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By Science Museum Group on

Unearthing LGBTQ+ stories in the collection

Inspired by LGBTQ+ history month, Assistant Curators Laura Büllesbach and Rebecca Mellor explore four objects in our collection which can help tell stories of LGBTQ+ communities, experiences and identities.

Historically, LGBTQ+ narratives have largely been excluded from museum collecting and object interpretation. Objects often have many ways of being interpreted, with active choices made about which story to tell.

Beyond Pride flags and protest badges, there are many other objects which relate to LGBTQ+ communities that can be found across museum collections.

Here, we uncover some of the untold queer stories related to four objects in the Science Museum Group Collection, celebrating how LGBTQ+ symbols and objects are part of our shared histories.

Violets and queer flower symbolism

The first object is a 17th century albarello vase from Liguria, Italy, which was used to preserve violet flowers. It is part of the Wellcome Collection, which the Science Museum Group cares for, and provides a beautiful example of medical ceramicware. Looking at it from a different perspective however, the object introduces us to the world of queer flower symbolism.

Violets and their colour have throughout history become associated with lesbian and bisexual identities. This can be traced back to the Greek poet Sappho, who in 600 BCE lived on the island Lesbos and is today widely perceived a symbol for love and desire between women.

In many of her poems, Sappho used botanical references and in one of them she describes women getting together in an idyllic pasture and wearing garlands made from violets and other flowers.

Since then, Sapphic Violets have appeared in other works of literature, one of them being the 1926 Broadway play, “The Captive” by Édouard Bourdet, where a lesbian character sends a bouquet of violets to another. The play caused substantial uproar and was eventually shut down.

After this, violets became a political symbol of love between women, with supporters frequently wearing the flowers pinned to their clothes as a statement.

Albarello vase for violet flowers

Unexpected Connections

Symbols that are meaningful to the LGBTQ+ community are often unintentionally present in the objects around us. Anyone attending Pride events over the last few years is sure to recognise this popular queer icon – the unicorn.

You can see a unicorn on this 19th century English fire bucket, most likely related to the Royal coat of arms in which the unicorn represents Scotland and a symbol of power, strength, and purity.

A unicorn’s uniqueness, magical qualities, links to rainbows and untameable nature also make it a symbol to many of the joyous experiences of queerness.

However, even in the queer community, this symbol is understood differently depending on the viewer’s perspective. While for many the unicorn is an exclusively positive symbol, it may also be used when describing the hyper-sexualisation of bisexual or pansexual people.

While leather was used to make the bucket for practical purposes, this material has a specific meaning from a queer perspective as leather culture has been a longstanding subculture in the LGBTQ+ community.  Although this object was not made with the LGBTQ+ community in mind, it provides an interesting starting point to further explore queer lives.

Old leather fire bucket, with initials F.P. and crest of unicorn.
Old leather fire bucket, with initials F.P. and crest of unicorn.

Gendered connectors and fasteners

Gender features in technology in unexpected ways. One example of that is this screw adaptor chuck. It is part of a large collection of chucks used with a striking 18th century Rose engine lathe (pictured below).

Connectors and fasteners, like this chuck, are generally described as consisting of a male side with a sticking out pin, and a female side with a receptacle that receives and holds the pin. Unsurprisingly, the process of them being joined, is described as mating. There is even an extension to this, in which a connector that includes mating surfaces with both male and female characteristics is described as a hermaphroditic connector.

Such language is widespread. It is an interesting example of how normalised heteronormativity in society is and how it shapes the ways in which we speak about aspects of science and technology which are otherwise unrelated to gender and sexuality.

Rose engine lathe
Rose engine lathe

All Dolled Up: Objects for a Queer Audience

The ‘Billy’ Doll is an object designed for a queer, specifically gay male, audience. Billy was designed by artists John McKitterick and Juan Andres in response to the negativity directed towards the gay community during the AIDS epidemic. Their designs were meant to create positive visibility for the gay community, promote safe sex, and with the later addition of his boyfriend Carlos and best friend Tyson, champion diverse representations.

Billy was originally a sculpture displayed at a London Arts Benefit for Aids in 1994, but his popularity led to mass manufacturing and international sales. Outraged responses to Billy, particularly due to his deliberately exaggerated (though anatomically correct) body parts and later drag outfit choices, actually encouraged more media attention and led to his celebration as a gay icon.

Today, Billy and his boyfriend Carlos are part of our Public Health & Hygiene collection due to their close links to AIDS awareness and fundraising, with visitors to the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World gallery able to see a Billy doll on display.

Unlike the other objects in this list, Billy and Carlos are explicitly designed for the queer community as an audience and illustrate how gay culture has dramatically spread into popular culture and commercial industries over the 20th and 21st centuries.

A Carlos doll which features a tattoo of Billy's name on arm.
A Carlos doll which features a tattoo of Billy’s name on arm.

These four objects offer a brief glimpse into the LGBTQ+ perspectives that can be told through our collection, with many more objects and queer stories left to be explored.