Desire, Love, Identity: The British Museum’s LGBTQ Tours

In the 18th century, two upper-class aristocrats – Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler – ran away from their furious families to elope in a Welsh village. Their gothic cottage was closed in by grassy peaks and thrilling ravines, around which they cultivated a paradisiacal garden of peach trees and vines; a simple dairy and some forty varieties of rose. The legendary poet, Wordsworth, composed a sonnet in their orchard. Other visiting notaries included De Quincey and Lord Byron, drawn by the considerable literary and linguistic knowledge of the couple. Known as the Ladies of Llangollen, Sarah and Eleanor lived out their lives, and their love, in quiet retirement, surrounded by nature and their library.

In a celebration, and, of course, an education of LGBTQ communities throughout the ages, the British Museum has added a new guided tour to its programme. Building on their LGBTQ audio tours, the institution continues actively supporting and promoting gay history. Many of the objects in the tour were also highlighted in the British Museum’s 2017 display, which marked the 50-year anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act. Although it only partially decriminalised homosexuality, it was a historic leap into the present day, spearheading a volley of changes continued with the legal reformations in Scotland in 1980, Northern Ireland in 1982, and resulting in the latest victory; a legalisation of same-sex marriage across all of the UK in January 2020.

No doubt the project owes some debt to Richard Parkinson, a former curator of the hallowed Museum’s ancient Egypt department and author of A Little Gay History (published in 2013). A feat of rediscovery and a ‘succinct introduction’ to same-sex desire; this enlightening and engaging effort re-examined ancient artefacts and their cultural context, providing a lost history of gay love. The blizzard of interest around the British Museum, and novel readings of its rich archive, has been growing ever since.

Volunteer guides – many of whom have a personal connection to the subject – will show visitors their own selection of objects as part of the ‘Desire, Love, Identity’ tour. As well as the objects listed above, this could include busts of the Roman Emperor Hadrian and his lover Antinous; a gender-fluid statue of a Mayan ruler copied from an original dated AD 730; a fire clay mask of the demon Humbaba who was killed by King Gilgamesh and Wildman Enkidu as part of their heroic and erotic adventures; a representation of ancient Greek poet Sappho, who’s lyrical verse focused on love between women; and two chocolate cups with intricate gold detailing belonging to our old friends, the Ladies of Llangollen.

Perhaps the most famous piece is the Warren Cup, considered the holy grail of the gay world and named after Ned Warren, a wealthy homosexual collector who bought the Cup after it resurfaced in the 19th century. Carved with scenes of two men making love, the silver curio was purchased by the Museum in 1999 for £1.8m, showing a commendable dedication to improve their assets within the much-overlooked canon of gay history.

The guided LGBTQ tours are free, and last 75 minutes. However, if you’d like to set your own pace, the audio commentaries can be downloaded and listened to on your own device. There are options for a fifteen-object trail (lasting approx. 1 hour) or a three-object-trail (for a quick run-through of approx. 30 min).

Whatever the route you take as you tread the echoing, softly-luminous displays that pull you back through the epochs, you must go to gaze at the Warren Cup. Buried near Bethlehem in 1st century AD, this relic a cornerstone of the LGBTQ story and crucial to history as proof that all love is universal. Today, the British Museum has shown a commitment to the idea that education and access should be too.

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