Queer Norfolk at the Symposium 

A Report from the Queer Heritage and Collections Network symposium

On the 19-20 of October, the Queer Heritage and Collections Network held its annual symposium. They invited speakers from all over the UK to discuss their research, practice and all things museum-y, archive-y and queer! Queer Norfolk volunteer Adam attended both days of the conference in Leicester, while volunteer Beau Brannick also attended the symposium online, as did Rachel Ridelagh from Norfolk Heritage Centre.

Day 1 kicked off with great talks from representatives from some of the founders of the Network, including Matthew Storey from Historic Royal Palaces, who talked about how he integrated queer histories into the ‘Royal Style in the Making’ exhibition – which included reference to now Norfolk-based historian Jane Hattrick’s work on William Hartnell. Matthew talked about integrating queer histories into everyday displays in a way that was not tokenistic, focusing on how the sexuality (and by extension, gender identity) of the individual should be understood in the context of their life, rather than spoken about as an afterthought. This would be a theme that came up more than once across the conference.

After lunch, the attendees then moved on to the Leicester Museum and Art Gallery, where they looked at how the collection might be ‘queered’. Given guided tours of selected collections, the attendees then explored the collection and thought about how queer interpretation could be applied to objects. Meeting at the end for coffee and cake (yum!), everyone shared their experiences with queering the collection. Interestingly, many focused on the same paintings, including ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’ by Charles Green. Several people noted that although the painting had a heterosexual focus of the couple in the centre, it invited questions of single-sex spaces in the military and the women who were left behind. Day 1 rounded off with a less-educational but equally enjoyable visit to The Marquis for dinner and drinks.

The Girl I Left behind Me, Charles Green, 1880
Frau Im Café, Lotte Fischler, 1939

On day 2, volunteer Adam gave a talk on Queer Norfolk: what it is, what it does, and what it means. He explained that not only does the project make queer heritage a more democratic process, but that by working alongside museums, galleries, archives and libraries in Norfolk, real changes can be made to improve how these organisations interact with queer people and help us to tell our stories. He also responded to questions from the online and in-person audience, discussing how the project worked with local institutions to make queer history more democratic.

Adam speaking at the Symposium

Adam was not the only speaker from Norfolk, however. Young people from the Teenage History Club at Ancient House, Thetford (ably assisted by Melissa Hawker) were also on hand discussing their work queering the Vikings. They spoke eloquently about how archaeologists’ heteronormative perceptions have obscured and prevented queer interpretations of the past. From spurious skeletal science to explicit erasure of evidence, they highlighted how assumptions can tint our understanding of history by examining grave goods from Santon Downham. A pair of brooches, typically worn by women, were found alongside a sword, typically used by men, so the archaeologists in the 1860s recorded it as a burial of a man and woman. Teenage History Club pointed out the problem with this hypothesis: only one skeleton! They’ve interpreted this in a new temporary exhibition, where the figure depicted in the cabinet presents as non-binary. By ‘queering’ these objects, they challenge visitors to think differently about the distant past.

Overall, the conference was a success. It gave the Queer Norfolk crew lots to think about going forward, and some contacts from across the country who will help shape our ideas and practices going forward.