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Desire, Love, Identity: An LGBTQ exhibition at the National Justice Museum

11 February 19 words: Rebecca Buck

It’s fair to say that most Nottingham folk still call it the Galleries of Justice and associate it with ghost tours and a family day out in a scary old prison, but there have been new developments at the rebranded National Justice Museum lately. This includes making more innovative use of the temporary exhibition space, accessible for free. Our Rebecca headed on over to check out their newest exhibition...

The latest exhibition to inhabit this space is on tour from the British Museum, no less. And the content is a long way removed from the ghosts and costumed characters we’ve come to expect. The Desire, Love, Identity exhibition ‘offers glimpses into LGBTQ histories, experiences and lives… covering ancient civilisations right up to today,’ according to the British Museum. Originally programmed in 2017 to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of the Sexual Offences Act (which partially decriminalised homosexuality in England and Wales), the exhibition seeks to demonstrate that same-sex love and desire, and gender diversity, are integral to human experience - and always have been.

Compelling stuff. Hosting the British Museum’s touring display, bringing it to Nottingham, is undoubtedly a coup the National Justice Museum should be proud of. Works by artists such as Augusta Kaiser (1895-1932) and David McDiarmid (1952-2003) sit alongside campaign badges from the 1970s and ancient objects depicting Sappho and Hadrian. You can see porcelain used by the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’ and a letter linked to Oscar Wilde’s trial (the museum also counts Wilde’s Reading Gaol cell door as a prized item in its collection).

So far so good. It’s brilliant to see a national exhibition marking LGBTQ stories on display, for free, in one of our local museums. The questions of legal and social justice it raises make the National Justice Museum a very appropriate home, the perfect venue, perhaps for interrogating the stories museums tell us of history. I hope this is the direction the museum will continue to push in, using its temporary exhibition space to engage and question what justice looks like, in history and the present day.

I did hear some disappointment from fellow visitors I spoke to. The exhibition space is rather grey, in contrast to the marketing material which suggests an exuberance, a visual challenge, that the rather traditional exhibition does not quite live up to. The pride rainbow gives way to a muted museum palette. It is also strongly centred around gay male lives. Trans identities are not widely represented, and the queer female only makes occasional, subtle, appearances. Text-heavy labels can make the visitor lazy, and I undoubtedly missed the significance of some of the artefacts on display, however interesting and provocative. There is a sense, in the LGBTQ visitor like me, of ‘is this all we have to showcase our histories? And why is it all so dull?’

It is also strongly centred around gay male lives. Trans identities are not widely represented, and the queer female only makes occasional, subtle, appearances.

Not an unequivocal success then. However, there is only so much a museum can do with objects in cases, especially curated by another institution and limited by being both temporary and touring. And, in truth, LGBTQ histories are not well-represented by objects or documents. The impact of this exhibition is more about what it represents and what it does.

Alongside the exhibition, the museum is hosting creative writing sessions for LGBTQ-identifying participants, run by Nottingham-based Global Wordsmiths. These sessions will produce an anthology of personal LGBTQ stories, in response to the artefacts and histories on display, which will then be sold in the museum shop, and more widely. The present day lives of Nottingham’s LGBTQ community will be captured and preserved. In their words, colour and personality will be represented, the bi women, the trans youth, as well as the gay adult man, will be present. Readers will hear who we are.

In this, in the doors it opens for the future, and the responses it facilitates, this exhibition is truly important and the National Justice Museum should be applauded for hosting it. More of the same, and even better, please.


Desire, Love, Identity is free of charge and will be at the National Justice Museum until March 3rd 2019. Find out more via the website.

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