“Excuse me, can I have a slice of your Fatberg?” The Weird and Wonderful things that make a Museum.

I can still vividly remember the early hours trawling of the internet that was caused by a combination of insomnia and an unusual BBC News Article. The headline is as follows “Monster Fatberg found blocking east London sewer.” and I’ll be honest dear reader, the minute I opened the article I should have turned back. I didn’t, and it got pretty vile from that point onward. I best begin with the definition of what a Fatberg actually is (for the sake of clarity and context) –

“A fatberg is a congealed lump of fat, sanitary napkins, wet wipes, condoms, nappies and similar items found in sewer systems, which do not break down like toilet paper. “

So there you have it, it’s only taken a few weeks of blogging here for me to reach the point that I am talking about about the above revolting topics. The question is, why? Why is someone who seeks to champion heritage, talking about such a revolting subject? Well it all comes from a follow up article, upon the eventual defeat of the Fatburg of the East End. I will never ever forget, i’m sure, reading the following headline. “Monster fatberg to go on display in museum.” I don’t think my heart has jumped at such a disgusting prospect before, and perhaps never again will it reach such heady heights. I honestly think this is absolutely and utterly wonderful.

The Museum of London has announced that a slice of the Fatberg is going to be displayed at the Museum for people to consider and inspect, the focus of the exhibition will be how modern life and archaic infrastructures created by our forebears are meeting and coping with each other, or not as the case may be. The very idea that someone has had the forethought to take this disgusting entity and utilise it in a Heritage setting is utterly remarkable. I have often argued amongst friends and colleagues that the more revolting aspects of one’s heritage are the easiest route for people to access it.

English Heritage posted a tweet about the “Top 10 Toilets in History” – Why is that important? Why should English Heritage be talking about toilets? I did read someone asking “Is this what I pay my membership for?” to which I wanted to respond – Yes! You want to preserve our shared heritage, you want to see the continued maintenance of these fine buildings, sites and items – That’s great but, to quote the marvellous Freeman Tilden –

  1. Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.

If we simply preserve the sites etc without finding that common ground (NB – Different common ground!) we are failing. A large stately home, full of portraits and Georgian decor are very nice to look at, but what connection do they have to the average home? All homes have a toilet however, where not all have a vaulted ceiling or a library stuffed with leather bound books. The toilet is a universally understood concept and item, be it the European porcelain bowl or the variations further afield, we all… poo! So when it comes to bringing the story of Lord A Nnoymous of Somewhere-upon-Such back to life for a visitor, remember that despite his social class, despite his breeding and his diet, his vaulted ceilings, he also had to use the lavatory!

Does the idea of someone using the toilet disturb you? Well how about the food they ate? Perhaps the idea of eating is the one that will bring you round to interacting with the interpretation? I know from a recent event at my work place that food has a galvanising impact on engagement. If not food, then what aspect of your life, your hobby, your family would you most like to engage with?

I know that the lavatory for some is a deeply personal thing and for some people, it is not a topic for discussion. That is perfectly fine, but we must accept that there are subjects we would traditionally believe have no place in a serious museum, that are now the perfect launching point for further discussion and conversation about our shared heritage.

So from a Magpie, to the Museum of London – Thank you! Thank you for taking in a fatberg and using it to open the way for consideration of the subterranean London.

Be brave, for without bravery we will never challenge that which went before.

How Queer – The personal perspective of LGBTQ+ Heritage

The Author wishes to begin with a slightly pointless revelation – I am a gay man. It’s really rather superfluous to announce that fact, it’s a tiny almost irrelevant aspect of my personality and the footprint I leave on the World. However, occasionally it is necessary to frame a subject with such a declaration and in the case of a post about LGBTQ+ Heritage, it is necessary. I am admittedly a caucasian, male, anglo-saxon, with historical links to Germany and to Yorkshire; some of these links are closer than others, I am a Fenman, a brother, a son, a grandson and a friend. All of these things go in to the melting pot of personal identity and from me, there spreads a web connecting to differing aspects of global history – as does your web, dear reader, in which you are the kernel and you have your own incredibly personal threads. The thread we are going to tug on now, is my sexuality.

Sexuality is a dreadfully difficult thing for some people. That may well be an enormous understatement but I’m not here to draw a line in the sand, I don’t wish to put anyone on the spot however this is about Heritage, we must grasp the nettle and feel the sting, otherwise we will allow things to fester and that is never good.

“LGBTQ+” as a subject of Heritage is a difficult one, it’s divisive even amongst those who have legitimate claims to it. There are those who would seek to share it and celebrate it, publicly, loudly and with courage. Equally there are those who would rather it be a part of a wider narrative, with reference made but without it being the sum and total. Where does the Author sit on this matter? Does it matter? I suppose it does for the purpose of this post.

I believe, wholeheartedly, that LGBTQ+ heritage should be very much in the public eye, however I equally believe that it’s position is not one that should be elevated above all others, in fact it should be one amongst equals. It is no more important than any of my other strands, nor is it more important than any of yours, dear reader!

So what is “LGBTQ+ Heritage” and why is it a fairly new field of study? Well according to Historic England “Gender diversity and same-sex love have long been part of England’s history. But LGBTQ identities as we understand them today only date from the last decades of the twentieth century. Prior to this, same-sex love and gender diversity were treated as criminal acts or moral sins, medical or emotional problems, or absorbed within accepted family and community relationships. So LGBTQ people and their histories have often been hidden, marginalised or suppressed.” A fairly apt explanation one feels. It is true that “LGBTQ+ Heritage” has for centuries been something left undiscussed, something hidden, something one shouldn’t be proud of – times, thankfully, are changing. However, as with all change, there are issues – there equally isn’t a suits all solution. The following are some of the issues the Author believes exist. The list is not comprehensive and is written from a personal position.
Who do we include?

Now that’s got to be one of the most controversial issues. Homosexuality has existed for as long as the human race has…. Oh wait, no. Sorry it predates that what with animals displaying the trait. (Beware the tangent) Back to my point; there are aspects of Heritage dating back to long ago that can feature a LGBTQ+ element to the narrative. From Medieval Kings of England, who Historians have outed, including Edward II. There even exists speculation about the issue of Oliver Cromwell, Richard (The short lived Lord Protector) due to his effeminate nature. Possibly entirely untrue and unless one believes in spiritualism we will probably never know. History is full of famous LGBTQ+ individuals or those who have had sexuality assumed. Do we include that in their narrative? Is it fair to do so? The Author is very private about his sexuality and so are many others. One of the most recent examples would be Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer, the last Lord of Fellbridge Hall – His legacy and sexuality became the focal point of a campaign by The National Trust to highlight LGBTQ+ Heritage – this caused outrage amongst some of the staff, individuals who had known Ketton-Cremer, who had been aware of his sexuality and equally aware of his personal privacy which he preserved during his life – they, in my opinion, rightly challenged the NT on their decision to publicise this personal aspect of his life, contradictory of his choices in life. This is unforgivable, respect and understanding should be one of the very foundations on which Heritage is built. There is an ability to tell the story of LGBTQ+ people without needing to out those who never wanted it. We can consider a number of things, overarching concepts, events and narratives, featuring those who wish to be identified as LGBTQ+. We must respect wishes, even long after death.


What do we include?

Being LGBTQ+ hasn’t ever been easy. There are periods of extreme persecution and there are times where, though not a concentrated assault on LGBTQ+ people as a group, persecution and abuse are rife. Alas they still are in many countries and even in my home country of England. Perhaps including a more obvious LGBTQ+ narrative in Heritage and interpretation, we may change that… Here is to hope. What however do we include? Do we side step the sadness and talk about heroes and moments in History where LGBTQ+ people have been celebrated? Do we talk about Decriminalisation but ignore the period preceding it? Do we talk about what Pride has become, a mass celebration of identity featuring everyone but ignore its origins as a protest against oppression and a fight for the right to an identity and the associated violence and aggression that met those original marches? I would argue that we include all of the above. The narrative cannot be edited to ignore the darkness, in fact surely the darkness provides a contrast that makes the light of better days far brighter. We must not ignore the actions of the the Nazi Regime in Germany, with the persecution of LGBTQ+ individuals – thousands died, as much as we must respect the wishes of those who don’t or didn’t identify openly as LGBTQ+, we must respect and honour those who died. We must not ignore the violence of the original Pride marches or indeed the Stonewall Riots. To do so would be unfair and unkind. Time may be an ever growing tree and the roots may run deep, but we mustn’t forget the growth of that has gone before.

How do we include it?

The Author remembers seeing something on a social media platform some years ago, in which the question was posed “How do I tell my children about gay people?” the response offered was wonderfully to the point – “If you can explain to them, with a straight face, that a man flies around the world in one night and brings gifts via the chimney, you can explain to them that people love other people and that gender doesn’t matter” A refreshing response I am sure you will agree. It is that philosophy that we must utilise. Children are wonderly adept at adapting. Their unformed perception is influenced by an enormous collection of social, economic, spiritual, personal etc elements and Heritage should be one of them. Why should it be “Shocking” that one man loved another? It doesn’t need to be placed like a thumbtack, ready to pierce the foot of the unsuspecting – for as long as we make it an issue, as long as sexuality is made to be contentious, it will remain so. We can create specific sites and collections, a narrative built around LGBTQ+ issues and the associated heritage and that is entirely appropriate and I support it but that shouldn’t be the end of it. LGBTQ+ should be included as we include all things in the narrative, where appropriate, where respectful to those who are referenced would be comfortable with it.

There is an inevitable hope that by talking about and interpreting LGBTQ+ subjects, individuals and their associated heritage, we will move society towards greater cohesion.

Disclaimer – I don’t speak for every LGBTQ+ individual or group, I speak for me, a gay man. A gay with a love of heritage and History and a desire to see all represented.

Here is a new feature – A reading list – These are just a few suggestions of texts to read to further discussion and research.

From Prejudice to Pride: A History of LGBTQ+ Movement by Amy Lamé

50 Queers Who Changed the World: A Celebration of LGBTQ Icons by Dan Jones