Joe Galliano came up with the idea for Queer Britain, the UK’s national LGBTQ+ museum, during the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalization of homosexual acts in England and Wales. Discouraged by the focus on male homosexuality and on legislation, he launched a bid to preserve histories that have been ignored or destroyed. If all goes well, the museum will open in London in a few years.
In this episode, Galliano talks about the UK’s history of anti-gay legislation, how he is working to create a ‘catalytic space’ at Queer Britain, and why the medium of museums is right for this project.
The word ‘queer’ was synonymous with ‘strange’ or ‘weird’, and a common slur thrown at LGBT individuals. Activists in the 1980s reclaimed the word and used it as an umbrella term for a wide range of sexual orientations and gender identities. Nowadays, queer is an increasingly popular way to identify within the community, but as historical traumas persist, and the word can still be found in hostile environments, it’s important to note that not everyone is in agreement. Joe Galliano and Queer Britain use the term as a proud self-identifier, and an intentional move away from using the word ‘gay’, and male homosexuality in general, as a stand-in for all identities.
Sponsor: Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, GW University
This show is brought to you by the Museum Studies Graduate Program at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design at the George Washington University. With a graduate degree in Museum Studies, you will be equipped to respond to the evolving museum profession by engaging in hands-on training in the heart of the nation’s museum capital. To learn more, click here.
Topics and Links
00:15: Joseph Galliano
00:35: 50th anniversary of the Partial Decriminalization of Homosexuality in England and Wales
01:55: Legislation from the 'Buggery' Act to Today
02:58: Legislation Focusing on Male Homosexuality
04:00: "Rightful Place"
04:43: The Word Queer
05:28: The Plan for Queer Britain
06:20: Dan Vo at the V&A
07:25: Virtually Queer
08:45: Museums Asking Questions
10:40: Fundraising and Partnerships
12:09: Sponsor: Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, GW University
13:18: Outro | Join Club Archipelago
TranscriptBelow is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 58. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear and the only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.
Joe Galliano: Turns out, in order to launch a museum, it’s a long, complicated, expensive process. Who knew?
This is Joe Galliano, one of the co-founders of the Queer Britain Museum.
Joe Galliano: Hello, my name is Joe Galliano, the co-founder and CEO of Queer Britain, the national LGBTQ+ museum for the UK.
Galliano came up with the idea for a national LGBTQ+ museum in 2017, during the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalization of homosexual acts in the UK, an anniversary commemorated by cultural and heritage institutions across the country.
Joe Galliano: I felt slightly conflicted because it’s an anniversary that’s focused around men. It’s an anniversary that was focused around criminality and victimhood. Some of the fairly familiar tropes that we get rolled out that we get when we start talking about gay men, largely, and it’s not very inclusive. We’re living in a world, thankfully, where there’s a rich and wildly diverse set of sexulaitlies and gender identities and it left me slightly sad that it wasn’t entirely recognized. And also the fact that it was hung on an anniversary, and I didn’t wanted it to be another 50 years before there was something major happening again and I wanted to make sure that we build on the momentum that was being gathered around that anniversary and that it didn’t just fizzle away: it turned into something with real lasting value.
The emphasis on an anniversary of legislation could have come from the context of a long history of formal, legal repression of male homosexuality the UK, going all the way back to the Buggery Act of 1533.
Joe Galliano: We had the Buggery Act, which was introduced under Henry VIII, which was very much around male sexuality, male same-sex attraction and policing that. And this all stayed on the books in various forms until 1967 when there was partial decriminalization. With partial decriminalization, the age of consent was set at 21, where it was 16 for everybody else. At that point, as well, prosecutions absolutely rocketed. As soon as there was some allowance for people to behave naturally, it then became a bigger stick to beat people with.
The legislation only focused on male homosexuality, which is, of course, telling.
Joe Galliano: It’s interesting that those laws were always about men. Women with same sex desire were almost rendered invisible to public life and the law. Yeah, I think there’s also, if we’re talking about that kind of legislation, there actually have been a prejudice, a lot of it is about patriarchy, about male views of sexualty and sex, who has an active sexuality, who has a passive sexuality. I think through a large portion of history, women’s sexuality was seen as in service to male sexuality, and so would you legislate against that? There are also some stories. When some of the later bills will brought to Queen Victoria, they were too embarrased to talk about lesbianisim or anything like that. How much truth there is in that, I don’t know.
Of course, the focus of Queer Britain will not be legislation. But as Galliano says, the laws previously on the books, and the increasing number of violent homophobic and transphobic attacks in the UK today have distorted the country’s understanding of itself — and tie directly into the mission of the museum.
Joe Galliano: We’re talking about a central hub that will visible globally and within the mainstream that will give a message that here is a catalytic space that will collect our stories and here’s a way of helping progress Britain’s understanding of itself by giving Queer stories their rightful place. So that means rightful place within the culture. And also a rightful place. A place that can be their own.
The word ‘Queer’ has a complicated history. It wassynonymous with ‘strange’ or ‘weird’, and a common slur thrown at LGBT people. Activists in the 1980s reclaimed the word and used it as an umbrella term for a wide range of sexual orientations and gender identities. Today, Queer is an increasingly popular way to identify within the community, but as historical traumas persist, and the word can still be found in hostile environments, it’s important to note that not everyone is in agreement. Galliano and the Queer Britain Museum use the term as a proud self-identifier and as an intentional move away from using the word ‘gay’, and male homosexuality in general, as a stand-in for all identities.
The plan is for Queer Britain to have a physical space in London, opening sometime in the next few years. Although the UK is full of museums, some of which are have Queer artifacts and Queer stories, Galliano is conscious of how backsliding can happen. In legislation and culture, the laws and norms of today don’t guarantee that the future will look the same. Institutions like museums are a part of maintaining today’s momentum — and can give people who have had their stories told by others a chance to narrate their own history.
Joe Galliano: I think there’s fantastic movement within the museum communities now to Queer those spaces, to make sure they are unearthing those stories and seeing how they can weave them through the main of their collections. Are they there yet? No. Some places have gotten further than others. Some aren’t doing anything. But there’s some really really good work. I would look at a volunteer like Dan Vo at the V&A who is conducting really good museum tours, LGBT museum tours and is a great volunteer activist. I think that part of my fear is that much of the movement forward relies on activist curators and really excited volunteers and it doesn’t take too many people to leave the sector, and that’s lost. The other thing I think is really important is that there’s such a rich and wildly diverse set of stories to tell. That those museums are never going to be able to tell all of those stories. Whereas what we have the ability to do is to create a catalytic space, where we can pour all of those stories in and where we can keep telling different stories and we can change the exhibitions all the time. And that LGBT people can be in control of telling their own stories as well. Over history, so often, it has been other people who have told our stories.
When these other people and institutions tell the Queer community’s stories, they often become the de facto intergenerational gatekeepers — if they decide to keep and organize the information at all. This can have devastating consequences. Galliano is acutely aware that stories are being lost every day.
Joe Galliano: That’s about making sure that we’ve gathered the stories of people who are with us now. They can add their voices into the archives and become part of that. It’s important really that we gather the stories now while people can actually talk to us. In terms of understanding where we’re gonna be headed with the archive to start with is that we are designing a national survey of museums around the country, which we’re doing with the assistance of the National Archives. What we really want to do is just get a proper sense of what is the nation’s holding of material that we would think of as LGBT focused. That will mean that it will give us steer as to where are the important gaps. How do we fill those gaps? That’s going to kind of give us a sense of where to focus our collecting activity.
When a museum is still an idea, what the word museum means is still flexible. In addition to educational exhibits about Queer history and culture, the proposed museum is also a place for people to upload their own stories and The Whole projects serves as an antidote to the psychological damage of homophobic and transphobic attacks and oppression.
Joe Galliano: Museum’s an interesting word, isn’t it, because it comes with all sorts of baggage. And actually, we’re talking about something very much broader than just a museum in the traditional sense. They show inherently show what a culture values and they’re a really good way of understanding what we are now, understand how we got there, and then take that understanding and use them to imagine the best of all possible futures. They ask questions. Who are we? How did we get here? Who do we want to be?
It should be different every time you come to the museum when the physical space itself opens. Which we’re a few years off yet. What we’re looking at is a series of guest curators, a rolling series of guest curators so that each time we bring somebody in we’re like, “What is the story that you need to tell? What is the story that hasn’t been told? What’s the material that sits unexplored in other museums’ archives that we’re able to shine a light on?”
Sometimes it’ll be about the blockbuster exhibition. What’s the exhibition that’s going to be bringing lines ‘round the block? Which of the exhibitions will there be telling community stories that haven’t been told? For example, it could be everything from - and I’m talking off the top of my head right this moment - It could be everything from, “What is Elton John’s stage costumes?” through to “What is the queer Bangladeshi experience of Birmingham in the 1950s?” It will be a space to tell a vast, endless set of experiences.
Creating a new museum is no small task, but Galliano is ready for the challenge. As he goes through the process of collecting and fundraising, he’s also focused on building partnerships. His route to creating a robust institution begins with acknowledging that it’s a project bigger than just one person or one identity.
Joe Galliano: There’s as many challenges as you want to look at and they’re all fascinating and exciting to step up to. I think the other thing is how do you carry the responsibility to make sure that something that there is such a need for and such a desire, certainly within the LGBTQ+ communities, how do you carry the weight and the responsibility of having said that you’re gonna this thing and making sure that you’ve delivered for those people. I want to create an organization that if I step away from it, we’ve got the right … There’s another person that will be able to take over that mantle. So that the organization isn’t about one person, but we’ve created a robust organization that will be able to delivery fabulously. It’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever worked on because it’s the thing that I’m most … I’ve never worked from something I feel so passionately is important. I’ve never picked up a project as brilliantly challenging as this in it’s scale, in the scope of all the different stakeholders we need to make sure are brought close and are doing the right things. And that we keep a laser focus on the strategy to make sure that it happens.
This has been Museum Archipelago