The Victoria & Albert is one of the UK’s most popular museums and every month they host a free tour focusing on the exhibit of particular interest to LGBTQ visitors. Dave Cross spoke to Dan Vo, coordinator of the award-winning LGBTQ Tours, to find out more.
Hi Dan, where did the idea for the LGBTQ V&A tours come from and how long have they been running?
I’d wanted to shower the museum with glitter the moment I started as a volunteer, but unfortunately that’s really not encouraged. It was a queer themed Friday Late in early 2015 that gave the idea of a permanent, volunteer-led LGBTQ tour real impetus – and it’s still believed to be the first of its kind in the UK.
How did the first one go?
On launch day we were nervously hoping for a dozen or so visitors. We were flabbergasted when over a hundred people turned up! The tours have since attracted thousands and remain a permanent statement to all LGBTQ+ visitors to the museum that you are accepted, celebrated and very welcome. We’re very honoured to have won three awards. We just received the Marsh Trust Award for Museum Learning in London at a very glam do at the British Museum, and we’re also Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea ‘Ambassadors of the Year’.
What happens on the tours?
A visitor left us this review: “It was like being on Old Compton Street – it was packed! And so much fun!” The tours are an inclusive and accessible community event that presents non-binary and non-heteronormative narratives. Your guide will reveal fascinating LGBTQ+ stories that can be found in almost every gallery within the V&A.
What areas of the V&A does it include?
There’s about seven and a half miles of museum and that’s a lot of walking, so you can skip leg day at the gym. The tours highlight the presence of queer individuals and communities within different time periods, places and cultures.
Do they change from month to month?
Guides pick their own routes so you can get a totally different experience each time, as well as see all sorts of untold treasures, including sculpture, paintings, photography, jewellery, ceramics, furniture, fashion, costumes, posters…
Can you tell us about a few of the most popular things on the tour?
Highlights include a charming earthenware vase by Grayson Perry depicting trans rights activist April Ashley, a chair by bisexual designer Eileen Grey, and a painting by lesbian artist Gluck featuring bisexual ballet dancer Leonide Massine in a revue by Noel Coward. Can I mention some of my faves?
As an Australian, they’re distinctly antipodean: a ceramic by Peter Travis (who we also have to thank for the creation of Speedos), a ginormous hat in the shape of the Sydney Opera House worn by Dame Edna, and Kylie’s Showgirl wardrobe – it’s the crown jewels of Oz!
How far back in history does the tour go?
Off the top of my head, the oldest object on the tour is either a gold coin commemorating Emperor Hadrian or a sculpture from South Asia with intertwined male and female physical attributes entitled Shiva as Ardhanishvara (Lord Who Is Half Woman).
Are there things on the tour that cause surprise or shock?
Queen Victoria was so shocked by the nudity of Michelangelo’s David that a fig leaf was commissioned for royal visits – she never had a private view, as it were. You can see him in all his glory though. David fulfils the criteria as to why we choose an object – the subject or creator is LGBTQ+ or our community has assimilated it. On trial, Oscar Wilde explained that “the love that dare not speak its name” was that between David and Jonathan and in the sonnets of Michelangelo (dedicated to a handsome nobleman). Also, Melbourne author Tim Conigrave (Holding The Man) remarked that David’s hands were so big he’d never make a convincing drag queen.
Are there new things being added all the time?
A recent museum acquisition is the Refugee Flag, which represents millions of displaced people worldwide. There are also thousands of people around the world seeking asylum for being LGBTQ+ as there are still more than 70 counties where it is illegal to be homosexual, and sadly some where it is punishable by death. The struggle for equality and queer rights is an ongoing battle. It’s essential the V&A supports queer people, as we have a leading role to play in shaping community and culture, and challenging intolerance and prejudice.
If someone wants to do the tour what do they need to do?
The free tours are held on the last Saturday of each month at 4pm. Just come to the Meeting Point in the Grand Entrance (Cromwell Road). For more information visit the website.