A visitor to London’s Victoria & Albert Museum would find it hard to miss the six-and-a-half-foot-tall statue of Samson slaying a Philistine that stands near the museum’s main entrance. With its tangle of frenzied bodies, the marble sculpture is a testament to sixteenth-century Flemish sculptor Giambologna’s sense of drama and eye for detail. Once in the possession of the Spanish king, the piece came to England after the Prince of Wales (the future Charles I) received it in 1623 as a present and passed it along to his traveling companion, John Villiers. Villiers was a close friend of Charles’s father, James I — and also, many historians believe, his lover.
Explaining this story to us is Morag Cuthbert, a volunteer with the V&A’s LGBTQ tours program. Taking place on the last Saturday of each month, the tours are free to all and aim to uncover the queer histories of the objects in the museum’s collection. On the day of my visit, the start point has enough of a crowd to sustain four large groups simultaneously.
After the groups have been divided, Morag shepherds us to the Cast Courts, the two large halls that house scale plaster replicas of Western masterworks once used to train artists. At the foot of a copy of Michelangelo’s “David” — given as a diplomatic gift to Queen Victoria, who was allegedly so scandalized by the statue’s nudity that the museum was forced to add a fig leaf — our guide regales us with tidbits from Renaissance art history that would undoubtedly have shocked the museum’s famously prudish namesake. For instance, Michelangelo wrote a considerable body of love poetry addressed to men, a fact that the artist’s grandnephew attempted to expunge from the record by switching the pronouns. Pointing out that David’s hands are disproportionately large for his body, Morag quips, “If he were a drag queen, it’d be a dead give-away.”
In addition to shining a spotlight on queer artists — or, in the case of the Giambologna sculpture, queer owners — the tours also examine pieces with more easily recognizable connections to LGBTQ history. The museum’s storied costume collection, for instance, features ensembles by iconic performance artist Leigh Bowery and an extravagant Sydney Opera House-shaped hat once worn by prominent Australian drag queen Dame Edna Everage.
The particular tour I attended largely concentrated on Western art and skewed towards the “G” in LGBTQ, which our guide acknowledged, adding that this stemmed largely from the nature of the objects on display. The program is still in development, and as each guide individually crafts their own itineraries (one volunteer on the day I was present said she focuses specifically on women in the LGBTQ community), returnees can still get a chance to trace a completely new route. On the day that I attended, all but one tour was unthemed, and we were divided according to where we stood, given the option, however, of joining the themed tour if we preferred. I chose to remain with the group to which I was originally assigned.
The LGBTQ tour program began in 2015, and in 2017, an online version also became available for those unable to make the in-person time slot. Programs like this are part of a larger trend to use museum tours as a way of rupturing habitual narratives of art history and the social structures to which they are bound. Alice Procter, an MA candidate in the anthropology of material culture at University College London, has recently made waves with her “Uncomfortable Art Tours” organized at cultural institutions across London. Her website, which features a portrait of Elizabeth I graffitied over with the word “SLAVER,” explains that the purpose of her tours is to “unravel the role colonialism played in shaping and funding a major national collection.”
“My personal interest in this history,” Morag tells us at the beginning of our journey, “is that it completes the stories of the objects.”
An afternoon with the the LGBTQ guides — whose program has garnered multiple awards — gave the sense that they find their work not only deeply important but also a ton of fun. Half the pleasure of our tour’s exploration of Frederick the Great’s private life was the playful back-and-forth between our guide and another volunteer who happened to be in the same gallery when we walked in.
Earlier last month, program coordinator Dan Vo tweeted that Cambridge University’s museums would soon be launching their own LGBTQ tours as well. Only time will tell what a queer history tour of the Polar Museum will look like, but if the V&A’s model is anything to go on, it’ll be a good time.