London’s Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) is facing criticism for removing trans- and queer-affirming materials from the gift shop and from a display on social justice at the Young V&A, a new children’s center connected to the institution. Specifically, leadership of the V&A decided to remove two books aimed at LGBTQ+ youth: Here and Queer: A Queer Girl’s Guide to Life (2022) by Rowan Ellis and Seeing Gender: An Illustrated Guide to Identity and Expression (2022) by illustrator Iris Gottlieb. Museum officials also removed a red and black poster on trans visibility created by the United Kingdom-based LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall that reads “Some people are Trans. Get over it!”
The decision to withdraw these materials was made just ahead of the Young V&A’s reopening on July 1 after a three-year, £13 million (~$16.5 million) redevelopment project.
Members of the V&A’s LGBTQ Working Group along with representatives of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union and the Prospect trade union, which represent workers at national museums including the V&A, met with V&A Director Tristram Hunt on June 26 to repeal the removal of the materials. However, PCS states that their request was denied.
“PCS is absolutely clear that we oppose the removal of these objects and urges the V&A to reverse this decision. The [Stonewall] poster was simply a statement of fact that ‘some people are trans,’” PCS Culture Group Secretary Steven Warwick said in a public statement.
The trans-affirming poster was initially chosen to be included in a display about the utilization of design in social justice causes. A V&A spokesperson told Hyperallergic in an email that the museum made a “complex decision” to redact these and other materials from the display and store after a “review of age-appropriate material.” The books by Gottlieb and Ellis both have recommended reading ages of 14 and older, which is apparently above the age of the YVA’s target audience of children aged 14 and younger. The V&A representative told Hyperallergic that the institution is exploring “age-appropriate alternatives.” It is not clear why the Stonewall poster was removed.
‘The V&A is fully committed to presenting an inclusive programme and visitor experience across all our museums, from South Kensington to Young V&A. This includes trans representation as well as voices and perspectives from across the queer community, collecting works by trans and non-binary artists, with our events programme, LGBTQ tours, and exhibitions such as Fashioning Masculinities and DIVA that celebrate the diversity of our audiences and society,” the spokesperson said.
“This decision was not intended to be exclusionary, and we do recognize the concerns that this has caused,” the museum spokesperson added.
Both Ellis and Gottlieb told Hyperallergic over email that neither they nor their publishers were notified of the removal of their publications from the shop.
After learning that her book was removed from the museum shop through social media, Ellis took to TikTok to express her “livid anger,” commenting on the “devastating” impact that “scare-mongering” of transness can have on queer youth and families.
“Denying the very existence of a section of our community because it is seen as not ‘appropriate’ for children has a long history in this country,” Ellis remarked in an email to Hyperallergic.
“Section 28 was still in effect when I was at school, and its legacy continues to this day; that same backlash against age-appropriate education and information-sharing that we saw around gay people is now out in full force against the trans community,” Ellis continued.
Enacted on May 24, 1988 by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, Section 28 refers to a series of laws in the UK that prohibited the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities. After decades of protests, the anti-LGBTQ+ legislation remained in effect until 2000 in Scotland and until 2003 in England and Wales.
Gottlieb, who is trans, told Hyperallergic that to deny anyone healthcare, support, and education access is “denying their right to thrive.”
“Being a public space that is designed to engage kids in learning and growing, there is an opportunity for the Young V&A to give kids access to resources they might not otherwise see that are created in an effort to support that learning and growth,” Gottlieb continued. “I had years and years of pain and discomfort because I didn’t see people like me or have the language tools to understand or express what was going on with my own gender identity.”
The illustrator added that trans youth statistically “have a significantly higher rate of self-harm and suicide.” According to recent YouGov polling of over 5,000 LGBTQ+ people in the UK, 41% of trans people have experienced a hate crime or incident because of their gender identity in the last 12 months.
“Regardless of the museum director’s personal belief about hosting trans-friendly books in their shop, there are trans kids visiting the museum and parents or friends of trans people — providing those resources align with their mission of encouraging creativity and learning. It would be a shame to allow the person in power to make a decision that takes away a valuable resource to its visitors,” Gottlieb said.