and this is a story interview for Out and About: Queering the Museum Project, at RAMM. My name is Nat McGrath, and I am interviewing Caleb Parkin today. Welcome Caleb.
PARTICIPANT 1: Hello!
INTERVIEWER: So we’re asking everyone to choose an object that they connect to from RAMM’s collections. Can you tell us which object you’ve chosen? And can you describe it to us?
PARTICIPANT 1: The object I have chosen from RAMM’s collections is a collection of sand samples by a poet called Ivor Treby. And Ivor Treby gifted this sand to RAMM. He actually gifted it to the Bodleian in Oxford, who didn’t want it. And then RAMM took the sand, but also they only took… well they only wanted to keep some of the sand. So there is a subset of this sand which is the rejected sand, which I’ve called the ‘rejected gay sand’.
INTERVIEWER: [Laughs] That’s wonderful. And so, today, because we’re in the museum today, today you actually got to see some of the samples of it live, in person. Can you describe what that felt like and what that looked like for you, as a set of objects?
PARTICIPANT 1: Yes. I had only met the sand as the data about the sand. So it was a spreadsheet. So I was doing some writing called ‘The Spreadsheet of Rejected Gay Sand’. Because that’s where all the information about the sand was. And actually, I found the language of sand really beautiful. The language of mineralogy, and of substrates, and all of that stuff, which was new to me. So I kind of really engaged with it linguistically and as data, before I ever saw the objects. Which is almost like the other way round to most museum visits, where you’re drawn to an object and then you find out more about it. But today we went and found… or I was shown the big box of sand samples, which is all these… you know, Ivor Treby collected them over many years of travel, and he went everywhere, was an extraordinarily well-travelled. But then there’s like, a plastic bag, with the ones that were on the spreadsheet that were, like, not wanted. So that was the rejected gay sand. And actually, it was really nice, because I found some of the ones I’d written about, from… well the altar of Machu Picchu in Peru, for example. Or Luxor in Egypt, and these archaeological sites that Treby would visit.
And it was quite moving, to actually see these sand samples that he collected over his whole life. And it occurred to me in seeing them that it felt very much, they were almost like his ashes. Not literally his ashes, but they are this kind of granular material that Treby left behind and bequeathed.
INTERVIEWER: And it was fascinating for us, because we looked at, didn’t we, kind of blown-up kind of visuals of the sand. And that informed the design work for the website and the project, with our designer, Frank Duffy. So the gay sand is pretty legendary.
PARTICIPANT 1: I don’t even know if I knew you were working with Frank Duffy?
PARTICIPANT 1: I love their work. I’ve got t-shirts and cards, and all sorts for Frank Duffy. They’re brilliant.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, they are.
PARTICIPANT 1: Ah, that’s so good! I’ll tweet them. [Laughs]
INTERVIEWER: So the gay sand has had a wide influence across this project. And so, I’m going to ask you about… so why this object? What drew you to it?
PARTICIPANT 1: What drew me to this object, or these objects, or this collection of objects, their composite object, was the language, I think. I was looking on the RAMMs catalogue and saw that here were all these sand samples. It comes up as a whole kind of, a whole sort of layer of strata or sand samples. And then I researched further, and found out it was this poet, Ivor Treby, who was a gay literary activist. And really interesting, interesting man. Very well-travelled, obviously. And so the language kind of drew me into it. And then just, the psychology of someone who wanted to collect all that, those little bits of sand.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah. I mean, you just wouldn’t… you wouldn’t think about it. But like I said a moment ago, it’s really resonated across the project, hasn’t it? You used the word ‘strata’ and I wonder if that kind of has, in terms of queer lives, whether that word has any impact for you, when you’re thinking about LGBTQIA lives or culture or ecology.
PARTICIPANT 1: Yeah, I think geological language is fascinating. We were just away down in Lyme Regis which is really geologically fascinating. And I was thinking again about all of that language and that imagery. And with Treby’s sand, as both the kind of strata and the layers that all of us have, and perhaps as queer people we feel we’re more aware of our layers sometimes. And some of them are… yeah, can be challenging. And some of them are wonderful. But we kind of become more aware of our strata. And of kind of scattering. And sand of course is a great one for scattering. And that we can feel I think quite scattered, and particularly over the pandemic we’ve felt very scattered. We haven’t had our shared spaces. But we still kind of find ways, I think, as queer people. So it’s a wonderful metaphor for lots of things, sand. And maybe Treby knew that. He was a poet. [Laughs]
I think he had… I don’t know, there’s an organised playfulness to what he collected. And maybe a queerness to that, in that he was collecting what felt like ‘important’, in inverted commas, sand. And he was collecting sand from places like flowerbeds near hotels and stuff. And maybe he was… I don’t know, there’s some of them, and some of the ones that are in the rejected bag, the rejects bag and the spreadsheet that he sort of felt were important. And maybe they have personal resonance, rather than archaeological resonance. And we can’t… we maybe will never know which they are. [Laughs]
INTERVIEWER: I mean, that’s fascinating, isn’t it? To think that potentially, maybe in those rejected samples that come from, you know, slightly obscure locations, or… that they have a real personal story. That he couldn’t tell at the time, because of criminalisation. Because of all kinds of things, when he was travelling. And I wonder, you know, whether his sexuality kind of determined the choices he made to travel. Whether he couldn’t settle… I wonder if you’ve thought about that notion of that kind of wanderlust? That he kind of obviously had.
PARTICIPANT 1: Yeah. And perhaps Treby felt not always that at home, or if we could make him feel at home anywhere. Or he could kind of connect with the ground anywhere through this collecting. Lots of his samples were of settings such as Roman bathhouse excavation sites. And I think there was a kind of playfulness there too, and an awareness of a possible queer subtext. Of… I think I said earlier, of kind of centurions meeting each other’s eyes across the steam or something. You know, and then I think that’s something that he was aware of too, and the layers of meaning in the places that he collected from. But we might never know, or certainly there hasn’t been enough kind of reading around him yet. We might never know what some of the personal resonances of some of the others are. And in that sense, they’re really kind of fascinating, symbolic objects.
INTERVIEWER: In a way I guess that’s okay, because there’s a leap of the imagination. And obviously, you know, there’s a connection for you. You’re a poet. Treby was a poet. And you’ve taken some imaginative leaps. And has that been fun to do, with the work?
PARTICIPANT 1: Yeah, very fun. And I suppose, I was reading a poem earlier about his Machu Picchu sand sample that may or may not be actually from Machu Picchu. The spreadsheets questions whether it was really sampled in situ, in Machu Picchu, which is nice to say. But some of the others, I was writing… I had some fun with kind of the bathhouse imagery in one of them as well. [Laughs] And researching the places that he went to as well. It was a real invitation to connect to the ground of all of those places he went. And he brought back a little bit of the ground. So he was obviously a deeply curious kind of man, and I think that’s maybe something we share as poets. We’re really nosy and curious, and we want to find out… and then find an image that works for that. And the sand for him obviously was one of those images that he kept going with.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, thank you. And do you think another LGBTQ person might connect with this object?
PARTICIPANT 1: I wonder if… finding out a bit more about the object, or these objects, you would start to connect with them. They maybe need a little bit of context. But that might depend on how they were displayed. [Laughs] I mean, you could tip them all out and make a sand pit. [Laughs] You can make a sandcastle, draw a willy in the sand or something, I don’t know. [Laughs] You could have some fun with it. But it’s a strange object to display, because it’s all these little vials. But actually in that respect I think they might be quite compelling to look at. So they’re not kind of perhaps overtly ‘queer’ in inverted commas, but I think there’s a queerness in his approach. And there’s are subtexts, which of course as queer people, we’re quite alert to subtexts a lot of the time. [Laughs] Or substrates. Substrate subtexts. That’s a sand word, the substrate. So I think, with a little bit of, err, digging – I can’t help using all this, like, sand language now – a little bit of digging, and then people would kind of connect to it. Because he was a really fascinating man as well, and his story’s really interesting as an activist, and a man who built networks and connections with other queer people and queer allies. So yeah, I hope that it would give people this sense of some objects that reach the hand across time and across generations. And Treby himself connected with his elder queer people. He was friends with an Edwardian… a man who was around in Edwardian times, and used to kind of talk to him about those stories.
So I feel like the objects are in some way kind of this, like a sandstorm blowing through, and they like, kind of travel across time. And connect us to him and his journeys. But I quite like that they’re not necessarily the kind of obviously queer, whatever that would be, objects as well.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, I mean I think that that’s what’s really interesting about this aspect, you know, these conversations that we’re having. That how actually your work opens up that object in a multitude of ways, to potentially a new audience. But also that then we’re not getting one definitive narrative of the sand, by exploring and interrogating in this way. And particularly through that queer lens. Do you think that Treby would be pleased that his rejected gay sand has now been kind of acknowledged? And particularly, you know, by yourself, who is also a poet and an activist, and all the many things that you are?
PARTICIPANT 1: I hope he would be pleased, and I think we probably… my sense was he was someone with a sense of humour. And certainly in the poem I read earlier on, the poem set around the Machu Picchu sand, I address him directly. And actually poems are one of the ways that we do that. And I think poems do speak across and between generations. And actually across centuries sometimes. So… and he passed away in 2012, and so in a funny way I sort of feel like we just missed each other. But that, you know, I’m kind of doing some of that work in the lineage that he was doing, and have kind of different freedoms and a different voice. But there’s still a connection to some of those experiences. And I do think that taking time to acknowledge some of the challenges that our elders and previous generations went through to get to some of those freedoms is really valuable. And it’s not always, as I say, it’s not always the objects you think are going to connect you to that.
So I think we’d probably have a giggle about it, and I think he’s probably quite enjoy that some of the sands, some were rejected. [Laughs] For the second time. Because they didn’t get to the Bodleian either. And they’re at RAMM. So yeah, I would like to think we could have a good chat about that.
INTERVIEWER: That’s great. How do you feel about having your voice represented in the museum?
PARTICIPANT 1: It’s lovely… it’s really nice to have my voice represented in… I’m going to start that again. It’s really nice to have my voice represented in the museum. I think, I grew up… my granny was a toy collector. She had a toy museum. And I grew up sitting and watching her toy collect. [Laughs] I may not have mentioned this before, I don’t know. So I would sit and read my book and keep an eye on this, you know, it’s 50p to come in to this toy museum that my granny had. And say collecting, she was a collector. So I feel like, I feel like my writing and the museum interest have all sort of joined up. And I write a lot about museums. So it’s really nice also to be heard in a museum, in this exhibit and through this work. And I suppose, yeah, feeling like I’m part of that kind of amalgam of queer voices and of objects and voices that make up a museum.
INTERVIEWER: Hm, yeah, that’s lovely. Thank you. And obviously, just for those, anybody listening, then if you don’t know, Caleb was a commissioned artist on this project. So your work has resonated from the very beginning of the work that we’ve been doing here at RAMM. So you know, could you just say a little bit about the importance for you of this project?
PARTICIPANT 1: Yeah. I think… I’ve been reading more and more critically about museums, and the more you do read critically, the more you kind of realise the gaps and omissions in museums. And how problematic they are, and how brilliant they can be. And I think sometimes the problematic stuff is also the pathway… Jana and I were just talking about this in the café, of like, there are limits to what museums can do. But also I think, the problems are potentially the pathways to the conversations around things like omitted histories, lack of LGBTQ voices, lack of women’s voices, lack of black and of colour voices, and decolonising museums. You know, they’re such knotty places, and there’s something about the objects that holds those conversations, I think. This kind of telling stories through objects, that has real power. So… and I think that power is tricky, and sometimes great. And I’m glad that the work is happening to start to fill in some of those gaps, and have the difficult conversations. And I think this project is a big part of that.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, brilliant. Thank you. Is there anything that you would like to talk about, that we haven’t touched upon, or that you wish that you had said when I’d asked one of the questions?
PARTICIPANT 1: I suppose the only other thing was that, because this was working on queering the museum, and the commissions were very digital, that’s been an interesting process to think about what you can do digitally, and what has to be in these special buildings for the special things. And it’s taught me a lot, the last two years of trying to do some of that work. But I do still love being in museums, as well as thinking, okay, if we can’t get to the museum or for people who can’t get to the museum still, which is still, we’re still in a pandemic, what can you do? And what can you do well? So that for me has been a really interesting… because that’s another aspect of inclusion and exclusion, and which voices, in terms of like, disabled people, people with, you know… so I think that’s a big thing that I’ve thought about during this too.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, thank you. That’s hugely interesting in terms of these particular interviews as well, because obviously we will make sure that there is access to them, and we will also have them transcribed so people can then read them. So we’re trying to kind of navigate that, and you know, using the web project, website, has enabled a reach when there hasn’t been. And we’ve learnt lots too, and sometimes you know, we’ve failed, and sometimes we’ve learned. And-
PARTICIPANT 1: I didn’t talk about queer failure. [Laughs]
INTERVIEWER: Yeah! [Laughs]
PARTICIPANT 1: That’s a big part of it.
INTERVIEWER: Do you want to say anything about queer failure?
PARTICIPANT 1: Oh, very… just very briefly, that was some reading that I did around the sand and the rejected sand. And Jack Halberstam’s idea of queer failure as quite a joyous thing. And that maybe, as LGBT+ people, we’re a bit more aware of and can celebrate failure as a, you know, ‘fail better’ and all the rest of it. Samuel Beckett. [Sirens ringing] Oh. That’s an exciting noise out there.
INTERVIEWER: It’s kicking off.
PARTICIPANT 1: It’s kicking off. Seagulls and sirens. Yeah, and I felt like that was something inherently… loads of sirens! [Laughs] [Pause] Something about the sand really spoke to Halberstam’s idea, and it was a while ago since I’ve read up on queer failure. [Laughs] But there’s loads of texts out there which I think speak to this, and then opportunities to learn through being ridiculous. Or messing up. [Laughs] Or getting things wrong. So… which I think is very valuable and can teach the straight world a thing or two about taking themselves less seriously. [Laughs]
INTERVIEWER: That’s brilliant, that’s a wonderful note to finish on. Caleb, thank you so much.
PARTICIPANT 1: Thanks.
[00:19:14] End of Transcript.