Beyond the Binary

Queering and Questioning Collections and Displays at the Pitt Rivers Museum

The Pitt Rivers Museum is committed to standing as an ally with LGBTIAQ+ communities and creating space for self-representation. This project puts LGBTIAQ+ stories told by LGBTIAQ+ people at the heart of the museum – from it’s public galleries, to its digital databases. We celebrate the strength and agency of LGBTQIA+ communities and support individuals and groups in challenging societal binaries around gender, sexuality and power dynamics. Beyond the Binary contests any notion that LGBTIAQ+ lives are a ‘western’ invention, a ‘new trend’ or that queer people do not have history. The museum’s collections have been made available to communities with LGBTIAQ+ lived-experiences to help them uncover and narrate their own stories, challenging the erasure of queer voices. The project set out to reflect on material from across the globe and from many historical periods that were already part of the collection. The project also set out to commission and where appropriate, collect new material to add contemporary queer perspectives. 

Through consultation with community partners, and building on work developed in 2016-2018 through the Out in Oxford LGBTQ+ museums trail initiative, funding was secured for Beyond the Binary. Thanks to a grant of £91,200 by the Heritage Lottery fund, the museum has been able to work in meaningful ways with local, national and international partners to explore the global diversity of sexual and gender identities, using the museum’s collections as a starting point. 
Working with a broad range of partners, from researchers to community activists, the project has challenged historical interpretations of the museum’s collections – offering alternative understandings from people with different identities as well as identifying human histories that are unrepresented as a result of intolerance. This is so that no individual or group feels excluded from the museum because of their sexuality or gender, and so that all visitors – however they might identify themselves – can understand humanity better.
In addition to exploring the existing collections, this project included a community-focussed research and acquisition programme for LGBTIAQ+ cultural and historical artefacts. Objects have been collected from British communities and across the globe that highlight traditions of gender non-conformity, bringing British LGBTIAQ+ heritage into conversation with global LGBTIAQ+ material culture. We have also worked with partners to commission new artworks and items that have been accessioned into the collections, embedding queer stories into the heart of the museum. Existing collections items that have been researched and reinterpreted by our partners have been redisplayed so that the queer stories they inspire can be shared with all our visitors. Newly collected and commissioned items have also gone on display. 

What binaries are we looking beyond? 

Binaries are, simply put, two opposites or mutually exclusive terms, such as on/off, left/right and good/evil. In this exhibition we are looking beyond the binaries of gender, sexuality and power. Beyond: Male/Female, Straight/Gay, Victor/Victim. 

Read more about terminology, including ‘LGBTIAQ+’ and ‘Queer’. 

Why is this work important to the Pitt Rivers Museum?

This museum is rooted in colonialism and some histories and voices have for too long been ignored, erased or omitted. We hope this exhibition is a positive step in tackling oppression, which LGBTIAQ+ communities often feel in spaces such as this one.

In a time of challenging politics – nationally and globally – the museum is standing as an ally with LGBTIAQ+ communities around the globe. We are an ally to the Trans community and will not tolerate transphobia. The museum will continue to make changes to our permanent displays and the way in which we work with communities and partners once the project ends.  
 

Collaboration

Developing collaborative ways of working with community members and LGBTQIA+ organisations has been crucial to the project. We are grateful to the many collaborators who have helped shape the project and its events programme and those who have worked with us to research, reinterpret, commission and collect material. We look forward to further developing and embedding our new partnerships once the project has ended.

Project Exhibition: Beyond the Binary: Gender, Sexuality, Power

In collaboration with over 40 community partners, a major outcome of the project is large scale exhibition (June 2021-March 2022). This experimental exhibition shares stories about LGBTIAQ+ identities. It asks visitors to think about the ‘binary’ groups we often categorise people into, and consider how these rigid groups don't work for many people, often causing them to feel oppression, exclusion and pain. Beyond the Binary also asks us to look beyond oppression, and highlights some of the ways people have reclaimed power over their bodies and sexual and gender identities, and have forged thriving communities. This exhibition celebrates life experiences that might not fit what are often seen as societal 'norms'. In the exhibition, we use the term 'queer' to talk about these experiences. This exhibition is experimental as it intentionally challenges traditional methods of curation, choosing to highlight the ‘authors’ behind the texts and remind the audience that the exhibition is about personal, lived-experiences. We have not set out to present facts or uphold the idea that museums are neutral spaces. 

All are welcome in the exhibition’s digital and physical spaces to reflect with kindness and openness. Our aim is that all visitors – however they might identify – can understand humanity better as a result of this exhibition. 
 

Podcasts and Films 

To launch the project in February 2019 Oxford LGBTIAQ+ youth group, My Normal, took over the museum. Watch the video documenting their incredible night of music, discussion, drag, dance and activism.

The project team and community curators have recorded podcasts about some of the material researched, reinterpreted and commissioned.

Events and Activities 

The project has delivered a vibrant programme of events, from film screenings and webinars, to discussion-based workshops, placard making, music nights and accessible tours. Keep an eye on the museum’s What’s On pages for information on events. When the project ends in late 2021, LGBTQIA+ programming and partnership working will continue to be a key part of the museum’s work. 
 

Who have we worked with?
Funders

The project’s major funder is the National Lottery Heritage Fund. TORCH have supported the project’s digital event series.  

Community Curators

Rebecca Colmer; Catherine de Guise (She/Her); Harriet Haugvik (She/Her); Dan Laurin (He/Him); Lance Millar (He/Him, They/Them); Shakira Morar (She/Her); Zoe Nunn (She/Her); Meg Roberts (She/Her); Matthew Scott; Sophie Seeyave (She/Her); Cameron Wallis (He/Him, They/Them). 

Beyond the Binary Project Team

Project Officer, Hannah Bruce (She/They); Project Researcher, Mara Gold; Project Curator, Jozie Kettle (She/Her); Collections and Exhibitions Officer, Olivia Sharrard (She/Her); Cameron Wallis (He/Him, They/Them), Social Media Assistant, Andrew McLellan (He/Him) Head of Public Engagement, Zena McGreevy (She/Her) Exhibitions Officer.

Other contributors 

Beth Asbury (She/Her); Braudie Blais-Billie; ButCH; Dotty Clay (They/Them); Sarah-Joy Ford; Thomas Hendriks; Jason Kattenhorn; Jenna Lee (She/Her); Kelsey Lee; Jessica McMann (She/Her); Oxfordshire Drag Collective; Régis Samba-Kounzi; Suzy Prior; Jon Sleigh (He/Him); @stickersftw; Stonewall; Trans Happiness Is Real; Valentino Vecchietti (She/Her, They/Them); Elijah Wells (He/Him); Patrick Wolf; Ela Xora; Beyond the Binary Young Filmmakers; My Normal. 

Special thanks to the public who attended the project and exhibition development workshops and events; to the Pitt Rivers team who have supported the exhibition in countless ways and the Beyond the Binary Steering Group. 

Project Aims

At the start of the project we had the following aims

1.    Collaborate with partners to bring varied LGBTQ+ lived experiences, stories and histories into the heart of the Pitt Rivers Museum 
2.    Be a space in which difficult histories, including the impact of colonialism on ‘queer’ lives across the globe, can be reflected on, acknowledged and the legacy of colonialism in the present, including in the museum space, disrupted 
3.    Work co-creatively with local, national and international partners to highlight human histories that are currently under-represented in the Pitt Rivers Museum and at heritage sites in general 
4.    Develop and test an ethical framework for collecting by working with partners to acquire new items that highlight and celebrate traditions of gender and sexuality ‘non-conformity’, and items that communicate the continuing impact of colonial ways of categorising and regulating sex and gender in today’s world
5.    Explore the effectiveness of adopting a non-binary approach to curating, collecting and museum engagement work, where questioning and a multiplicity of perspectives within interpretation is central, and a singular curatorial voice and presenting absolute answers is challenged  
6.    Shape Pitt Rivers Museum as a welcoming space so that no individual or group feels excluded from the museum because of their sexuality or gender, and so that all visitors, however they might identify themselves – can understand humanity better 
7.    Co-creative approaches will inform all areas of work, with project partners shaping all areas of the project in meaningful ways
8.    Takeover the museum’s programming, collaborating with community partners to develop events, activities and interventions that will generate awareness and visibility of LGBTQ+ heritage
9.    Recognising the museum’s limitations and gaps in our knowledge, expertise and experience, we’ll work with partners to examine our own practices and biases, and to ensure that expertise from people with LGBTQ+ lived experiences shape the project as it develops
10.    Ensure that learning from the project will inform not only the policies and practices of the Pitt Rivers Museum, but also our partnership museums locally and nationally

Feedback

Feedback from our collaborators and from the public at events has been crucial to the project, shaping our ways of working and the programme along the way. We are grateful to our evaluators, ButCH, who have devised creative ways to capture and interpret feedback. Once the project has ended, we will continue to collect and monitor feedback via the museum’s social media platforms, including the project’s twitter account: @BeyondBinaryPRM   #PittBeyondBinary. We will publish the end of project report on this webpage later in 2021.