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For many years, collectors and archeologists have donated found objects to the British Museum. Some of these, in previous centuries, were considered “erotic” or “obscene” because they suggested or showed sexual activity, or were intended for use in sex.
While the Museum accepted these unique donations, it did not display them publicly in an era when even discussing sexual matters was taboo. Instead, the Museum established a “secretum” (secret museum) in l865 after its collection was expanded by hundreds of phallic objects given by George Witt, an antiquities dealer. The new objects joined others inevitably closeted.
In 2006, a much more open England was invited to a special exhibit at the British Museum of the “Warren Cup,” a Roman silver vessel showing pairs of men making love. It juxtaposed the ancient chalice from 10 AD Palestine with an image from the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain.
Now, R.B. Parkinson, a curator of ancient Egyptian culture at the Museum, has selected some forty of these objects in a new book, A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity Across the World, published at just the right time for holiday gifting. Despite its small size, it is packed with useful details to inform anyone who enjoys art, or who is new to gay culture or history.
In his excellent and highly-readable introduction, Parkinson gives a short history of “homosexuality,” a term coined in the nineteenth century “as part of the medicalization of human sexuality.” Then he takes a long step back in history, starting with Hadrian, born in 76 AD, who “would have been ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual’ if he had lived in modern Europe.”
Parkinson states clearly that same-sex desire “has not been ‘imported’ from one culture to others, as some people have claimed.” Indeed, “love has always been diverse throughout history and across cultures,” he notes. Gay love and passion have always existed, and humans always surround what they love with art and beauty.
Parkinson writes, “Some cultures, such as the classical Mediterranean or the Edo period in Japan, have given same-sex desire prominence in prestigious art forms.” Among his choices, grouped in chronological order and included in four-color photographs, are:
• A damaged clay copy of Iraq’s epic Gilgamesh, from early seventh century BC;
• Copper coins from the second century AD, bearing a profile of Sappho on one side and a poet’s lyre on the other (from Greece, second century AD), plus fragments of a papyrus bearing her poems (Egypt, third century BC);
• A terracotta lamp depicting two women engaged in oral sex, from Turkey (first century AD);
• Sketches and poems (1553 AD) by Michelangelo showing his struggle to mesh his feelings and required Catholic chastity;
• A “treasure box” carved from wood and decorated with shells, showing a stylized scene of oral sex, from New Zealand (late 1770s AD);
• Japanese woodblock prints on paper, from the early l800s, showing men and women with sex toys of the period;
• A wide variety of representations of androgyny and cross-dressing;
• Sketches of gay people’s “coding,” and punishment when they did not do so, from the 1800s;
• Modern quilts and protest buttons from the early gay civil rights era (late twentieth century).
Parkinson includes a photograph of visitors of various ages looking at Hadrian’s bronze bust in a 2012 exhibit. “All the visitors were happy to appear in this book, regardless of their sexualities. No heterosexuals were harmed in taking this picture,” he notes.
In addition to the objects themselves, a list of other resources includes websites from the British Museum and the British Library to see other objects in their collections. In addition, he provides links to gay museums in Berlin, Amsterdam, San Francisco, and provides general reading sources at the end of the book.
Fascinating, fun, and recommended.
Kit van Cleave is a freelance writer living in Montrose. She has published in local, national, and international media.