Placement Project at Birmingham Museums Trust
Natasha Booth-Johnson (she/her)
This autumn, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, I was given the opportunity to study the queer contents of the expansive collections owned by the Birmingham Museums Trust. While I could have taken this project to a number of museums, I chose to stay local and take advantage of the wide variety of history and culture available right here in my hometown. Birmingham offers more than just the world’s tallest freestanding clock tower – it is also home to the largest collection of Pre-Raphaelite art, the oldest functional steam-engine in the world, and, perhaps concerningly, approximately 5,700 taxidermy birds.
Birmingham has funded queer projects at its museums in the past – Coming Out in 2017 received positive reviews, and Matt Smith’s Queering the Museum project in 2010 began the process of resisting heteropatriarchal bias in museum spaces that I continued during my placement period – but it has nonetheless fallen into the habit, as have many museums, of poor tagging, incomplete inclusivity education for staff, and heteronormativity in its curation of displays. My project aimed to highlight the ways in which Birmingham may continue to expand upon its queer collections, identify the hidden queerness already contained within the collections, and unveil the queer contexts of objects that have previously been overlooked.
My base for these three months was Birmingham’s Museum Collections Centre, one of the world’s biggest museum storage units, a huge facility that contains around 80% of Birmingham’s entire collection. Millions of objects have their permanent home here, several of which, I learnt very quickly, contain asbestos, natural poisons, and/or radioactive elements. Needless to say, the health and safety training I underwent was far more vigorous than I expected when stepping into the office on my first day. My project, fortunately, did not put me in the path of much of this danger and the worst calamity that befell me was a small papercut. I worked predominantly with paper files and databases, huddled in front of a computer, scouring the catalogues to find evidence of hidden queerness that had been incorrectly tagged or completely ignored. In the end I found 176 objects – not a huge amount, by anyone’s standards, but a significant amount compared to the dozen or so objects the museum previously considered of queer significance. There are undoubtedly many more objects yet to be discovered, and I implore the museum to continue the work I began.
Over this period of three months, I uncovered many illuminating and fascinating objects. Unfortunately, I was only able to include three in my blog post for the Trust. It is for this reason that I wanted to take the opportunity that the Queer Nineteen community provides to highlight one further queer story I uncovered in the collection.
For a broad overview of the project and what I discovered, check out the blog post on the Birmingham Museums Trust website here.
Firstly, to traverse the digitized collections yourself, check out DAMS here. Any object out of copyright and readily photographed will be available to peruse.
One of the very first objects I discovered was a chalk portrait of Edith Cooper by Charles Haslewood Shannon. The exact date of the portrait is unknown, but it is noted in the corresponding document file as being created between 1900 and 1910, placing it firmly in the decade prior to Cooper’s death in 1913. Like most people who study the queer nineteenth century, I was familiar with Cooper, who was one half of the lesbian aunt-niece duo that made up the Aesthetic poet Michael Field.
Alongside her aunt, Katherine Bradley, Cooper penned some of the quintessential poetic works of the nineteenth century’s Aesthetic movement, such as Sight and Song (1892) and Whym Chow: Flame of Love (1914). The poetry written by the couple, many of which were passionate love ballads, received critical success, but much of this only occurred after their identity was revealed to the public by their friend Robert Browning.
The two had a wide circle of famous literary friends associated with Aestheticism. This included the likes of Oscar Wilde, Vernon Lee, and John Addington Symonds. They were also close friends with their neighbours, the artists Charles Haslewood Shannon and Charles de Sousy Ricketts, and it would eventually be Ricketts who designed the couple’s memorial in 1923. Herein lies the additional queer significance of the Shannon portrait – not only was the subject matter a queer figure, but the artist as well.
Shannon and Ricketts met as teenagers and lived together for over five decades until Ricketts’ death in 1931. Although Shannon was known for his portraits, and Ricketts for his illustrations – he provided artwork for Wilde’s House of Pomegranates (1891) and The Sphinx (1894) - they influenced each other significantly throughout their respective careers.
Birmingham’s collection contains a handful of work by both Shannon and Ricketts. Shannon’s series of lithographs, mainly featuring nude women in moments of friendly intimacy, are unfortunately not available on DAMS as they are not yet in the public domain. The same can be said for much of Ricketts’ work – two bronze statues depicting scenes of nude, muscular men are not available to the public either, leaving only his handful of theatrical costume designs and a single oil painting accessible.
The oil painting, Tobias and the Angel, dates from between 1902 and 1905. It shows a Biblical scene in the Book of Tobit where Tobias meets an angel while fishing. Compared to other paintings illustrating this same moment, Ricketts’ imagining of the tale is dark and gloomy, the two men positioned closely together in a moment of intimacy but veiled in shadow. Due to the darkness of the image, the contact between the two men is obscured – what is clear, however, is the nude torso of Tobias that lies supplicant close to – or atop – the lap of the angel.
What marks this as particularly interesting for my purposes, however, is not the closeness between the two male figures, nor the partial nudity, but the context surrounding the painting’s completion. Tobias was commissioned by Bradley and Cooper to display in their home. It remained in their possession until Bradley’s death a year after her niece in 1914. Following this, the painting found its way into the Birmingham collections, bequeathed by Bradley herself.
The friendship between these two couples offers a glimpse into a queer community of the past, one built around literary and artistic endeavour. The Michael Field poets remained close friends with the artistic neighbours who survived them, and the fact that it was Ricketts who erected a memorial in their name a decade after their deaths indicates the lasting impression they left behind.
This is just one of the fascinating stories I uncovered during my project at the Birmingham Museums Trust. There are many more – some of which date back 6,000 years, and others only one or two. While queer stories are, perhaps, less likely to be told, it is important to remember that queer history is human history and should not stand alone. I hope the museum will continue their work on queering the collections and provide the resources and education necessary to develop a wholly inclusive museum experience in the future.