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A Queer History of Objects in the V&A Collection 2

photo of a multi gendered Boddhisatva

Courtesy V&A Museum

As the V&A Academy launches A Queer History of Objects, Dan Vo, the co-project manager for the Queer Heritage and Collections Network, supported by ArtFund explores the V&A Collection for LGBT+ History Month

In the mid 1990s, while Section 28 of the Local Government Act banning the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in the UK was still in force, exhibitions about LGBTQ+ life were almost unheard of, or at the very least considered risky for museums.

Yet, Shaun Cole, who was a V&A curator at the time, made the defiant move to acquire more than 100 posters from around the world that related to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and put them on display as part of an exhibition entitled ‘Graphic Responses to AIDS’.

Also, the museum’s ground-breaking ‘Streetstyle: From Sidewalk to Catwalk 1940 to Tomorrow’ exhibition included a controversial lesbian and gay style section that displayed six outfits worn by lesbians and gay men between 1951 and 1994. Displaying outfits from gay men in other exhibition sections, such as skinhead and new romantic, the exhibition opened up discussions about queer styles in relation to subculture and street styles.

Significantly these exhibitions both opened up discussions about collecting and visibly displaying objects representing and relating to LGBTQ+ art history and culture.

This month Shaun Cole returns to the V&A collection to join a group of leading voices in the field of queer history, to explore the untold stories of LGBTQ+ life through the prism of art and design. A Queer History of Objects will be launched by the V&A Academy as part of LGBT+ History Month and will include twelve lectures over six weeks.

We’ve asked some of the lecturers to choose an object to give you a glimpse into the wonderful diversity of LGBTQ+ objects in the museum’s rich collection.

Shaun Cole: Levi’s 501 jeans

a photo of a par of jeans

Levi Strauss & Co. 501 jeans made in 1993. Courtesy V&A

It’s an item of clothing that many may have in their closet, but few people can boast that their faded Levi’s 501 jeans have been entered into the V&A’s fashion collection. Associate Professor in Fashion at Winchester School of Art Shaun Cole donated his jeans, inherited from an older gay man, to be used as part of a number of outfits assembled for the streetstyle exhibition in the mid-nineties.

The cut of the jeans were popular among punks because of the skin-tight fit, and Shaun matched them with a pair of red braces worn hanging down decoratively It was a look that was particularly admired among gay men in the late 1970s.


Robert Taylor: Nothing To Lose XII

image of a male nude with grapes and fruit in his loins as he curls in a sideways pose

Nothing to Lose XII. Fani-Kayode, Rotimi, born 1955 – died 1989. Copyright Estate of Rotimi Fani-Kayode, courtesy Autograph ABP

Possibly going one step further than Shaun, Robert Taylor is actually in the collection as the subject of a deeply sensual and spiritual image taken by renowned black photographer Rotimi Fani Kayode. A nude figure poses with an offering of lemons and grapes placed in his lap, as a trail of honey trickles across his hip.

In the 1980s, London artist Rotimi Fani-Kayode experimented with studies of the black male nude and infused his images with motifs derived from his native Nigeria. Robert is also a respected photographer and worked very closely with Rotimi Fani Kayode and together they pushed creative boundaries, as Robert recalls, “we did some outrageous things”.


Zorian Clayton: Ex Libris Olive Custance

booplate sketch of an Edwardina woman with hat in side profile

Ex libris Olive Custance. 1897. Aubrey Beardsley. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This bookplate was designed by enfant terrible of the fin-de-siecle, Aubrey Beardsley, for the poet Olive Custance in 1897. Whilst still a teenager, she entered the heady world of London’s Aesthetic and Decadent literary scene and was soon writing poetry for ‘The Yellow Book’. Wooed by the artist Natalie Barney, Custance spent some time in Paris with the famed lesbians of the Left Bank and almost joined a Sapphic community they proposed creating in Lesbos, Greece.

Instead, she married Oscar Wilde’s notorious lover Alfred Lord Douglas. Creating androgynous characters in their poetic love letters, Douglas was often the ‘Fairy Prince’ to Custance’s boyish page. Assistant Curator in the Prints department Zorian Clayton says “it opens a door to many different queer narratives”.


Rachael Lennon: Sketchbook of Edith Craig

pages of a scrpbok with costume design sketch for a guy with big hair

Scrapbook, Edith Craig. 1900. Made for a production of ‘Shock Headed Peter’ at the Garrick Theatre, London. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Writer Rachael Lennon, and co-project manager for the Queer Heritage and Collections Network supported by ArtFund, is inspired by this beautiful scrapbook, which was filled with costume designs by Edith Craig for a production of ‘Shock Headed Peter’ at the Garrick Theatre in London. Craig was an actor, director and costumer. She was an active figure in the women’s suffrage movement and founded and led the Pioneer Players, a theatrical troupe of creatives and activists, in 1911.

Her radical cultural and suffrage networks hosted lots of lesbian and queer relationships. Craig lived in a ménage a trois with artist Tony (Clare) Atwood and writer Christopher St John at Smallhythe in Kent, nearby to their famous queer neighbours Radclyffe Hall, Vita Sackville West and Virginia Woolf.


Dan Vo: Statue of Avalokiteshvara Guanyin

photo of a golden Buddhist statue

Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. Tibet, 14th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

When the museum reopened after the first lockdown, I helped put together an online trail entitled Out In The Museum so visitors could find objects of LGBTQ+ significance in the collection while volunteer-led tours were on hold.

A proud addition was the gleaming bronze Avaolkiteshvara Guanyin which can help explain the diverse understanding of gender and sexuality of many ancient communities. While the deity offers a possible proto-trans narrative in the way it changes and even transcends gender, the figure of the bodhisattva also serves as a useful reminder that we should act with compassion.


The short course A Queer History of Objects is being run by the V&A Academy from February 19 to March 26. Through exemplary objects of art and design, you will learn about stories of diverse gender and sexual identities in the past – narratives of queer lives sometimes concealed in the margins of history, sometimes proudly flaunted and celebrated.

Bookings are being taken via the website: https://www.vam.ac.uk/event/rZdQDNMK/o20019-a-queer-history-of-objects-spring-2021


Victoria and Albert Museum

London, Greater London

As the world's leading museum of art and design, the V&A enriches people's lives by promoting the practice of design and increasing knowledge, understanding and enjoyment of the designed world.

2 comments on “A Queer History of Objects in the V&A Collection

  1. Linda Martinez on

    With regard to Edith Craig, I think she lived in a ‘mènage á trois’, not in a ‘mangr a trois’; although she might have made good ‘eating’ !😆


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