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August 13th, 2013 at 6:00 am

R. B. Parkinson on Same-Sex Desire in the British Museum

A Little Gay History, R. B. ParkinsonThe following post is by R. B. Parkinson, author of A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity Across the World:

My own academic research concerns Ancient Egyptian poetry from around 1800 BCE and because some of these works deal with same-sex desire, and because I am gay, I had worked a little on how to identify such desire in ancient poems. And so, when the British Museum was approached to help with a LGBT history trail several years ago, I volunteered for this, and this project led to me writing A Little Gay History.

The book is arranged chronologically and covers some 11,000 years. Exploring the British Museum’s wide ranging collection was an exciting challenge for me and the contributing authors Kate Smith and Max Carocci, and it would have been utterly impossible without the support of so many helpful specialist colleagues across the whole museum. It is a small book for a vast subject, but we wanted to provide an authoritative and accessible introduction to an often overlooked (and often contested) aspect of world history. The book is of course not a political tract, although the subject is very much in the news at the moment. It simply states some historical facts as we see them, and we hope it will remind all readers of how varied human desire has been across world cultures.

Some of the museum objects chose themselves, such the stunning Warren cup, showing two pairs of Roman men making energetic love. I also wanted to include a full range of different types of art, including literature and film. For me, a particularly influential author was E. M. Forster—an important figure in my own coming out. His quietly subversive and ironic style offers a way of challenging assumptions about sexuality that I find very appealing (and very “queer”). And of course, a climactic scene of his explicitly gay novel, Maurice (1914), takes place in the British Museum. The novel has a happy ending, and for me this was extremely important, since all too often in modern works of art, same sex desire has ended unhappily. In the book, Maurice and the game keeper Alec finally realize they are in love as they wander through the galleries: one location in this scene, between two huge Assyrian Bulls from Khorsabad, has always seemed to me the most romantic spot in the entire museum. The setting in the British Museum underlines Maurice’s realization that “there always have been people like me and there always will be” and this goes to the heart of any LGBT history project.

The novel was masterfully filmed by Merchant Ivory Productions in 1987, and thanks to the generosity and support of director James Ivory the book includes several stills and photographs of the film being shot on location in the Egyptian gallery—a perfect image to show how a museum can be a stage for love. For me personally, Maurice is the greatest of all gay films, but it is also a wonderful romance of any kind: if one takes a long view (as one has to, working in a museum), one realizes that love and romance resist categorization and stereotypes. And there is nothing stereotypical about the film, just pure Forsterian romance on a grand scale that quietly and heroically insists on the right for equality in love.

Perhaps the hardest choice we had to make for the book was what final object should represent the present time. We wanted something modern and inclusive, and in the end we went for the contemporary visitor—a reminder that we are all (regardless of our sexualities) part of this ongoing history. And so we took a photograph of a group of visitors looking at the bronze bust of the emperor Hadrian. This image allowed me to lead into the epilogue about Marguerite Yourcenar’s great novel Memoirs of Hadrian (1951), written in French and translated into English by her American life-partner Grace Frick. This fictional autobiography is a poetic meditation on life, and it is also intensely “queer” beneath its cool classical style. It offers a version of ancient history different from the official accounts, and tries to recreate the emperor’s life (and loves) from within. It is a masterly example of how history can be written from a non-normative perspective. It is also in part—like Maurice and Alec together—the result of a visit to the British Museum; Yourcenar had visited the museum as a child and considered this to have helped shape her historical imagination. And that is exactly what we hope the objects in the book will do: make people realise that the past is not necessarily ‘heterosexual’, and that LGBT people are integral parts of world history. No LGBT person should feel alone or marginal.

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