In what ways have key aspects of LGBTQ history been celebrated through statues and memorials, both in the UK and in other countries? How can marginalised histories play a greater role in public history?
The latest talk in the History at Kingston Seminar Series, a series organised by Marisa Linton of the Kingston University History Department, took place on Tuesday, 15th March, and addressed the ways in which LGBTQ issues have been reflected in a variety of public memorials and sculptures over the years.
The fascinating and highly informative address was given by Claire Hayward, an Early Career Researcher and former History PhD student at Kingston University, who recently sat her PhD viva. Claire’s presentation for the evening was entitled ‘Memorialising Same-Sex Love: Commemorating the Past, Reflecting the Present, Informing the Future’.
Claire’s talk explored the numerous ways in which monuments and memorials have engaged with histories of same-sex love, and how they continue to speak to lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans* and queer (LGBTQ) issues in present-day society. She discussed how monuments and sculptures dedicated to well-known individuals, such as the Irish playwright, novelist and poet Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), and the wartime Bletchley Park code-breaker Alan Turing (1912-1954), together with those dedicated to LGBTQ groups more generally, such as the Homomonument in Amsterdam, have arguably merged boundaries between the past, present and future.
Claire described to the audience of Kingston staff and students the evolution and nature of monuments in LGBTQ history, and argued very persuasively that monuments can play a crucial role in public engagement with the past.
The tomb of Oscar Wilde, for example, is located in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Designed by the modernist sculptor Jacob Epstein, it was seen at first as highly controversial, and has even been subjected to vandalism at times during its history.
However, over the course of time, it became a major symbol and beloved monument for LGBTQ visitors and tourists from France and many other countries, and something of a tradition developed whereby visitors would kiss the tomb with red lipstick in order to express their admiration for such a pioneering figure in LGBTQ history. In fact, it rapidly became covered in lipstick and, in 2011, the local authorities decided to clean the tomb of all its lipstick, and installed a glass barrier to prevent further damage. Nevertheless, the tradition has continued, with the glass barrier itself now receiving regular lipstick kisses.
Clair also discussed in some detail the ways in which other memorials to Wilde have served a similar function, but perhaps in a less direct way. She mentioned, for example, the memorial ‘A Conversation with Oscar Wilde’, a civic monument designed by Maggi Hambling in 1998, which is located on Adelaide Street, near Trafalgar Square in London. This outdoor sculpture is in the form of a green granite sarcophagus, which can also double up as a public bench. It is a striking design but, at the same time, is perhaps much less obtrusive than the Paris tomb, and tends to speak to those who are already aware of the monument and its message about LGBTQ history.
Similarly, Claire pointed to the ways in which memorials to Alan Turing have evolved over the years, and how his role in LGBTQ history has sometimes been ‘edited’ out from such commemoration, with the main priority often being given to his wartime codebreaking role. Possibly one of the best monuments to Turing, however, in Claire’s estimation, remains the Alan Turing memorial located in Sackville Park, in Manchester, which has become a popular site of pilgrimage for LGBTQ visitors, and is regularly adorned with beautiful flowers and other colourful ‘rainbow’ tributes. It is a memorial which recognises Turing’s instrumental role in the War but also, at the same time, his position in LGBTQ history, and it has helped to raise LGBTQ issues more generally.
Claire explained that she has recently been working as a Project Researcher for ‘Pride of Place’, a LGBTQ Heritage Project which was launched in June, 2015, and is run jointly by Leeds Beckett University and Historic England (formerly English Heritage). Pride of Place seeks to create further ways in which marginalised histories can be made more accessible to members of the public and to interested scholars.
All in all, Claire delivered a very thoughtful and entertaining talk to her Kingston seminar listeners, and the evening was illustrated with a great range of photos and visual images, many of them taken by Claire herself when she has been engaged in her research ‘field work’, both in Britain and elsewhere.
The History Department would like to congratulate Claire on her recent PhD viva examination held at Kingston University, and we very much look forward to being able to address her as Dr. Hayward.