Marabou actively seeks out projects and initiatives that offer a refreshing approach to curatorial interpretation. “Out in Oxford” is one of those projects. Launched during LGBT History Month (February in the UK) in 2017, Out in Oxford selected objects and specimens already in the collections of Oxford University’s gardens, libraries, and museums, and interpreted them through an LGBTQ+ lens. The project was inspired by Richard Parkinson, Professor of Egyptology at the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Queen’s College, Oxford. As described by Out in Oxford’s project manager, Beth Asbury, Professor Parkinson’s lecture “highlighted the demand for more explicit, not implicit, LGBTQ+ representation within museum displays.”
Out in Oxford was a month-long celebration, but its main component was a curated trail highlighting 25 objects and specimens, still available through the downloadable Out in Oxford booklet. Marabou likes to think about what would happen if Out in Oxford’s interpretations were integrated into museum text at places like The Metropolitan Museum of Art or The British Museum. For example, one featured object (on page 6 of the booklet) is a Manju Netsuke Showing the Female Warrior Tomoe Gozen and Wada Yoshimori. Victoria Sainsbury writes,
This netsuke (根付), a carved toggle used to attach purses to traditional Japanese dress, shows Tomoe Gozen (巴 御前) and her lover Wada Yoshimori (和田 義盛). While this beautiful example dates from the 19th century, Tomoe lived in the 12th century. Tomoe was known for extreme feminine beauty on the one hand, and unparalleled physical, masculine strength and courage on the other. She undertook the most male of professions by becoming a samurai (侍). In some tales, she is also a female entertainer, highlighting this contrast even more. Semi-fctionalised accounts of Tomoe’s life became popular along with other stories that play with the notion of gender as performative – decided by actions and not biological sex – such as Torikaebaya Monogatari (とりかへばや物語, ‘The Changelings’). Many females across history have assumed elements of masculine dress, nomenclature or gender, for a variety of reasons. They have acted in contrast to the behaviour their cultures have expected for their biological sex, against a corresponding binary gender, which can be viewed as surprisingly modern.
Imagine a museum experience that presents more representative and stereotype-smashing content like that written above.
Steven Fry, British comedian and actor (with a very distinctive voice), commented on why Out in Oxford is important, particularly for the LGBTQ+ community,
One of the simplest things museums do – so simple it’s easy to overlook – is to connect us to the worlds that our ancestors saw, interacted with, shared, dreamed of, planned, ran away from and interpreted. At the simplest level to see ourselves reflected back through the generations is a very rewarding, exciting and fulfilling experience. To see that our people looked at, considered, explored, generated and played with ideas of sexuality with as much freedom, imagination and insight as ours comes as a relief, a confirmation and an enchantment.
Oxford’s history is saturated with ties to colonialism, imperialism and other oppressive and intolerant actions. Out in Oxford obviously does not erase past wrongs. However, the example it sets is valuable: that it is possible to rethink already existing museum collections and represent voices outside the normalized population (usually white, western, heterosexual, and able-bodied). Out in Oxford proves the heteronormative narratives that permeate museums can be challenged and can sometimes be misleading. Out in Oxford’s model can be applied to tackle white supremacist, patriarchal, ableist, and other exclusionary narratives told in museums around the world.