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LGBTQ histories at the British Museum

Exhibition preview

THIS year, 2017, is the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Sexual Offences Act in July 1967. This legislation partially decriminalised homosexuality in England and Wales and marks an important milestone in the campaign for equality.

To celebrate this anniversary, the British Museum will host two displays and a public programme relating to LGBTQ (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer) histories. There will also be an accompanying trail through the permanent galleries.

David Hockney: Fourteen Poems from C P Cavafy – March – May 2017. Room 90a. Free.

In 1966, David Hockney produced a series of etchings inspired by the work of the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933). Cavafy’s poetry reflects his personal experience as a Greek raised in Alexandria and his knowledge of the ancient Mediterranean world. Same-sex love and desire is a central theme in Cavafy’s work.

In making the Cavafy etchings, Hockney drew upon his own experiences as an openly gay artist. The publication of Fourteen Poems from C.P. Cavafy reflects changing attitudes to same sex-relationships in England and Wales during the 1960s culminating in the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967.

Desire Love Identity: exploring LGBTQ histories – May 11 to October 15, 2017. Room 69a. Free.

The display Desire Love Identity: exploring LGBTQ histories provides glimpses into LGBTQ experience across time and around the world through the British Museum’s collection. The earliest object dates from around 9000BC. Some objects relate to named individuals; others offer glimpses into what the novelist EM Forster memorably described as a ‘great unrecorded history.’

Ranging chronologically from ancient history to the present day, the objects often prompt questions, challenging the contemporary viewer to consider the assumptions that they may bring to objects from other cultures, traditions or the more distant past.

The display draws on material from across the breadth of the Museum’s collection including coins, medals, and prints. As well as highlighting famous figures such as the poetess Sappho, and the Roman emperor Hadrian and his lover Antinous, the display looks beyond Europe’s classical past to explore less familiar themes and stories.

This display will include modern and contemporary works (such as Otsuka Takashi’s Drag Queen Deck) and a selection of LGBTQ campaign badges from the 1970s to the present day.

The British Museum has longstanding relationships with LGBTQ organisations, and many individuals shared their expertise and experiences to help shape the final display.


A significant number of objects related to LGBTQ histories are currently on display in the British Museum’s permanent galleries. A trail will be developed to help visitors easily identify these objects and explore LGBQT histories in the Museum’s collection in more depth.

The trail will be based around a core of 10-15 key objects in the permanent galleries, allowing the LGBTQ aspects of these artefacts to be explored in their particular historical and cultural context.

The trail will include collection highlights, objects such as the remarkable Warren Cup, a Roman silver drinking cup dating to the 1st century AD decorated with scenes showing two pairs of male lovers. The Warren Cup was acquired by the Museum in 1999; its history provides a powerful illustration of changing attitudes to homosexuality.

Additional interpretation will be added to key objects where this is needed to fully explore each artefact’s individual story. When the exhibition ends, temporary trail interpretation will be removed, but new permanent labels will be installed to ensure that the LGBTQ significance of the object is captured, creating a lasting legacy.

Public programme: lectures and events

Hidden in plain sight: finding LGBTQ histories at the British Museum – in Room 61 on February 14, 2017 (1:15pm to 2pm).

A gallery talk by Laura Phillips, co-curator of Desire Love Identity: exploring LGBTQ histories, on LGBTQ objects in the permanent collection.

Exploring LGBTQ histories at the British Museum – February 19, 2017 (10.30am to 4pm).

This all day event is part of the OUTing the Past National Festival of LGBT History in collaboration with LGBT History Month. The programme will include talks and creative family activities focused on objects with LGBTQ stories in the British Museum’s collection.

Free talks will run in the BP Lecture Theatre from 10.30am to 2.40pm. These talks range from Philip Attwood, Keeper of Coins and Medals, discussing LGBTQ badges to Stuart Frost and Laura Phillips, from the British Museum, discussing the forthcoming display on LGBTQ histories.

LGBTQ: our family – 11am to 4pm, Great Court. Free, just drop in.

The British Museum will host a family craft activity inspired by LGBTQ History Month that explores how families are unique. Visitors can work with an artist to create a family portrait inspired by works in the collection and make a love token to take home.

LGBTQ: digital rethink – February 19, 2017, 11am to 12 noon, 1pm to 2pm and 3pm to 4pm, Rooms 51, 69 and 70. Free, just drop in.

Visitors can use digital tablets to make posters inspired by the relationships depicted on Museum objects. Visitors are encouraged to rethink who made the objects, who they were for and what their impact is.

Suitable for ages 7+.

Activity supported by Samsung as part of the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre.

LGBTQ Objects of desire tour with Babs Guthrie – Saturday, March 11 from 3.30pm to 4.30pm.

David Hockney’s Fourteen Poems from C P Cavafy – Room 90a on Thursday, April 6 from 1.15pm to 2pm.

A gallery talk by Stuart Frost, co-curator of Desire Love Identity: exploring LGBTQ histories.

David Hockney: from poetry to print – Room 90a on Wednesday, May 3 from 1.15pm to 2pm.

A gallery talk by Jennifer Ramkalawon, curator of Western Modern and Contemporary Graphic Works.

Desire Love Identity – Room 69a on Tuesday, May 16 from 1.15pm to 2pm.

A gallery talk by Stuart Frost, co-curator of Desire Love Identity: exploring LGBTQ histories.

LGBTQ Objects of desire tour with Babs Guthrie – Friday, May 19 from 7pm to 8pm.

Desire Love Identity – Room 69a on Thursday, July 27 from 1.15pm to 2pm.

A gallery talk by Laura Phillips, co-curator of Desire Love Identity: exploring LGBTQ histories.

Image: David Hockney, “In the Dull Village” 1966, Ink on paper, 12 3/8 × 9 7/8” © David Hockney.

British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG