Magic Lantern Slide: Christchurch Priory, the Shelley Tomb

These are verbatim transcripts of interviews, reflecting spoken rather than written language.


INTERVIEWER 1: It is the 19th of November 2021 and we are in Penryn, Cornwall, to record a live story interview for the Out and About: Queering the Museum project at RAMM, and my name is Jana Funke and I am interviewing Elliott Falkus today. So we are asking everyone to choose an object from the RAMM museum collections that you can connect to. So can you tell us a little bit about the object you’ve chosen and can you describe it to us as well? 

PARTICIPANT 1: So the object I’ve chosen is slightly less accessible than maybe a necklace or a dress or a butterfly specimen, but it’s a magic lantern slide of the inside of Christchurch Priory in Devon. It’s a slide taken by William Weaver Baker who is featured a lot in the RAMM collections as a pre-eminent photographer of his age, kind of taking photos of everything and then donated it all to the RAMM, and it’s a photo of, or a slide, I should say, of the Shelley tomb that was commissioned by Sir Percy Shelley, one of Mary and Percy’s surviving children, and it entails kind of a drowned Percy Shelley with a Mary Shelley kind of hovering over him holding his body and it was supposed to go to Bournemouth to actually be the tomb for Mary Shelley and Percy Shelley’s heart, of course, love a bit of idolatry of body parts, it’s always fun. And it was supposed to go to the Bournemouth where their bodies were buried but it was rejected because it was seen as, it doesn’t really say why it was rejected, but it was seen as a bit gauche. It’s certainly a very dramatic tomb, so it kind of just ended up in Christchurch Priory in Devon. It’s very, the tomb itself is very intense. It’s kind of this very dramatic Renaissance posing of Percy Shelley’s drowned body kind of covered in seaweed and debris from his drowning, with the mourning Mary Shelley holding him and I can probably see why it was rejected from Bournemouth, so yeah, it’s the slide of an image of a tomb, so a few levels of interpretation but here it is. 


INTERVIEWER 1: Thank you so much for that really evocative description. So obviously there are so many objects at the RAMM. Why did you choose this one and why does it resonate with you? 

PARTICIPANT 1: So I chose, I had a big catalogue of objects that I was particularly interested in. There was a sphinx statue that I was interested in. There was a wonderful painting of Richard II and all of these, oh and of course the death’s-head hawkmoth specimen. All of these things I think had some kind of queer evocativeness to them, whether that’s historical or kind of interpretive, but this slide I chose for very personal reasons really. Frankenstein is the best novel ever written. It’s my favourite novel. As an English student who didn’t read any of the books set over his degree, I can say that Frankenstein certainly for me the most important novel I’ve ever read and there’s so much queerity to the Shelleys and to their romantic circle and to Frankenstein both on a literary level and the legacy of Frankenstein as well. So it’s almost threefold. It’s the Shelleys themselves, this romantic queerness, the Byronic bisexual madness, the idealism of running off to Switzerland and all lying around on the chaise longues with you and all your queer friends just making up ghost stories, which is wonderfully romantic and there’s also the novel itself, which is as I said the greatest novel ever written, but there’s a lot been said in terms of Victor Frankenstein as a queer figure, certainly a homosexual figure with the way he and Clerval’s relationship and Walton’s relationship to him seems like every man he meets in his journey is just like oh, I have fallen in love with you, you weird, weird scientist. Not a doctor. Never got his degree, but he’s certainly a scientist. And then there’s also the inherent I think transness of creating life, whether that be self-determinate or creating life for someone else and there’s yeah, there’s lots of work been done in terms of the gayness of Frankenstein. I think lots of work with the transness of it as well, but I think there’s still some more work to do in terms of that, but yes, there’s lots of trans rage and trans joy to kind of be found in, not just Frankenstein but also the legacy of even the word “Franken,” the idea of the unnatural body, the remade stitched-up, stitched together body, which I suppose is what general transphobia wants me to think my body is, but you know, I rather see myself as a Victor Frankenstein rather than his creation. But yes, the prefix Franken, and the idea of hybridisation and creation through unnatural means and skipping God in the process of making is so trans and so brilliant and there’s a wonderful essay by Susan Stryker on trans rage and trans performance which is kind of heavily-reliant on – Words to Victor Frankenstein, so yes, there’s so much transness to be found in Frankenstein, I think in a very nebulous sense. It’s very self-determinate and it’s very pointing at something and being like, I like this, I’m trans, therefore it’s trans, those are the rules. So yes, there’s a lot of just wonderful inherent queerness to Frankenstein. 


INTERVIEWER 1: I really love how you talk about the different layers and also you have the joy in self-creation and making and challenging ideas about the natural and how that’s often mobilised in different ways. When did you first read the novel? And if you’ve read it several times, has your reading changed or shifted in some ways? 

PARTICIPANT 1: So I read it first when I was probably 16 and at that time I suppose I hadn’t really sorted out my trans identity at the time. I started I suppose identifying as genderfluid when I was about 14 and that kind of moved on, developed in my mind, so when I first read Frankenstein I think I was just taken aback by how every single page has this self-, the most beautiful writing you’ve ever, ever written, and that’s every, every paragraph says something new about the human condition and I just remember writing up half of the book and putting it all over my walls and just thinking God, Victor Frankenstein was the silliest little twink in the world and I love that, I absolutely love that, and I suppose my readings, I don’t think I’ve ever read it again in full, but I’ve definitely read parts of it, but I think I am one of the only people who appreciates every single iteration of Frankenstein. Certainly in a fidelity level I can understand why it’s supposed to be a romantic story to Shelley aficionados who would help the James Whale Universal film. But I love that for another reason. It’s levels of the creation of this myth and this kind of publicly-owned figure of Frankenstein’s monster. It’s a shame that the creature is referred to as a monster, because anyone who has read the book knows that abandonment breeds hatred and it’s all about nature versus nurture, but yes, the Universal film was directed by a gay man who wasn’t closeted at the time which I think is fantastic, yeah, directed by a gay man and he made lots of very distinct choices about making the film as perverse as possible, lots of anti-God and anti-capitalism stuff in there which is wonderful and him being a gay man I think has kind of been understated in terms of the creature’s portrayal, because I read that his partner said after his death that he wanted to, because he was from Dudley, he was the Black Country, and he had a very working-class background, but was working in Hollywood. James Whale. And his partner made it very clear that to him the creature was not a symbol of homophobic oppression but was a symbol of a kind of a class outcast and a social and economic outcast rather than a queer outcast, so that’s, I don’t think we should put too much onto James Whale but we can still take from it, personally. I suppose a relatability of the creature, the fact that he is unable to speak, unable to… is used for, is thrown aside when created, yes, I think can be very relatable, regardless of the original director’s intentions. 


INTERVIEWER 1: Absolutely, and I think that’s really interesting how the text can move through time and take on different meanings and has these layers of meaning that you’ve been talking about in such interesting ways. One thing on the project that we are finding very interesting is how objects that might not be overtly queer or trans can resonate with people in different ways and you’ve been talking about that. So with this particular object, do you think other LGBTQ+ people might connect to it? Or do you think it’s quite a unique relation that you have to this slide? 

PARTICIPANT 1: I hope so. As I kind of said before, there has been some work in terms of queer Frankenstein, particularly trans Frankenstein and I’d hope so but I also know that it is a layer of connection that’s, it’s the book and it’s the subtext and text and legacy of the book then it goes down to Mary Shelley and then it goes down to the actual tomb and then it goes down to the actual picture of the tomb and then it goes down to the slide being somewhere in the RAMM archives, so it’s not the most accessible object in a way. It’s not really touchable or even really viewable in a very traditional museum sense. You can put it behind a little glass case and do some interpretation on it but that is the kind of nature of museum collections is that you have your huge paintings and you have your Queen Victoria’s dresses and you’ll have your collection of butterflies and moths but there will be lots of little things behind the scenes, you’ll have your sand and your specimens and your little magic lantern slides that they might not ever see the light of day, but through digitalisation, and kind of proliferation of collections online that will be able to kind of find something and resonate with it even if we can’t see it in person. So I would hope that another queer person would point at the box and go, aha, I also think that Frankenstein is a trans icon. But maybe I have to do that work. Maybe I have to go out and reveal and make people relate to Frankenstein in a trans way, but certainly this is the most joyful object I’ve found, but yes, it allows me to go down a very nerdy rabbit hole of Frankenstein. 


INTERVIEWER 1: I love it, because I mean it’s a tomb and yet there is joy to be found in the story and in the different layers that you are talking about which I think is really beautiful and I also think the way you are framing it for other people opens up these meanings and hopefully encourages other people to look at objects and see what the different means are and the different possible interpretations so how do you feel about being part of this project and having your voice in the museum as part of this installation? 

PARTICIPANT 1: On a first level I obviously feel very proud to be out there. On a less fun level, quite anxious is the wrong word, apprehensive is also the right word, but frightened at how it may appear to I suppose to other people. There’s something inherently dangerous about being trans and leaving the house and this is very, very leaving the house. Be it yes, there’s the being trans and being public is difficult and you know, I think it will be difficult for the foreseeable future, so there’s always the kind of fear of backlash and that kind of fear, but also it’s I mean we’re starting to Section 28 is kind of how it feels as well and I’m doing an MA in heritage at the moment and a lot of that is very critical of museums and the way museums have been run and the fact that there are projects like this happening is very, very encouraging when it sometimes feels like wading through very Victorian, very white, very straight, very cis mud. So it is encouraging knowing those things are going on as well as kind of decolonising and de-Section 28’ing collections, not just collections but interpretation which I would argue is almost as, well, more important than the actual collection. We may not, this slide may not be on display but it’s still there and the interpretation is there as well, so it is step one. But it is a very big, very positive step forwards and hopefully a very beautiful step forwards. 


INTERVIEWER 1: That’s what I’m also hoping and I love that you are focusing on joy and that’s really, really important, but I also hear what you are saying about the risks in being visible and present and having your voice out there and I really appreciate that you are part of this project despite the risks that are involved in doing that. So I guess to conclude, is there anything that we haven’t covered? Anything about the object or the project or the broader themes that you would like to say? 

PARTICIPANT 1: Yes, Frankenstein is a wonderful book. This is a wonderful little slide. I would encourage trans youth to find as much joy in being a hybrid monster as possible, because there is an absolute joy in self-creation and self-determination, even if you are told there is not. I suppose also there’s, it’s very hard to find trans heroes. Even if you ask trans youth, now, name one historical trans person, it’s really hard to come up with someone who there are questions about their gender identity who aren’t seen as no, they were just gay, or they were just extravagant, they weren’t actually trans. And I think finding literary interpretations of trans people can be a replacement for real life heroes and when I was a young lad and around kind of developing myself when I was a teenager, first reading Frankenstein, I was like this effeminate intelligent, stupid, stupid man, Victor Frankenstein, I was like he, I read him as transmasculine and transfeminine and I just remember relating to him so heavily in a kind of, probably not a healthy way or at least kind of a self-deprecating kind of way but I remember him being a trans hero for me, when I was kind of working out what kind of man I wanted to be, I didn’t have a lot of real world heroes. I had my dad. I also had David Tennant’s Doctor and I had Victor Frankenstein and those were the kind of gender awakenings that I think that a lot of trans youth have, is that they don’t work out what gender they are through real life heroes because those heroes and stories have been so muddled and so exterminated in some cases that we often have to find fictional heroes. For that Victor Frankenstein was my trans hero.  


INTERVIEWER 1: Yes, I think that’s a really beautiful way to end, if you’re happy with that. Thank you so much. 

[00:21:50] End of transcript