In any English town

Mark Honigsbaum, the Guardian:

Curators, librarians and archivists across Britain are being asked to scour their collections in search of documents and items relating to the lives of gay people, with a view to establishing a “virtual museum” of lesbian and gay history.Backed by the museums documentation watchdog, MDA, the group Proud Heritage this week began sending out a two-page survey requesting that institutions throughout the country list the gay and lesbian documents and artefacts in their collections. “For the first time ever, we are asking museums, libraries and archives throughout Britain to revisit their holdings and reveal what they have that is queer,” said Proud Heritage’s director Jack Gilbert. “At the moment these are not classified correctly, or held completely out of context and never see the light of day.”
[…]
According to Mr Gilbert the aim is to establish a national database first, featuring a few key virtual exhibits. Once the database was up and running, he said, Proud Heritage would look for a site for a permanent museum, possibly in the King’s Cross area of London.

At the moment these are not classified correctly… You don’t have to be Dave Weinberger to have mixed feelings about that statement. Clearly there’s a case for saying that many of these artifacts aren’t classified adequately, inasmuch as historians of gay experience don’t have an obvious point of access to them – and this could be provided by the proposed database. And, clearly, tagging an artifact with ‘gay’ doesn’t preclude tagging it with ‘Wales’ and ‘early nineteenth-century society’ (the Ladies of Llangollen) or with ‘literature’ and ‘penal reform’ (Wilde’s cell at Reading Gaol).

But classifying an artifact only as ‘gay’ would, in almost all imaginable cases, be no more ‘correct’ than classifying it under any other single term. The project of a physical museum of gay history is welcome in terms of visibility, but in taxonomic terms it’s a step back from the purely ‘virtual’ database project. Like any other thematically-organised museum, it would consist – almost by definition – of exhibits which were ‘not classified correctly’ and ‘held completely out of context’.

Museums promote the illusion that the map is the territory: the structure and layout of the galleries, and the arrangement of the exhibits they contain, are designed to reproduce a certain way of structuring knowledge. (The perfect museum would be its own memory palace.) But an illusion is what it is. Objects can only reside in one place, but knowledge can be fluid and multi-dimensional; pressures to collapse those dimensions – whether in the name of group identity or commerce – should be resisted.

Not that group identity and commerce are necessarily that far apart.

Denis Campbell, the Guardian:

Six per cent of the population, or about 3.6 million Britons, are either gay or lesbian, the government’s first attempt to quantify the homosexual population has concluded.
[…]
Publication of the figure comes as big name companies such as Barclays bank, Hilton hotels and cosmetics giant L’Oreal join the growing rush to cash in on a gay economy which is worth tens of billions of pounds. Barclays has just received research which showed that gays and lesbians enjoy a combined annual income of £60 billion.
[…]
Barclays spokesman Michael O’Toole admitted the bank is very keen to woo Britain’s gays and lesbians by portraying itself as sympathetic to gays’ desire for equality. ‘We want to position ourselves as the bank of choice for Britain’s gay and lesbian community,’ he said. ‘There’s more of a push going on now to enter this market of about 2.5 million adults.’

The key word here is ‘market’. If Barclay’s is planning to make it easier for gay couples to take out mortgages and insurance policies, this is all to the good, but O’Toole’s ambitions clearly go further. The gay ‘market’ is not like, say, the ‘market’ represented by devout Muslims: Barclay’s plan for those 2.5 million adults is not to introduce them to personal banking, but to encourage them, firstly, to identify as gay; secondly, to perceive Barclay’s as a gay-friendly bank; and thirdly, to switch to Barclay’s on that basis. Identifying as English or middle-aged, a Frascati-drinker or a Manchester City supporter, a dog-owner or a Labour voter would just get in the way: if you’re gay, Barclay’s is the bank for you. The benefits for the bank are obvious; the benefits for their prospective customers, less so.

Knowledge – including our knowledge about ourselves – can be fluid and multi-dimensional; pressures to collapse those dimensions should be resisted.

PS I usually let my titular quotes stand with their cover unblown, but in this case I’ll make a partial exception. For me these are probably the best – certainly the most moving – four lines ever written on the subject of exploring knowledge and where it leaves you. What I’m still not sure about is whether it’s a despairing renunciation, a challenge or a celebration. Cue music:

About the university the pages let you down
It helps you find your way around in any English town
About the university the pages are in French
It helps you find your way around in any English town

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3 Comments

  1. annie
    Posted 6 February 2006 at 04:47 | Permalink | Reply

    Hi! Just discovered this site. Thought someone might be interested in contacting a Perth, Western Australian artist called Jo Darbyshire. She put together an absolutely remarkable exhibition at the Perth Museum in 2003 entitled ‘The Gay Museum’ where she ‘explores the ways we collect and represent history in museums. What happens, for instance, when so little has been collected to represent particular groups, such as gay and lesbian people? Drawing on the diverse scientific and cultural collections of the W.A. Museum, Jo plays with the possibilities of making new meanings through unlikely selection & association of artefacts’.

    At the time I was completing a History Phd thesis (now thank God done and dusted!) and became increasingly frustrated by the psuedo – scientific undertow of History, despite lively and intellectually vigorous writing by historians in the academy. To walk into an exhibition which was put together by an Artist made me convinced of the vibrant possibilites of what can be achieved when the markers are pluralised, rather than ‘owned’ and packaged into a neat heading. As a post script to this: I am not gay myself – although often happy – and this exhibit was extremely successful and appealed to a cross section of the community. Perhaps the venture in England being undertaken – and it is to be applauded – could take on board some artists with an interest in history. To neatly package this material under the title ‘Gay’ threatens to destroy the creative appropriation of images, objects, texts and music which is an intrinsic part of the ephemera which will be donated. Anyway – just an idea.

  2. wednesday
    Posted 10 December 2008 at 23:41 | Permalink | Reply

    OMG!

    What is the name of that song you got that quote from? And who sings it?

    Please tell me!! I must know

  3. Posted 11 December 2008 at 00:03 | Permalink | Reply

    Scritti Politti, “Messthetics”. Not their greatest moment even in the early years, but still quite compelling in a bleakly awful way. There’s an ‘early years’ compilation out for people who didn’t get the vynil at the time.

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