The following is an interview with R. B. Parkinson, author of A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity Across the World. For more on the book, you can also read Parkinson’s blog post, Same-Sex Desire in the British Museum or read the introduction:
Question: Being at the British Museum you have access to a wide range of objects, works of art, etc. What are we able to understand about Gay history through objects and art works that might not come through via a more traditional history? How does this perspective change or build upon other histories of gay and lesbian life and culture?
R. B. Parkinson: The British Museum is very much a museum of the whole world for the whole world, and most monographs on gay history concentrate on specific periods and cultures, but we wanted to show that LGBT history is a world history (and we wanted to make it accessible to the widest possible range of readers, just as the Museum is free to all visitors). I enjoy working with objects because they encourage you to be practical and think in material terms. All too often history is about grand abstract narratives which I find rather dehumanising, so I prefer to think in specific terms, about a particular object, a particular person feeling this or that in a particular time and place—such as Michelangelo drawing his sketch in Rome in 1533, concerned about what the handsome young Tommaso dei Cavalieri would think of it, that sort of thing. That wonderful drawing—as an object gives you a “touch of the real”.
Q: What do these works and objects reveal about changing ideas about concepts or categories such as gay as well as shifting attitudes toward homosexuality
RBP: I think I was surprised at how varied the different views of desire were in different cultures across history. So for me, one basic message is that everything is culturally constructed. Even an erection is a cultural construct: who would imagine that a drawing of oral masturbation could be a religious icon in another culture? These sorts of differences warn us against assuming that any single culture has a uniquely privileged interpretation of reality, which is always a useful lesson.
Q: What was the selection process for the objects or works you decided to focus on? Were there particular characteristics, either aesthetic or historical, that you were looking for? Did you try to find a balance between more explicit vs. more coded representations?
RBP: I wanted to find objects that were interesting in themselves but also represented an aspect of their culture, that could provide a glimpse of a specific history and also form part of a general history of LGBT desire. Inevitably some cultures, such as Edo-period Japan, provided more evidence than others, partly due to the values of that culture, partly due to the chances of preservation, and partly due to the history of collecting. In the end, we settled on around 40 objects from a range of continents, chosen with the guidance of specialist colleagues. And since the book was conceived as a visual survey, the objects had to work visually as well, although sometimes I admit we added a second image to liven up an interesting but rather unappealing looking main object. The book had to be written in 6 months, without any dedicated research time for the project, so the selection process had to be quite quick. I felt we had to choose objects that were indisputably relevant to LGBT history: I think any controversies about our interpretation of an object might have distracted from the overall aims of the project, so we were quite cautious. We present a range of the different sorts of data that we have for such a history: so some are very explicit sexual scenes and some are instead purely about romance; some are very direct sources and others, like the Pakistani quilt, are rather indirect. In short, I wanted to present a representative picture (to use a phrase from Marguerite Yourcenar) of the variety of the world.
Q: Is this history necessarily confined to the gay and lesbian experience? In other words, does it reflect a larger history regarding the history of desire or the history of toleration, etc?
RBP: I think it had to focus on LGBT experience, simply because this is usually ignored (especially in public institutions like museums). It is not intended for an exclusively LGBT audience and we wanted to explore as many points of contact as possible. We’ve tried to set the 40 objects in a broad cultural context; many of them tie in with the history of colonialism because European attitudes have been imposed on so many different cultures in recent centuries—that has turned out to be a depressingly common theme, I’m afraid.
Q: Since this book sprung from an exhibit at the British Museum, I wonder how it has been received? How does it fit in with the larger mission of the museum?
RBP: The book is a guide to the permanent collection of the Museum (not all of which is on public display). There has not been a new specific exhibition on LGBT history, only a webtrail round the existing galleries. In some ways, I don’t like the idea of a special temporary exhibition on the subject since the LGBT community is neither special nor temporary! The book is based (almost exclusively) on the British Museum’s collection partly to show that the museum is committed to studying and displaying the full range of human desire and history (several of the objects have already featured in Neil Macgregor’s A History of the World in A Hundred Objects). But also to show the reader that LGBT history is everywhere: every major museum could produce a similar book.
The book has been extremely well-received with very considerable international press, and the British Museum has been seen as setting a ground-breaking model for other national museums to follow. But more importantly for me, I am told that one elderly gentleman broke down into tears while on the phone buying a copy, and explained his tears by saying that he had been imprisoned when a teenager for being gay. That reaction shows why we had to write the book—to ensure that no one in the LGBT community feels excluded from history.
Q: Finally, is there one work or object that is your favorite?
RBP: There are many —the Piranesi print of Tivoli that Yourcenar loved so much, the witty badge about lesbians and cats by Kate Charlesworth — but ultimately my favorite object is the novel and film Maurice, as you can probably tell from the blog. Both are hugely inspirational. I read the novel at school, and saw the film while a student at Oxford, and by chance I met my partner exactly three years to the day after seeing the film. So they happen to mean a lot to me. Those are not entirely rational reasons, but then a history of human desire cannot be—and perhaps should not be—entirely rational.