I learned more in one museum exhibition than I did at school

Steve Slack

Image: Kippa Middleton, courtesy of PHM

Sometimes in a museum exhibition the text on the walls can feel like it’s been copied and pasted from a school text book. That curatorial voice that museums feel they ought to use when they talk to us – academic, careful, considered, somehow separated from real life.

But I found the words in the exhibition Never Going Underground: the fight for LGBT+ rights at the People’s History Museum in Manchester don’t read like a text book at all – perhaps because there isn’t a school text book on this subject that can be copied. Not yet, anyway.

That said, I feel like I ‘learned’ a lot.

The exhibition marks 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexual acts in England and Wales (1967 Sexual Offences Act). That doesn’t mean it’s all historical content, though. It was only in 2012 that hate crime on the basis of sexual orientation was recognised in England and Wales, after all.

Neither is it a didactic history lesson about the march towards equality. In fact, it’s rather personal. Nine community curators were selected to put the exhibition together with the museum. The objects they’ve selected for the display make for an upbeat and energetic style of museum exhibition.

Museums like it when we ‘learn’ something on a visit. We can find out about the world around us – history, science, technology or the arts. But museums can also be places where we learn about ourselves too.

And this certainly happened to me. I ended up having what some might call a ‘moment’.

Growing up in the UK in the 80s and 90s I was, of course, denied access to information and support about being a gay teenager. My sex education – in a rather traditional, all boys school – was pretty naff.

We were taught, via the medium of cardboard cutouts, how boys do it to girls. Not with them, of course, to them. I don’t think we were even encouraged to buy them dinner first, never mind check if they consented.

I remember asking, as a confused teen, about what happened when men had sex with men. This was a terrible mistake. Not only was I laughed at by my peers, I was given a strong, stern, silent look by the teacher – so strong it burned right through me – and probably had a black mark placed against my name. And that was my sexual and emotional education complete. Just don’t talk about it.

Now, standing in this exhibition I learn that at the same time as I was struggling with this question, in the very same city as me, people were marching on the streets in the largest ever gay rights protest in the UK. That’s pretty humbling. In February 1988 protestors on the streets of Manchester weren’t campaigning for their own rights though – they were marching for mine, and for their kids’, and for all the other teens who struggle to come to terms with their feelings while they’re at school. They were marching for equality and to ending a policy of repression and embarrassment. Not talking about it wasn’t part of their agenda.

At the time I was a child. I’d never heard of Section 28 (the Local Government Act 1988 banning local authorities from promoting homosexuality as a pretented family relationship) and I have no recollection of Sue Lawley fending off protesters on the Six O’Clock News. I’ve seen it reproduced plenty of times subsequently, but it wasn’t even on my radar as a kid.

By the time Section 28 was in the process of being repealed, I was much more politically aware. To my own shame I didn’t join the marches that were still taking place in the early 2000s – I don’t think I understood what gay rights were (probably thanks again to my stifled, conservative education) and so I didn’t get involved. I understood the ramifications of the repeal of the law and was pleased it had taken place, but again it didn’t mean that much to me.

It wasn’t until I saw a celebratory poster in this exhibition emblazoned with ‘WE WON’ that I truly realised the struggle people had been on to get this done. A struggle that needed winning. The marches, the meetings, the protests, the letters, the campaigns, all documented here on the wall, to try and get equal access to information for gay kids. People thought this was an idea worth fighting for.

At the opening of the exhibition activist and campaigner Ian McKellen reminded us that in the UK today “there are children who cannot believe there was a time when it was illegal to be gay.” And it’s true.

It’s easy to think that kids these days have it all too easy. They don’t. They certainly have more freedoms now, but being a teenager is, I’m sure, still as crappy as it always was and probably always will be.

Knowing that teenagers are growing up in a world where a teacher can tell them it’s okay to be queer, however, is wonderful.

McKellen is keen that the exhibition has a life longer than its six-month stint in Manchester. “I hope the exhibition can go across the country where the message needs to be told, and it should go in to Scotland and it should go in to Wales and the far reaches of England. And then it should end up in the north of Ireland, where they still don’t allow gay people to get married,” he said.

For some, this exhibition will be a trip down memory lane, to the slogans and headlines they remember. For others it’s a way of ‘learning’ about our past and about the uphill struggle others have taken so that we can enjoy our rights today.

For everyone, it’s a reminder that there are ideas that are still worth fighting for. And that’s much more than I learned at school.

Never Going Underground: the fight for LGBT+ rights is open at The People’s History Museum, Manchester until 3 September 2017. Entry is free.

Images courtesy of the People’s History Museum.

About Steve Slack

Steve is a professional heritage geek, working in the world of museums, galleries and days out. Basically anything with a tea room or a gift shop. He tweets as @steveslack and blogs at steveslack.co.uk