Written by: Alex Marshall
As he was leading a tour of the Polar Museum at Cambridge University one recent Saturday, Dan Vo drew the group’s attention to a smooth white penguin egg found in Antarctica in the early 1900s. It had been collected on an expedition that included George Murray Levick, the author of a semisecret 1915 paper “The Sexual Habits of the Adélie Penguin.”
“He observed things that he thought were so scandalous that he overwrote them in his journal in Greek,” Vo said.
Specifically, the explorer saw two male penguins “going at it,” Vo added.
This was Vo’s first “Bridging Binaries: LGBTQ+” tour of the Polar Museum, part of a growing movement at British museums to show collections through a new lens and to share largely untold stories hidden among their pieces.
The Cambridge series intends to “explore the spectrum of identities that exist across time, place and culture,” the university’s website says, “from same-sex behavior among penguins to eroticism in the ancient world.” Similar events are being held at the Museum of Zoology and at the Fitzwilliam Museum nearby.
Vo, 35, who works at a media company, has become a leading figure in the world of alternative museum tours in Britain. In 2015, he volunteered to host a tour exploring gender and sexual identity through the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; it was so successful that he now oversees an award-winning monthly offering.
Other events followed, including in the English cities of Birmingham, Manchester and Brighton. The British Museum in London plans to run its own gay-themed tours this summer.
Cambridge University asked Vo to help develop tours for its museums after he posted a Twitter message about artifacts noticed in his travels. (Vo often posts his findings on Twitter with the hashtags #QueerVAM and #QueerMuseum. Findings have ranged from a “gender fluid” statue of Lucifer to one of Elizabeth Taylor’s shoes.)
His Polar Museum tour highlighted artfully carved whale teeth known as scrimshaw — a way of occupying male whalers so that they didn’t have sex with each other, Vo said — and items from indigenous communities that showed how fluid gender roles were in some Arctic populations.
Tours like these are important for the future of museums, Vo said in an interview later. “It makes them relevant,” he said, “and people want to see themselves reflected in collections.”
Alistair Brown, policy officer at the Museums Association, an organization for museum, gallery and heritage professionals, agreed.
“More and more museums are looking at radical ways of reappraising their collections,” he said in a telephone interview. “They’re either inviting critical and diverse voices into the museum or at least welcoming their presence if uninvited.”
The trend benefits from many years of research by museums into the background of the items in their collections, as well as decades of campaigning by minority groups to be heard, Brown added.
One of the most prominent series showing museum collections through a new lens is led by Alice Procter, a 23-year-old art historian studying for a master’s degree at University College London. Her “Uncomfortable Art” tours look at how imperialism and colonialism underpin the collections of some of London’s major cultural institutions, including the British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery.
Procter discusses, for example, how items were acquired in colonial times and paintings were used to shape national identity in Britain, which portrayed itself as a superior and benevolent society. She hands out badges featuring the slogan “Display It Like You Stole It,” and sells “Dear Art Gallery …” postcards to let cultural institutions know when labels are inadvertently racist, sexist or “totally impenetrable,” among other options.
Not everyone is pleased. The British Museum began a monthly series last year to discuss the acquisition of items in its collection, partly in response to Procter. (The next is scheduled for Feb. 8.) In April, the British tabloid the Daily Mail wrote that Procter was “using sell-out tours to label Lord Nelson a ‘white supremacist’ and brand Queen Victoria a ‘thief.’” Procter immediately began receiving threats.
“There’s always going to be negative responses to work like this,” Procter said by telephone. “But if people respond that way, then it means that I’m touching a nerve. And if I’m touching a nerve, it means that it’s relevant and important.”
Procter started her tours in 2017, partly inspired by her experiences as an art history student. “People around me wanted to talk about the beautiful paintings and their subjects, and I always kept coming back to the nasty and darker side,” she said. “It felt like there was a conversation that wasn’t being had around colonial history in this country.”
Others have followed her lead, including at Cambridge, where three doctoral researchers are running “Untold Histories” tours of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Demand for museum visits with a different view of history will most likely only increase given the recent political interest in restitution — the return of contested objects back to the countries from which they were taken. In November, a report commissioned by President Emmanuel Macron of France called for the mass return of pieces of African cultural heritage in French museums to their countries of origin.
Procter does not work with the museums where she gives her tours, but she said they all needed to better address restitution. “If an object is requested for repatriation then it should go,” she said. “At the moment, museums aren’t even responding with any kind of openness. The response is always this very dramatic, ‘We don’t repatriate.’”
Independent tours like hers can help educate the public on matters the museums won’t, she added.
One recent Friday night at the British Museum, she led a tour that included a couple from Afghanistan on a date, three friends celebrating a birthday and a group of academics. “This is an institution that’s built on excluding people on the basis of class and gender and race,” she said at the start, before discussing some of the most famous items in its collections: “Hoa Hakananai’a,” a statue that Easter Island wants back after 150 years; and the Elgin marbles, taken from Greece and the subject of a decadeslong dispute.
Procter did not spare items that had clearly been paid for, either. “This is an example where we do have a receipt,” Procter said, standing next to a totem pole made by the Haida people, in what is now Canada. “But there’s a huge context around that.”
British imperialism changed the Haida people’s way of life, she said, leaving them in such desperate need of money that they needed to sell these items. “There’s so much coercion behind this sale,” she said.
What’s more, totem poles are intended to be left to decay naturally. “This shouldn’t be here,” she said. “It shouldn’t be anywhere.”
Most of the people in the tour group nodded in agreement.