Queer lives: A new view of the British Museum

The LGBTQ Histories Trail at the British Museum offers a unique insight into an often-overlooked part of our cultural past and present. Mapping a path through the expansive ‘Desire, Love and Identity’ collection, this carefully curated trail invites participants to explore representations of queer love and identity. Moreover, the trail challenges viewers to consider how and why relationships, with ourselves and others, are explored through art and culture.

The trail begins with the marble ‘The Townley Discobolus’, also known as ‘The Discus Thrower’. The sculpture invokes the mythological story of Hyacinth, who was killed by a discus thrown by his lover Apollo and blown off course by a jealous Zephyrus. This myth, which evokes themes of masculine chauvinism, jealousy and pride, is tinged with a sadistic humour and elicits a sense of sorrow for lost potential. The figure, depicted mid-throw, bristles with athletic energy and encapsulates a deep sense of youth and possibility. Even amongst gods, love and desire can be fickle and frail, vulnerable to a world that is harsh and unforgiving.

Jumping over to Roman history we encounter the famous ‘Warren Cup’, which depicts two male lovers having sex. The cup, dating back to around 15AD, reminds us that homosexual love and sex isn’t something new, but has been practised and admired throughout history.

Moving from depictions of male homosexual love, we are invited to encounter objects from a range of cultures that depict genderqueer characters, including: a non-binary statue of a Mayan ruler; a depiction of the gender-assigning Mesopotamian deity Ishtar; and a gender ambiguous couple, known as the Ain Sakhri lovers, locked in sexual embrace. These items remind us that throughout history the concept of gender has morphed and evolved, holding no unchanging position in any culture.

The penultimate items on the trail, a pair of 18th Century porcelain chocolate cups, were the most captivating. The cups were previously owned by the infamous ‘Ladies of Llangollen’, Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby. These ornate, double-handled cups, each paired with monogrammed saucers and lids with gold-coloured rings attached, hold within them a rich and textured story of female love and companionship that once captivated the Victorian public. Bearing the image of their jointly owned house and their coats of arms, these cups are a celebration of queer love.

Despite the current lockdown, there is still a chance to explore these objects in perhaps even greater detail than would be possible in person, through the extensive digital archives that the British Museum has made publicly available. By uncovering these stories, the LGBTQ Histories Trail offers an affirming opportunity to see oneself reflected in the broad geography and history of artefacts on display throughout the British Museum. I would highly recommend it!

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Troy Fielder

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October 2021
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