During Pride Month, the British Museum has announced the permanent display of five objects that will look back at LGBTQ+ history through the ages. The little-known gay history of one of the most famous objects in the world, the Rosetta Stone, will now be included in the museum’s LGBTQ+ tours too.
When the museum eventually reopens after months of closure due to covid-19, visitors can expect to uncover some previously undocumented histories. A spokesperson for the museum said the objects were chosen “to increase representation from across the whole LGBTQ+ initialism”.
The Rosetta Stone is globally renowned for providing scholars Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832) and Thomas Young (1773-1829) with the key to deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. But it was the adventurous and wealthy Egyptologist William John Bankes (1786-1855) who first suggested that the texts on the stone might all say the same thing in multiple languages. Bankes was later exiled from England after he was caught with a male soldier in Green Park.
Despite the stone being in the collection since 1802, this will be the first time its instrumental gay history is publicly explored. Speaking about the museum’s LGBTQ+ tours, which started last year, Head of Interpretation Stuart Frost explained “the first run of tours was booked out within an hour or two, demand was really high, volunteers enjoy doing them and we’ve had great feedback from the public.”
Five other objects will also go on permanent display for the first time in a bid to increase diverse public representation in the museum. “They join a number of other objects on permanent display that collectively demonstrate that same-sex love, desire and gender diversity have always been an integral part of the human experience,” remarked Sarah Saunders, Head of Learning and National Partnerships at the British Museum.
A Roman terracotta lamp from the 1st century AD is the oldest object in the group and depicts two women engaged in a sex act. Although the practice was viewed as ‘taboo’ in this period, the lamp may have been used by both men and women.
Japanese woodblock prints of wakashu, androgynous male youths who were sought after by both men and women, will go on display too. Thousands of erotic paintings, prints, and illustrated books were created in Japan between 1600 and 1900, often showing this ‘third gender’ and same-sex encounters. The first print on display depicts the famed Kabuki actor Iwai Hanshirō V (1776-1847).
Another fascinating item added to the permanent display cabinets is a ‘nine-bob note’, produced in 2008 for the nightclub event ‘Gay Shame Goes Macho’. The fake bank note replaced the image of the queen with London gangster Ronnie Kray (1933-1995) as a play on the phrase “queer as a nine-bob note”.
The celebrated poet Sappho (ca. 630–570 BC) who lived on the Greek island of Lesbos will be represented in the collection as well. Acquired by the museum in 1877, a coin issued by Lesbos over 700 years after Sappho’s death commemorates her contribution to literature. Although Sappho’s life story remains shrouded in mystery, her surviving poems are famed for shining a light on lesbian love at the time.
Issued in 1777, a bronze medal of the French spy and diplomat Chevalier d’Eon (1728-1810) highlights the history of transgender people and genderfluid characteristics. Whilst working in France for 46 years, Chevalier presented as a man and then lived openly as a woman in England for another 33 years. The public were fascinated by Chevalier, who rallied against France to be recognised as a woman. The coin shows Chevalier as a man, but with the inscription ‘Madame D’Eon’ above the portrait.