Proud! Telling LGBT+ stories in Sheffield

© Andy Brown

“We hope that by visiting the display, people may find the strength to come out or feel less alone. It would be fantastic if museums in other towns and cities in the UK, if they have not done so already, followed Museum Sheffield’s example and built LGBT+ displays and archives into their collections. Our history is so important, and we need to be visible for future generations: we’re here, we’re queer, and we’re not going away!”
Jo Whateley and Madge Woollard, co-curators

Sheffield’s museum collections tell amazing stories about the city and its people, but the experiences of Sheffield’s LGBT+ communities have been under-represented. In 2019, as part of the Proud! Telling Sheffield’s LGBT+ stories project, we’ve worked to change that.

The aim of the project was to work with our LGBT+ communities in Sheffield to recognise and reflect LGBT+ experiences and their part in the city’s story. Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the project had two strands: the co-curation of new displays chronicling LGBT+ lives and history; and the development of the city’s collections to make them more representative, increasing the visibility of LGBT+ experiences within them. This was complemented by a programme of events to explore LGBT+ history, in particular the life and legacy of Edward Carpenter, an important local LGBT+ figure.

Curator, Louisa Briggs, installing a painting of LGBT rights activist Edward Carpenter

Key to the entire project was that it was led and shaped collaboratively with members of the city’s LGBT+ communities and rooted in lived experience. We recruited a fantastic group of co-curators and began to develop themes for the two displays at Weston Park Museum and Millennium Gallery. We wanted to ensure that the stories of LGBT+ lives in Sheffield were told through authentic voices, so together spent a lot of time thinking about people we could talk to, the perspectives we could represent and the brilliant LGBT+ organisations in the region we might partner with. We also had great opportunity – 2019 was the 175th anniversary of the birth of Edward Carpenter, the LGBT+ activist and rights campaigner who had lived in the region, so we were keen to celebrate that.

Through connections made by the co-curators and via social media we invited people to share ideas about the potential LBGT+ items we should acquire for Sheffield’s collection. This was really successful – we now have around 200 extra objects in the collection. The co-curators discussed the importance and relevance of these items and how they could be used as touchstones to tell a wide range of stories.

Part of the Proud! display at Weston Park Museum

Objects that joined the collection or were lent for display included:

• A steward’s badge from Chequers, the first regular LGBT+ disco in Sheffield
• A collection of items relating to growing up gay in the city in the 1990s
• Protest and awareness leaflets and flyers from The University of Sheffield’s LGB group in the late 1980s/ early 1990s (now the LGBT+ committee)
• Leaflets and a zine from Transactive and T-Boys
• Badges and programmes relating to Pride
• A wedding dress and other items from civil partnerships and weddings

The co-curators also helped bring new perspectives to objects already in the museums collections that had LGBT+ connections that we were unaware of. These included:

• Coins depicting Ancient Roman emperors
• A pair of boots worn by Vesta Tilley, the famous music hall male impersonator
• A Sheffield Empire theatre programme from 1948 for a performance of “Soldiers in Skirts”

Katherine from Andro & Eve with Vest Tilley's boots

You can now find a selection of the objects collected online here by searching for key words in the ‘Quick Search’ box.

We were thrilled that most of the co-curators, donors and lenders contributed directly to the written interpretation of the displays and that so many first-hand voices were represented. Following training from the Oral History Society, the co-curators also recorded testimonies of people from Sheffield’s LGBT+ communities, equipping the group with new skills and broadening the range of perspectives represented even further.

The resulting displays at the Weston Park tell moving, compelling stories about LGBT+ lives in Sheffield. The objects on display span multiple themes, from LGBT+ history, protest and activism and culture to personal experiences of coming out, family and everyday life and more.

Part of the Proud! display at Weston Park Museum

The display at the Millennium Gallery celebrated the life and legacy of a local LGBT+ hero, the Victorian activist, Edward Carpenter. The display created with the co-curators at the Millennium Gallery was a fitting celebration of his life and legacy, highlighting his role in the fight for of LGBT+ rights, as well as his wider support for the environment, socialism, women’s rights and animal welfare.

To complement the project, Museums Sheffield commissioned the internationally-acclaimed Sheffield-based artist, Paul Morrison to create a large vinyl mural of Carpenter, which now proudly looks out over the city from the front of the building.

The displays at the Millennium Gallery and Weston Park Museum both feature contributions by young people from the Sheffield LGBT+ youth charity, SAYiT. At the Millennium Gallery, they created an amazing banner featuring a portrait of Edward Carpenter embellished with their own embroidered words of inspiration. At Weston Park visitors can see a display of masks created by the group exploring what ideas of identity mean to them as LGBT+ young people.

Raven working on the banner with young people from SAYiT

Collaboration was just as important in the Proud! project event programme as it was in the development of the displays. Together with the co-curators, we worked closely with local group, The Friends of Edward Carpenter to throw a suitably celebratory party to mark his 175th birthday. Hosted by drag king Christian Adore, the event showcased the breadth of Carpenters legacy, bringing together LGBT+ groups, environmental campaigners, local history groups and more for an afternoon of talks, performance and activities. The event also saw the screening of a film we’d made of Woodhouse Brass Band performing Carpenter’s socialist anthem, ‘England Arise’, as well The Friends of Edward Carpenter’s major announcement that artist Maggi Hambling would create a Carpenter sculpture for the city

Other public events included talks by two of the co-curators on Sheffield LGBT+ history and interpreting people’s identity in ancient history. In addition, our Drag Queen Story Time for under 5’s at Weston Park became our most popular family session ever, having to repeated three times during the day to accommodate demand!

Drag Queen Story Time at Weston Park Museum

The Proud! Project has been a fantastic success – the city’s collections have taken a significant step towards being more representative, and the visibility of LGBT+ experiences within them has hugely increased. The displays that were created have had a fantastic response – the display at Weston Park Museum has been seen by 82,000 visitors to date. For us as an organisation, there’s been a huge amount of learning and we’ve seen a step change in approach to co-curation. Most important though has been the effect of the project on those involved and those who’ve enjoyed its outcomes:

“The project has been community strengthening; I have got to know a lot of local LGBT+ people of different age ranges that I wouldn’t have had cause to meet otherwise. I’ve now become involved with another local queer history project with fellow curators of this exhibition. This project has been a brilliant example of a local museum contributing to the community through it’s exploration of history. I know that I and others involved have had a lot of fun afterwards bringing along friends and family to view the exhibition. Everyone I’ve shown or spoken to about it has found the exhibition to be important, interesting and touching.”
Marina Georgiou, co-curator

“It may be naive of me, but I've allowed myself to imagine that, if only people who are homophobic could share an hour or two with the individuals involved in Proud!, the beliefs and attitudes behind their homophobia, and consequently their homophobia itself, would be dispelled. I think the Proud! display will go some way to achieving that same end.”
Jo Whateley, co-curator

The LGBT+ exhibition I’ve been helping to co-curate is coming together at Weston Park Museum. Museums Sheffield have been really supportive and helped my confidence no end.
Steve Allen, co-curator

At Weston Park Museum today I stumbled across the 'Proud! Telling Sheffield's LGBT+ Stories' exhibition. It's so great and also vital as the discrimination I witnessed shows it's more important than ever we tell our stories!

Thanks so much to Museums Sheffield for hosting Drag Queen Storytime – fantastic inclusion work! It is proving INCREDIBLY popular.

Drag Queen Storytime was amazing! It’s so good to see people making an effort to include and bring awareness! Well done Museums Sheffield.

The impact of the Proud! project is perhaps best described by two of the co-curators, Chris and Sandra, in our short film:

if you have objects and stories reflecting Sheffield’s LGBT+ experiences that you think should be represented in the city’s museum collections, or would like your oral history recorded, we’d love to hear from you – please contact Clara Morgan, Curator of Social History: / 0114 278 2644.

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