Queer Codebreakers 2.0: Queer Representation and the Museum

In February 2020 Queer Codebreakers 2.0 launched as part of the Queer the Pier exhibition. Elle Castle and I are extremely proud we were able to contribute to this exhibition and, believe me, relieved that the machine is working as it should. The graphics on it are awesome (thanks Katy Knapp) and as a souped-up version 2.0 its additional functionality supports a richer user experience (thanks Alex Hawkey for your advice and suggestions on accessibility). The functionality and purpose of Queer Codebreakers 2.0 remains much the same – answer a question, enter the correct code and then retrieve audio and/or text snippets from the Queer in Brighton archive – but its context within the Queer the Pier exhibition enlivens the stories in the collection. Within this broader context, we programmed the machine to ask questions related to objects in the exhibition (e.g. Anne Lister’s diary), as well as general knowledge questions (e.g. What year did Section 28 come into effect?).  It was a difficult task curating and editing the content for the 10 questions we devised, but the work was worth it since the range of questions ensures that Queer Codebreakers 2.0 is representative and makes visible diverse queer communities. 

[Side note: The volume of audio proved a little too much for the Raspberry Pi 3 running the software, so much so that the night before the launch it keeled over and died.]

Sharon Webb and Elle Castle at the Queer the Pier launch event, Queer Night at the Musem (Friday, 21st Feb. 2020).

The collaborative effort to get Queer Codebreakers up and running (we finished installing the Raspberry 4 at 4.30 after a trip to London, 2 1/2 hours before the launch) is reflective of the way Queer the Pier was created. Over the last year members of the queer community in Brighton have worked tirelessly to curate the ‘Queer the Pier’ exhibition. Community curators dedicated their evenings and weekends, to complete the exhibition. In many respects, Queer the Pier is the result of years, even decades, of dialogue, proposals, commitment and effort by a number of organisations including Queer in Brighton, Photoworks and Brighton Ourstory, as well as individual members of the community and the Museum. 

Momentous and important exhibitions such as Queer the Pier, and its predecessor Museum of Transology (now housed at the Bishopsgate Institute) do not simply appear out of thin air. To carve out a space for queer exhibitions in mainstream museums requires a painstaking commitment to the goal of visibility and representation, despite funding setbacks, red tape and bureaucracy, and the inherent complications of working with a history that was, in many respects, systematically erased or hidden among catalogues and collections. We know we have always existed, but have been hidden, obscured, conveniently brushed aside or eloquently theorised. 

In recent years, however, the Royal Pavilion & Museums (Brighton & Hove) have supported a number of initiatives. In 2002 the Museum launched a permanent display, ‘developed with local LGBTQ history groups including Brighton Ourstory’, ’Lesbian & Gay Brighton’, and in 2013 they launched their LGBTQ trail which highlighted a number artifacts and objects which, in some cases assume a queer heritage. [1] There are of course other initiatives within the Museum, including their support of the very successful LGBTQ+ History Club, organised and run by Queer in Brighton and a project with the youth group Allsorts. And we cannot forget about the ‘Queer Looks’ exhibition (2018 – 2020) and the outstanding and timely ‘Museum of Transology’ curated by E-J Scott, which exhibited in the Museum’s Spot Light Gallery for over two years (2017 – 2020). Indeed, both exhibitions, Museum of Transology and Queer the Pier, are part of the Museum’s ‘Be Bold’ initiative.

The majority of these exhibitions are, however, temporary and showcase items and objects which, in the main, are not part of the Museum’s vast collection. The Museum has no official remit to collect LGBTQ+ material and in the past has offset that responsibility to community projects, like Brighton Ourstory. Queer the Pier, therefore, is in a gallery space which is used to house temporary exhibitions – what happens to this community-curated exhibition when its 2 years scheduled run is over? Will items be sent back to donors? Will Queer Codebreakers 2.0 live in my office or in the Sussex Humanities Lab? What is its lasting legacy? An empty space where our queer history used to be?? 

Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself – we are still celebrating the fact that Queer the Pier is exhibiting and a lot can happen in two years! (…hint, hint, nudge, nudge)

Despite its temporality, the fact remains that the Queer the Pier exhibition reflects the amazing efforts of the community curators, E-J Scott and the Museum staff, who worked together vigorously, with historical and curatorial precision, and an acute political and cultural awareness of the many complex and sensitive issues that arise when working with queer heritage. Queer history, like any history, is not always easy – it is messy, it is complicated and it is an interpretation. History is rarely about absolute truths because they simply do not exist – historical “truths” are based on perspectives (I will not get into the facts of the past and facts of history debate here). My historical practice has always entailed self-reflection on how my subjectivity is reflected in my research – my Ph.D. was on Irish nationalism, I had to be extremely careful of the way I articulated Irish history within the context of my own, personal and family feelings and, views of Irish republicanism and nationalism. And actually, “feeling” is very important in both contexts – my nationalism, as my queerness, is almost always articulated through how I feel. There has always existed an otherness in Irish history, something that my queerness can definitely relate to. Some things are not always political expressions, they can be emotional ones and this can make the work of being objective more difficult. But acknowledging this is half the battle (the other half is stopping those emotions getting in the way of doing the research you want to do). 

It is perhaps for this reason that Queer the Pier, like the Museum of Transology and indeed the Queer Looks exhibitions feels so personal and emotive. The collections are personal, they are material expressions of identity and as such, they capture the emotion of the individual, as well as collective. T-shirts, political banners, badges, indictments, photographs, political flyers, are highly charged with emotional and political statements and expressions. They, by their existence, defy the cultural and societal norms of their contemporary moment – they are overt political acts wrapped in an emotional response to a felt, and real, otherness and marginalisation. They are also an expression and represent the identity of the curators – and this is where the power of community-curated exhibitions lie.

I had the pleasure of working with some of the community curators and watched, in awe, as the exhibition took shape. As a patron (such a weird word) of museums and galleries, I have sometimes felt outside of these spaces – not for me, not representative of me, too sophisticated for me, too intellectual for me. But over the past number of years, my relationship with museums (archives and libraries) have changed – because my access to them have changed. My work with the Digital Repository of Ireland (2011-2015) required engagement with the national cultural heritage institutions and all of a sudden I was backstage in the national archives, being guided through tunnels underneath Trinity College Dublin to see the Book of Kells from a different vantage point, and observing conservation processes in the Chester Beatty Gallery. Different access, different feeling! Since I started collaborating with Queer in Brighton, my relationship has again changed because, yet again, my access to the museum changed. This time I visit as a contributor, as someone whose name is on a text panel, beside an exhibition piece. Queer Codebreakers 2.0 is part of the Museum, I am part of the Museum! And perhaps this is the point, I feel part of it because I am represented in it, I feel part of it because it represents who I am and it represents a community I belong to. But also because I had some input. 

All too often, people feel outside of these spaces because their access is skewed – they have no means or power to change the narrative presented, or they are simply not reflected in the collections or exhibitions. And when this happens time and time again, it is easy to feel outside of your own cultural heritage. It is for this reason that community-curated exhibitions and projects like Queer the Pier are so important. The community curators and E-J Scott developed Queer the Pier with diversity and inclusion in mind, and this awareness is reflected in the final exhibition. 

In spite of the temporary nature of the current exhibition, the community continues to collect, curate, and plan for the future. We are building a ‘Queer Heritage South’ digital museum and are planning its production during the current lockdown and will be hosting archiving and curating sessions online over the next few months. But we build this museum with long-term digital preservation in mind, with sustained access in mind and with inclusion and diversity in mind. If you would like to get involved please drop me a line – sharon.webb@sussex.ac.uk

Like everything, Queer the Pier and Queer Codebreakers, are currently in lockdown. But when the Museum opens up again be sure to pop by. 

Thanks again to everyone who helped, including Kelly Boddington (Royal Pavilion & Museums (Brighton & Hove), Daren Kay (Community Volunteer), Alex Hawkey (Royal Pavilion & Museums (Brighton & Hove)), Katy Knapps, E-J Scott, Susan Eskdale (Royal Pavilion & Museums (Brighton & Hove)), Lesley Wood (Queer in Brighton), David Sheppeard (Queer in Brighton), Roni Guetta (Queer in Brighton), and of course the Sussex Humanities Lab for resourcing the build, and finally Elle Castle for doing such a wonderful job the software side. I am very proud to be part of this project and immensely humbled to have a piece in the museum (seriously…you have no idea)!

[1] Kelly Boddington and Robert White, ‘The LGBTQ Trail: Brighton Museum & Art Gallery Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove’, in Social History in Museums 41 (2017)