LGBT History in The British Museum

The British Museum is better known for its pretty little gift books that devote themselves to topics like flowers and cats (always a seller). That the same museum has published an identical catalog on LGBT related museum objects is one of the wonders of 2013. Coming from the British Museum, you may expect quality in research and content; you won't be disappointed.

Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity Across the World was edited by Professor Richard B. Parkinson and published by Thames & Hudson. The handy little book is a perfect gift format packed with LGBT related history. It presents 41 historical objects that can be found in the collection of the British Museum.

The historical timeline starts out with a 12,000 year old figurine found in Ain Sakhri in the desert of Judea depicting lovers in an intimate embrace. It is the oldest surviving sculpture of a human sexual act found to date. The figurine is not only old, it is also exceedingly clever. The artist conceived it in a way that no matter how you hold it, it always represents a male phallus. 

From there, the timeline takes readers through the millennia. From transgender Mesopotamian goddesses or gods, by way of the first recorded gay kiss in history that happened in ancient Egypt, to the greatest love-story of all times between Roman Emperor Hadrian and Antinous (who became both a Roman and an Egyptian god), and over Shakespeare, it takes readers into modern times.

The beauty of the book lies in the detail. Every object was carefully scrutinized for its LGBT relevant context. Caution is concept. The British Museum is not one of the world's most renowned institutions for making wild guesses. No one should be offended by radical interpretations. Even opponents of homosexuality will have to bow to the force of this academic work. The book contains only properly researched and objectively presented facts. There are no tenable counter-arguments against the arguments presented here for LGBT interpretation of individual objects. Whoever is tempted to do that descends into what this catalog so cleverly avoids: Wild guesses.

The academic power makes this book as explosive as a bombshell. It was published by the British Museum itself. Such an official stamp of approval by the prestigious institution gives the catalog a leading position within LGBT related history and within publications issued by museums the world over. Of course, similar historical objects can be found in other museum collections but other museums lacked the political will and the daring for such a concentrated publication so far. 

Because the book is a modern book, the term homosexuality is not limited to same-sex relationships but is used all encompassing. It contains examples of gay and lesbian love, of transgender deities from Asia and India, of cross-dressing in France in the 18th Century (the spy story of the Chevalier d'Eon de Beaumont), and of tolerance of homoerotic love in antiquity, in the Pacific, with the North American Indians, etc. The sympathetic formulated introduction by Egyptology Professor Richard B. Parkinson could be read as a LGBT manifesto. He says that there exists a sufficiently large corpus of history books on homosexuality. But none of the publications can call on the standing and quality of this small book. 

The book was intended for teenagers on their way to their coming-out to read it for themselves and to be able to give a copy to their parents. The catalog is equally interesting if you are well past being a teenager or have no gay children to catch up with. The attention the researchers gave to every object in this publication is of general academic interest.

Richard B. Parkinson wrote in the introduction that every museum in the world has objects in its collection that have something to do with LGBT history. It is important to show them with the same ease and to comment on them as on all other objects. The changing attitude in the handling of the matter is exemplified with the case of the Warren Cup. What was unacceptable as a purchase in 1950 became a special exhibition in 2006.

The British Museum has omitted all objects pertaining to China. This was for purely political reasons; they didn't want to offend the dictatorial regime clinging to power and thereby antagonize their own sponsors dependent on the indecent trade with that self-same country.

Further reading