THE BRITISH MUSEUM PRESENTS
"A LITTLE GAY HISTORY"
THE British Museum is launching a new guide focusing on gay-related exhibits as part of the London Pride festival this month.
"A Little Gay History" by Richard Parkinson, a curator in the ancient Egypt department, features gay objects and topics which otherwise often get overlooked at the mammoth museum.
There is a sculpture of the beautiful face of Antinous, at whose death Emperor Hadrian "wept like a woman"; a battered copper coin showing the poet Sappho, whose surviving fragments of erotic poetry were so intense that the Victorians called all women who loved women after her native Lesbos; and a 20-year-old tin badge demanding, "how dare you presume I'm heterosexual".
The guide together with an audio guide featuring the voices of prominent British actors, will form part of the Pride festival – which will also include a special showing of the Merchant Ivory film of EM Forster's "Maurice," in which the hero finds love in the galleries of the British Museum. Forster wrote the book in the early 20th Century but would not allow it to be published until after his death in 1970.
After Antinous drowned in the Nile in AD130, possibly killing himself, Hadrian proclaimed him a god and displayed his image across the empire. His subsequent deep depression may have contributed to his own early death just eight years later.
At the museum's blockbuster exhibition on Hadrian in 2008, a survey showed most visitors had no idea of the married emperor's intense feelings for another man.
Parkinson claims that the oldest chat-up line in history can be found in his department: a poem from 1800 BC in which one ancient Egyptian male god makes a pass at another, remarking "neferwi-pehwi-ki" – what a lovely backside you have.
However he concedes that many of the tender Egyptian images of two men caressing actually depict brothers, and that the graphic images on one papyrus from 950 BC, including a god fellating himself, are religious, not erotic, texts.
"Desire leaves no archaeological traces," he writes, making it easy to ignore, miss or misunderstand gay references. "History has all too often been a list of the deeds of famous men who are implicitly 'heterosexual' and usually European … Unsurprisingly, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have often felt excluded and silenced, and without a voice."
The objects Parkinson has chosen, most from the British Museum but some from the British Library, include a drawing by Michelangelo showing the beautiful body of Phaeton falling from his father's sun chariot, which the artist sent to his handsome young friend Tommaso de'Cavalieri. If he didn't like it, Michelangelo promised to make another "by tomorrow evening".
Parkinson writes: "The combination of the superb drawing and the elegantly written note to his friend, protesting that it is only a first sketch, embodies an infatuated eagerness to impress a young man in a way that feels instantly recognisable to anyone who has ever been in a similar situation."
He has also included some recent acquisitions, including a 1997 pack of playing cards portraying Japanese drag queens, made by the artist Takashi Otsuka, donated to the museum on condition that it is stored "with the queens on top".
A colourful quilt bought in Pakistan in 1985 is said to have been made by, or for a hijira transsexual, but the curators are not sure if this is actually true. Without the story, the quilt is just a piece of cloth, Parkinson says.
"Even with the anecdote, the history of its maker's life remains a blank. For all the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people we can name in history, we must consider how many thousands of others are unrecorded, unacknowledged and unremembered."
In the audio trail, narrator Maggi Hambling is particularly struck that Sappho's Greek island home valued the poet enough to put her on its official coinage. "So two Sapphos might be worth a bag of peas?" she ponders.
However, looking at some of the museum's huge collection of donated protest badges, she remarks that she personally can't stand being called lesbian, just about accepts lesbionic, but prefers to refer to herself as a dyke.
Actor Russell Beale, who also narrates the audio guide, is awed by the beauty of the Roman silver Warren Cup showing men and youths making love, so startlingly erotic that the first time the British Museum was offered it in the 1950s, it turned it down flat.
In 1999, when it came on the market again, the museum had to raise £1.8m to acquire it.
"It's just heaven, isn't it?" Russell Beale sighs.