The history of Sheffield’s LGBT+ community has remained largely uncovered. Where queer history has been documented in England, it has typically focused on southern cities – London, Brighton and Bristol are well-known for their LGBT communities. Recently, cities further north including Birmingham and Manchester have undertaken heritage projects to research and archive the unrecorded lives of LGBT+ people who live and have lived there. Now, a new collection by Museums Sheffield aims to do the same.
Opened in October 2019 at Weston Park Museum, Proud! has been organised by Clara Morgan, Curator of Social History at Museums Sheffield, who spotted the gap in the museum’s social history collection. Talking to her in front of the display, she tells me: “All we really had was some sexual health leaflets from the early 2000s… and even though the leaflets are interesting they’d come straight from the clinic so they had no personal story attached to them.”
Clara had also noticed that the museum wasn’t getting any LGBT+ related artefacts donated. “People weren’t thinking of us as a place for those collections. Sometimes it’s because they are quite recent and people don’t think of items from the last few decades as history. But because we try to reflect contemporary life you have to collect things now so you have them for the future.”
Using funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Clara set about creating the collection with the help of co-creators from Sheffield’s LGBT+ community. Together, they gathered items and set themes for what should be included in the display – from coming out to local protests to civil partnerships and marriage. “It was a bit of a risk and I just hoped we would get the right kind of group and support from people in Sheffield generally so that we could create the display,” Clara tells me. However, it actually proved to be “surprisingly easy” and they ended up with a massive collection, including items lent by the co-creators, to then narrow down for the display.
When it came to writing the descriptions, it was important to Clara that rather than a curator’s voice telling the items’ stories, the co-curators and individual donors explained their importance. From a post-operative compression binder to a messy teenage diary, these item’s stories are best told by their owners.
However, there are also some older items to represent historical figures. This presented a challenge for Clara given these people – from Roman emperors to a musical hall actress from the early 20th century – wouldn’t have used modern day terminology and not recognised the same identity categories. But what does at least show is a history of queerness and a source of inspiration to modern society.
Clara’s passion for the collection is palpable. She herself is not a member of LGBT+ community and in the process of making the collection she says she has been on an educational journey, including recognising heteronormativity in society. At one point during our conversation she tells me about her excitement upon receiving a steward’s badge from Chequers, the first regular LGBT+ disco in Sheffield, set up in the late 1970s. “It might seem so strange for me to get so excited by a plastic badge but it’s just so hard to capture some aspects of history,” she says. For other memories which can’t be represented by objects, Clara is collecting oral histories to be archived
Currently the display will stay in the museum until the end of July, however Clara hopes that it can stay for longer. “For a lot of people you wouldn’t really see this kind of representation in a museum because the collections weren’t there or there was reticence from some institutions about having them.
“The legacy of this collection is to keep on representing Sheffield and already we’ve had a few other offers so it shows that people now know that we care.”
Featured image: Museums Sheffield.