These are verbatim transcripts of interviews, reflecting spoken rather than written language.
INTERVIEWER 1: Okay. So it’s the 2nd of December and we are in Exeter and this is a story interview for Out and About: Queering the Museum project at RAMM and I am Natalie McGrath and I am interviewing Jana Funke. Welcome, Jana.
PARTICIPANT 1: Thank you.
INTERVIEWER 1: So we are asking everyone to choose an object that they can connect to, so can you tell us which object you have chosen from RAMM and can you describe it to us?
PARTICIPANT 1: Yes, I’ll try. So I have chosen a bronze sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, who is obviously very famous in the South-West. Maybe it’s a surprising sculpture for her because it’s very small in scale. It’s an abstract bronze sculpture on a wooden plinth and it’s small enough almost to be carried. I mean it’s probably heavier than I think, but it looks like something that I could just pick up and take with me, but it’s in the museum so if you are near to the cafe in the courtyard, you can see it. And it’s an interesting object. Maybe it’s easy to overlook at first. There are other more striking objects in the collections. But it’s a beautiful object in its texture and shape, I think, so some people have said it almost looks like a pebble, so it has this oval shape and it’s very smooth, so the exterior is very smooth. You almost want to touch it, but then it has a hole in the middle and it has a very different texture, so I think she’s playing with bronze and the different kind of texture that bronze can have, and so there’s this opening that almost makes you want to discover the object and look inside and it’s really, really beautiful. The reason I’ve chosen it though is because it’s called Zennor and that is a place that I have a very strong connection with. A personal connection and also because of my research. So it’s really that link to Zennor which is a very small village, if it is even a village, but a very small place in Cornwall, close to St Ives where Hepworth of course lived and you can imagine her being at St Ives and walking to Zennor and being inspired by the really beautiful coastal landscape and scenery there, so that’s why I chose it.
INTERVIEWER 1: Brilliant. Just to, I mean you described the materials of it and the size of it and the fact that you almost think you could pick it up and that is unusual, Hepworth’s work is often of quite great scale and I really love that sense of there’s an opening in the middle of it and I wondered if you could talk more about that drawing you towards the object, is that actually there’s a moment of almost silence in the middle of it, whether you could talk about that more.
PARTICIPANT 1: Yeah, that’s a beautiful way of putting it. I like this idea of almost an unexpected opening that gives you access to something that you might not previously have seen as something that is for you or that belongs to you and so for me, that really speaks to my connection to Zennor, which when I first moved to Devon 11 years ago, I moved here for work, and I thought maybe I would stay here for a few years and then move somewhere else and for a long time, I think, Devon used to be a place where I just lived and worked and it wasn’t really part of my kind of personal life, but also over the last few years when travel wasn’t possible during the pandemic, I in a sense had to find other ways of relating to or connecting to the landscape and that’s one thing I wanted to say, of something opening up in an unexpected way for you, and so with Zennor there’s quite a lot of queer history actually associated with that place. That doesn’t have much to do with Hepworth, necessarily, but I think St Ives and Cornwall maybe unexpectedly were very queer spaces and there’s a lot of queer history, so I tend to work on modernist literature and culture, so early twentieth century literature and culture and a lot of the queer feminist artists and writers that I work on gravitated towards St Ives and specifically Zennor, so there are two people I am working on and I love their work, I love their life stories, it’s deeply meaningful for me, way beyond my academic research, but there’s a writer called H. D., who was an American poet and another writer called Bryher, this is obviously a pseudonym that they’d chose, they named themselves after one of the Scilly Isles, they hated their birthname. And H. D. and Bryher were in a lifelong open polyamorous relationship and they met in Zennor, so in 1918 Bryher was staying with a friend in Zennor, H. D. was staying in St Ives and Bryher was a fan of H. D.’s work and poetry and wrote this kind of, I imagine very sweet fan letter to H. D. and then they met up in that area and you can imagine them meeting and talking about their work and falling in love in that space and going on this beautiful coastal walk and the intimacy that would have developed there between them and that was the beginning of a lifelong unconventional open relationship, but a very deep, meaningful relationship for both of them, and so again going to this idea of this kind of unexpected opening up of something, for me is an unexpected opening up of a relationship that I can have to the South-West through that queer history. I imagine for H. D. and Bryher it might have been an unexpected opening of that relationship which would shape their lives in a way that they couldn’t have anticipated when they first met and I also think when you look at the landscape when you go to Zennor, there is a kind of physical opening up of that stunning beautiful scenery, I mean I send you lots of pictures when I’m on my walks there because it’s so stunning, but there’s this very narrow coastal path, initially you don’t see anything, and then all of a sudden you get to this point and there’s this amazing view of the ocean and the sea and so there’s a lot of things with this idea of an unexpected opening up that actually the sculpture captures and I find that really, really interesting and meaningful. There’s something very queer about an unexpected discovery or opening up of something.
INTERVIEWER 1: I imagine when you make these journeys, you go to these landscapes and these places and you have an understanding of the kind of facts of those relationships, but do you feel like those queer echoes, are you drawn, do they kind of call to you through the landscape?
PARTICIPANT 1: Absolutely and I think that has been a more recent way in which I am relating to my scholarship and to the people and the work that I’m researching. It’s a very embodied physical way of relating like going to a place and I like to talk about my lesbian or queer pilgrimages, and going to a space and taking in the scents and sounds and sights and it’s a very different way of relating that kind of goes beyond the more maybe intellectual way of relating to life stories or pieces of literature that we’re trained to do, so I find that very, very interesting and meaningful and I love how you talk about the queer echoes of the past, and I really do feel that, and I think H. D. and Bryher are one example and I’ve gone to a lot of places that are connected to their life story, including Bryher, the island, which is one of my favourite places in the world, on the Scilly Isles, but also other queer people like Radclyffe Hall who I’ve worked on and we’ve worked on Radclyffe Hall together as well. They spent a lot of time in Devon and wrote about places in Devon and the South-West, so I think for me as a queer person I used to not really connect to the natural world at all, for me, I don’t know if that’s unique to me, or my experience as a lesbian woman or queer person but I felt like for me, nature was like for families and sporty people and hiking and [laughs] and everything that I did not want to be part of or that I did not relate to that at all and it’s really, yeah through my research or through my love for queer history that I have been able to develop a relationship to natural sites and spaces, specifically actually in the South-West and I think especially during the pandemic when you couldn’t go far and sometimes even going to Zennor, which is a two-hour drive, was impossible, but then being able to have these excursions and pilgrimages and trips has really been sustaining in a way, that has become more and more meaningful over the last few years when your lives were more restrained.
INTERVIEWER 1: That’s really interesting, isn’t it, that that kind of opening up and particularly how landscape can do that, but it’s really interesting you talking about embodies research and being able to maybe reflect. Are there any examples that come to mind? Either from the poetry of H. D. or the work of any of those writers who you have connections and have lived and have stamped their queer footprints in the South-West that has made you rethink their literary work by being in those landscapes?
PARTICIPANT 1: Yeah, absolutely. I mean maybe rethink is too strong but I think it’s given me a much deeper sense and appreciation of where they were coming from and maybe one good example is Bryher the island, so I was really intrigued why someone would choose to name themselves after this island, I mean it’s a great name, it’s an androgynous gender-neutral name, so in that sense I see the appeal, but obviously you could have chosen a lot of other places. And when I first went to Bryher, everything just made sense. Everything I’d read about Bryher and their work, it just made complete sense. And there’s actually a moment in one of their autobiographical novels where Bryher who was assigned female at birth talks about the sense of knowing that they were a boy and that is set on an island, the sense of really just knowing who you are and feeling secure in your knowledge, even if the world tells you you are something else or you are someone else and just having that sense of no, I know who I am and I am going to self-define my own life despite what people are telling me and what society expects from me. And I think going to Bryher you really get this sense of being quite contained on the island and there’s a safety in that, but also being so far-removed from the mainland and so far away from all the family and social expectations and all the kind of stuff that people place on you that of course this will be the space that I would feel like this is who I am and I am just going to live this life and inhabit this body in a way that makes sense to me and so, I didn’t really fully understand that before but going to Bryher and being on that island and experiencing that sense of safety and freedom really allowed me to feel, almost, what Bryher must have experienced there.
INTERVIEWER 1: Yeah, I mean that’s extraordinary to hear that and I wonder there is a real tension I think in, or there can be tensions in terms of urban and rural spaces, particularly in terms of LGBTQIA lives and actually what’s really fascinating about what you’ve said is how being in that very secluded rural place and I wonder if you could maybe talk about more that sense of value, of the fact that these stories do exist in rural and coastal kind of communities that seem like they couldn’t be further from urban queer culture, that Bryher absolutely understood who they were and not in a metropolis but on this practically uninhabited island. It is uninhabited-
PARTICIPANT 1: There’s a few, but very, very small-
INTERVIEWER 1: Yeah, so I wondered if you could just talk about that sense of the rural and finding those queer narratives there.
PARTICIPANT 1: Definitely, I mean I think that has been one of the huge joys of this project and living in the South-West and working with queer and trans people in the South-West is to actually move beyond the often quite biased narratives that we have that in order to be queer, trans and in order to be safe and visible, you have to move to the big city. There’s so much scholarship on queer London and New York and Paris and Berlin and that might give us the sense that actually that’s the only place where queer life or trans life can exist and I think living in the South-West and trying to find your own narrative of belonging in the South-West and working on other people’s lives has demonstrated that yeah, there is a richness and a beauty in rural, coastal, queer and trans lives. And this is something that is very present and I mean we are working for instance with young people, young LGBTQ+ people in Cornwall who are articulating their own identities and their own experiences, so that’s a very current situation and I love those collaborations, but then there’s also this really rich sense of history, of people like Bryher, H. D., Radclyffe Hall, actually travelling to the South-West to develop queer relationships, queer forms of intimacy, or a sense of self as in Bryher’s case. And I think there’s so much more work to be done around yeah, rural, coastal, queer and trans lives.
INTERVIEWER 1: So there’s a sense of you’re talking about personal acceptance and it’s interesting how this object, this beautiful sculptural artefact or object made by Barbara Hepworth led you this narrative down to geographically and things like that, so there’s real value in how the pieces of those stories build a bigger picture, perhaps, I don’t know whether you can say any more about that in terms of acceptance because obviously we’ve talked about this with Ackland and Edwards at the community, for them to keep returning, the community must have accepted them and they must have accepted who they were within that community and it works both ways. Does that, have you ever thought about that?
PARTICIPANT 1: Yeah, it’s really interesting, because I think with Judith Ackland and Mary Stella Edwards, they chose to return to a place and really made a life there, so you can imagine them being embedded in a neighbourhood and having those kinds of relationships with the people there and being very visible in that sense. I think with H. D. and Bryher, maybe even Radclyffe Hall, I get more of the sense of mobility, of travelling around different places in the South-West rather than really making a home for themselves, so Bryher and H. D. ended up spending a lot of time in Switzerland, for instance, that kind of ended up being their home at Lake Geneva, also a very beautiful setting, actually. But yeah there’s something interesting around this idea of mobility and stasis or mobility and stability and I guess we tend to maybe queerness more with mobility and movement and I’m quite drawn to this idea of queer domesticity and yeah, Ackland and Edwards making a home for themselves in the North of Devon and living that life and being embedded within those rural networks and again, something I’d be so keen to do more work on as part of our projects.
INTERVIEWER 1: Thank you. So do you think another LGBTQ people would connect with your chosen object?
PARTICIPANT 1: It’s an interesting question. I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot. I think if you just walked through the museum and you didn’t know anything about it, I think you would just be like, oh, it’s another Barbara Hepworth, which I mean there is quite a lot of Barbara Hepworth art in the South-West. There’s a huge sculpture on campus, for instance, which I see every day going to work, so I don’t know if immediately a queer or trans person might see it and be like, oh my God, this is my history embodied in a sculpture, so maybe not immediately, but I think if you know anything about the history and you’ve just said like when we put these pieces together, you all of a sudden see something different and that brings me back to this notion of an opening out, an unexpected opening out and that’s something I find quite interesting and hopefully affirmative for people to think about, that there can be an object that you just walk past without even noticing, but then once you know more about our histories, you can reframe it in a way where it has a hugely rich queer, trans, non-binary history, historical connection that hopefully can speak to a lot of different people, actually, who might in a sense claim quite different identities today but might be able to relate to that history.
INTERVIEWER 1: And do you think, you know, Hepworth, as you’ve already said, has a kind of iconic status in the South-West and was pioneering in her own way as amongst a very male-dominated set of artists in a particular part of Cornwall, St Ives; are there any crossovers in terms of Hepworth’s career and the timelines of Radclyffe Hall, or Bryher and H. D.? Might they have ever met? Do you imagine or would they have ever kind of summoned one another artistically or would there ever have been any kind of connecting forces there?
PARTICIPANT 1: It’s interesting. I mean I haven’t come across anything but I also don’t know that much about Barbara Hepworth, actually, so I would be curious to know. I mean definitely St Ives was a kind of queer space for many people and there were a lot of queer artists, so you do wonder, I think Hepworth moved there in the late thirties and the sculpture I am talking about is actually from the sixties, so quite a late piece, but I mean Bryher lived until the early eighties, so they might very well have been aware of each other but I don’t know if they were within the same network, so to speak. Although it’s interesting to imagine what might have happened at an imaginary dinner party in Zennor or St Ives.
INTERVIEWER 1: And how do you feel about having your voice represented in the museum? What’s the importance of it for you, this project?
PARTICIPANT 1: I mean obviously I can’t really complain about being part of the installation because [laughs] we were both very instrumental in making this happen. I do think it’s odd. I think there’s something very odd in terms of becoming almost a museum object yourself. [laughs] We talk a lot about the kind of flaws and mistakes people make when you are categorising objects and you’re labelling things and then for my voice in this case to be part of an installation, there’s something quite odd about it. I think I’m also quite hesitant sometimes to say that my voice is the voice that has to be included. I don’t know if my voice is more important than other people’s voices. I mean the reason why I think it’s important for me to be part of the installation is more that we are obviously expecting other people to put themselves out there and we are asking other people to be visible and to be recognisable as queer or trans in a very public space and there is still a risk associated with that, I think especially for trans non-binary people at the moment to be out and to be visible in that sense, and so I almost feel like if I am expecting other people to do that, then I should also put myself out there and become part of this installation. There’s something also beautiful then in the collective nature of it and the whole project has been about bringing together different voices and sometimes voices that might be dissonant in a certain way or might not be totally coherent and yet you can bring them together and there’s a queerness I think, in weaving together voices that might not necessarily immediately speak to each other or be in harmony with each other and so in that sense, I’m really excited to be one voice amongst others and in terms of the importance, I mean I hope what it does is for people to say well, you walk past all these objects if you’ve been to the RAMM, you might not even look at them anymore and just to encourage people to walk through the museum with an open mind and to really think about the fact that any object might have a queer or trans or non-binary history or resonance or association and we just need to have the knowledge; we just need to have the information, the background knowledge, to reframe those objects, and then there is an incredible beautiful richness that we can actually get at and access through the collections.
INTERVIEWER 1: And I think then just to follow that up is that the next question is what do you hope others will take away from that installation? And I just wondered if you could answer that? But just pursue that notion of the richness for a kind of a wider public, what that might mean as well?
PARTICIPANT 1: Absolutely. I mean I think we often have a quite narrow sense of what counts as LGBTQ+ history. Who is included within LGBTQ+ history and I am really excited about this idea of broadening that out and actually saying there is an overwhelming amount of queer and trans history that we should celebrate and recover and I am I guess pushing against this idea that we often rightfully talk about the fact that our archives and stories have been erased and have been destroyed or haven’t been carefully protected or preserved, that we’ve been written out of history. And that’s really true and I think we need to say that and hold onto that, and that erasure in a sense is something that we need to remember, but at the same time I also want to move beyond this idea that we are just not there and actually say we just need other methods or other approaches or other ways of looking at objects, collections, archives, to say that actually there is a hugely rich, exciting, beautiful queer trans history that we can still access and celebrate and share between us through our different perspectives and I guess the other thing to say about richness and what I hope people will take away from my story or my framing of the object, or maybe the object itself, is that objects can mean different things, you know? If a Barbara Hepworth scholar had been doing this interview, they would have had a totally different way of thinking about the object, because I work on Bryher and H. D. that’s one way of looking at it and I guess also just to encourage people to be generous in their interpretations of objects and history more broadly, so I guess one thing I would want to say with regard to Bryher is that obviously I’ve been using they / them pronouns, I’ve been kind of framing them as part of trans or maybe non-binary history, talking about their identification as a boy, which is not to say that we can’t also read Bryher as a part of cis lesbian history or also acknowledge that their relationship to H. D. should be part of lesbian history and celebrated as such, and so I guess what I am saying in terms of generosity is to say that these different readings of a life story, of a form of intimacy, of a relationship, they can and should co-exist and we don’t have to fight over specific people or stories or objects and say this has to be this or that, this is mine or yours, but actually even object or story or a figure like Bryher can resonate with us across LGBTQ+ identities or experiences, then that’s even more exciting. And that’s a way for all of us to connect and again that goes back to richness and the idea of bringing together different voices and perspectives.
INTERVIEWER 1: That’s lovely. Thank you so much.
[00:25:25] End of transcript