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Collections: Nourishing Relations Between Communities and their History

Museums and Sexuality

Pages 16-25
Published online: 07 Dec 2018


Sex and sexuality are fundamental aspects of what it is to be human, but they have been ignored or neglected by museums historically. Some institutions transferred sexually graphic material to secret museums during the 19th and 20th centuries, recognising its importance and preserving it, but denying public access to it. Other museums did not collect relevant material at all. Museums have now begun to respond to significant changes in society and acknowledge sex and sexuality more directly, but traditional approaches impose limitations. This paper focuses on a small number of recent projects that have addressed sexuality through alternative approaches to objects, collections and narratives. Collectively, these raise bigger philosophical questions of intention, audience and impact. Some institutions, including the British Museum (A History of the World in 100 objects) and the 's National Portrait Gallery (Family Album), have addressed alternative sexualities as an integrated part of broader projects or touring exhibitions that have been aimed at a wide audience. The temporary queering of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (Queering the Museum) and the National Museum in Warsaw, Poland (Ars Homo Erotica) are representative examples of an alternative approach that impacts a wider audience, but arguably, in different ways for Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender () and non‐ publics. Museums have a duty to represent the past and present accurately and meaningfully for future generations, and this includes acknowledging histories of sex and sexuality. Although the projects discussed here adopt different approaches, they all demonstrate the potential for museums to use their collections to help generate greater awareness and acceptance of diversity in sexuality, and a more inclusive and tolerant society.


1. The scope of this paper is defined by the contexts and case studies with which I am most familiar – it is selective and not intended to be representative.

2. The exhibition was part of a wider project in Plymouth to research LGBT life in the city and create an archive of it. For more information see:

3. The Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalised sex in private between men aged 21 and above. The act applied to England and Wales.

5. ‘Queer’ is used by many writers, activists and academics to capture the widest array of differences and identities related to desire, expression, gender and sexuality. Some institutions prefer the acronym LGBTQ (Fraser and Heimlich 2008).

7. The Unstraight Museum uses the term ‘unstraight’ as a more inclusive term, defining it as ‘anyone or anything that is or was not a part of a norm in society’ (Petersson 2013).

8. The extent to which LGBT experience is acknowledged in museums around the world varies widely, but is too vast a subject for the scope of this concise paper.

Additional information

Notes on contributors

Stuart Frost

Stuart Frost is Head of Interpretation and Volunteers at the British Museum. Prior to this, he spent eight years as a member of the Interpretation Team at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. He began his museum career in 1998 at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

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