Category Archives: Museums

Twilight People: Stories of Gender and Faith Beyond the Binary

LBI Cheryl Smith 4.02.16-4759

This time last year I was deep in a volunteer project; this year I’m freelancing and full-time working… Here’s a quick recap on that project and what it meant to me. 

Cast yourself back to February 2016… for LGBT History Month, I was part of a brilliant team of volunteers and professionals to realise a temporary photography and oral history exhibition called Twilight People. It featured beautiful photographs by Christa Holka, media by Susanne Hakuba, graphics by Lai Couto, and took place at Islington Museum. Subsequently, the exhibition has toured to Coventry, Manchester and had a pop up event at the LGBT Police Conference at the Guildhall in London.

The exhibition features intimate, face-to-face encounters with people who are at the intersection of gender and faith. Pictured holding an object that means something precious to their identity and faith journey, they are also accompanied by their own words taken directly from their oral histories. Together, they give a powerful insight into faiths and identities that are often not seen as compatible, and confounds many stereotypes. For some, faith is the way they have come to terms with their identity; for others, being accepted by a religious community has been a positive marker for them in their transition.

I was honoured to be involved in such a project, not least because I got to work with Surat-Shaan Knaan, whose energy knows no bounds. With my co-curator Sean Curran, and the fabulous volunteers who took part in workshops and played a part in scripting the exhibition, we had such fun leading workshops, choosing images and creating a beautiful space, so here’s a few of the photographs from the install and launch.

The Heritage Lottery Fund, who kindly provided the money to be able to carry out the project, asked me to write a blog post for the project which you can read here.



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Into the Stacks at the London Library

Shhhh. The London Library, that secret and impregnable hermitage of knowledge in St James’ Square, offers free tours.

Rosanna from No Fixed Abode Club wrote about our visit here. The Library is just about to embark on a new phase of building works to expand their collection of 1 million books (or 70 miles of shelving). While the collection is strongest in the humanities and the arts, there are books about cartography, biography and almost every edition of the Times newspaper can be browsed in vast broadsheet folios.

The building itself was one of the first steel-framed buildings in London. In fact, the bookshelves themselves are the load-bearing elements for the building, a clever way of utilising the weight of books to keep the building upright. When they move the books out of the stacks for the buildings works to take place, the library is expected to rise by a couple of feet.

We also heard about the library’s own literature festival, Words in the Square, which will debut this May. Expect speakers such as Sara Wheeler, Ian Hislop, Nick Hornby, Simon Russell Beale, Harriet Walter, Deborah Levy and Simon Schama.



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Running (and) Museums

No, sadly not “running museums”, though I hope so one day.

Basically, I took a bit of time away from Mediatrixy and in that time I worked out that the two things I really like talking about are: running and museums.

By which I mean…

Running – all forms of exercise are encompassed here – high intensity training, body weights, sprints and hill work, occasional emotional yoga sessions, etc. But crucially they are all done in the pursuit of running harder, faster, stronger.

Museums – again, all sorts of culture – concerts, installations, interesting parts of my city, browsing the Internet (ahhh), reading, etc. But crucially, all in pursuit of making better exhibitions and experiences for people who visit them.

So with these passions clearly stated, I’m going to start to write here a little bit more about these topics, hopefully connecting with other likeminded people. Because that sounds fun, doesn’t it? 🙂

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Rainbow Jews; the exhibition

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Last year, I started working with Rainbow Jews, a pioneering oral history project supported by Liberal Judaism  that tells the untold story of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews in the UK. On 2nd February, we installed the fruits of our labour at the London School of Economics, in their Atrium Gallery; and on February 6th we held a launch event – which, despite tube stries and dreadful weather, was incredibly well attended.

For this exhibition, the Rainbow Jews team gathered long-form interviews in which people speak openly about what it is like to be both Jewish and LGBT. These oral histories are an ongoing project for Rainbow Jews and those interested in contributing should get in touch.

Many of these people had never spoken out about their faith and sexuality before, though there were others who were known for their ground-breaking visibility in being both gay and Jewish – such as gay rabbis Lionel Blue (listen to his Desert Island Discs) and Mark Solomon, and lesbian rabbis Sheila Shulman and Elli Tikvah Sarah. It became clear that the networks and support groups founded by Jewish LGBT people were vital to provide a new kind of community for those who felt on the outside of more traditional faith and family structures. Though I knew little about the Jewish faith, and even less about LGBT Jews, the stories drawn out through these interviews are universally compelling. Throughout the process, we aimed to speak not only to those with a specialist understanding of the subject matter, but also to those who knew very little.

The exhibition is running for a month (open Mon-Fri 10-6) and finishes on 28 February. A series of rainbow-coloured panels, which reflect in the highly polished floor, lead the viewer through the story. Two showcases hold objects, such as ephemera and memorabilia, as well as more substantial items such as the AIDS quilt. Several media points along the wall allow audiences to hear from the interviewees in more detail.

The panels are rich in content and suit in-depth reading, as the real assets of this exhibition are the voices of the interviewees. Their honesty, humour, bravery, anger, fear, relief and celebration are overwhelmingly apparent as they describe how in course of a single lifetime, to be Jewish and LGBT has gone from something completely unacknowledged, to something celebrated – with all the attendant struggles for personal and public acceptance that this kind of social history usually entails.

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2014-02-02 15.31.46 2014-02-02 15.30.36 2014-02-02 15.30.08My role in making the Rainbow Jews exhibition happen was as a volunteer curator, content developer and exhibition coordinator. I worked with the project manager, Surat Knan, and her team of volunteers who wrote exhibition script, conducted many of the interviews and assisted with specific research tasks. Graphic design was by the superb Urjuan Toosy, and the exhibition booklet (more on this soon!) was created with help from wonderful Kate Brangan.

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Rainbow Jews – new project!

I’m thrilled to be using my exhibition development knowledge in a volunteer, “coal-face” context, working with the Rainbow Jews, organised by Surat Knan at Liberal Judaism. Although this is a totally new content world for me,  I’m hoping  I can be useful in helping to develop and deliver the temporary exhibition next February at the London School of Economics.

The exhibition is about opening people’s eyes to the intersection of Jewish and LGBT identities, more specifically, about how having a Jewish and an LGBT identity makes life doubly complex. The stories we’re telling are often fraught with struggle and emotional conflict, and strike at the heart of what it means to belong and feel happy in oneself, while at the same time answering to the expectations of others. A dedicated team has been collecting oral histories and filmed interviews from people with stories to tell.

To find out more or to get involved yourself, take a look at the Rainbow Jews website. I’ll be posting about this in more detail as we get stuck in!

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Memory Palace: in defence of the life of the mind

“Here is how to remember. First you must choose a place. It should be somewhere you know very well. Most people pick somewhere spacious and grand – a great hall, one of the ruined towers of the city. You get to know this place as well as you can. You walk around it, impressing every detail on your memory, until you can tour it in your mind when you are not there. Then you place the things you need to remember around the building, in the form of pictures. These pictures must be startling enough to trigger your imagination. They can be the faces of people you know, or common things combined or altered in an unusual way. A man with the head of a fox. A waterfall flowing uphill. If there is a list of facts you need to remember you can put them in some specific order. In this way, when you need to recall something, you merely go in your imagination to the spot where you have stored it. There it will be, waiting for you.”

So begins ‘Memory Palace’, both a short story by Hari Kunzru and a physical exhibition, now showing at the V&A until 20th October. Drawing on sources from the Classical and Medieval periods, this is a narrative about the art of memory, re-envisioned in a future where ideas are contraband, the Internet is a forbidden meeting of minds, and a physical, anti-intellectual focus on the body usurps the primacy of the mind. In this future, everyone is a warrior or a farmer. The thinkers of the past are dubbed ‘lawlords’, no longer allowed to practice their art but forced to conform to a life of non-imagination.

Unlike many mid-twentieth-century futuristic visions, which predict an overflow of information, technology and robotics, Kunzru’s world is an exploration of what would happen if the information age combusted, whilst also pushing at issues of freedom of thought and information censorship present today’s society.

Kunzru tells the story of a man who refuses to conform, and is imprisoned because he continues to think. He’s no hero though: just a man who, he implies, can’t go through life without having ideas. Yes, we all think, imagine having no ideas… No scratch that, do not even begin to imagine in the first place. In the darkness of his cell, the man falls back on the only thing he knows he can trust: his mind. In isolation, he begins to cover the cell with his memories, to stop the walls from closing in on his mind.

And this is only the beginning of the story. Kunzru’s real achievement (with twenty others) at the V&A is an exercise in precisely the use of imagination prohibited by his utopia – an interdisciplinary collaboration between illustrators, artists, writers and cartoonists. The impact of the artworks that support and tell this story is dependent upon the visitor’s ability to draw connections, play with ellipses – to mind, and fill, the gaps. We realise how impossible it must be to lead a life entirely of the body through the abundance of thought-provoking installations.

I began the day I visited by reading Hilary Mantel on Susan Sontag: “What ultimately matters about Sontag… is what she has defended: the life of the mind, and the necessity for reading and writing as ‘a way of being fully human.’” (Los Angeles Times Book Review). In Memory Palace, this cause seems at first very necessary to defend, but then, also without need of such protection. Because you can’t begin to contemplate the absence of mind without defending your right to think, the privilege of being able to imagine.

I adored this exhibition largely because I love learning about arts of memory, reflecting on how impoverished our current abilities in this field are today; moreover, I enjoy galleries and museums that tell a rich, multilayered story. The artworks themselves are genuinely worthy of sustained scrutiny (actually, something that Sontag would not have enjoyed. She preferred being able to take in paintings “at a glance” which is why she doesn’t like Breughels). At the conclusion of the experience, visitors are encouraged to record their own memories through the intimate littleness of an iPad. After witnessing the story of how fragile memory can be, to offer your own memories to the museum seems an irresistible and momentous experience. The fact that the doodles are then made into weekly posters, downloadable from the website, may trivialise this experience for some; however, these collected memory tablets provide yet another insight into the power of bringing together crowd-sourced content around a central, universal theme. I spent a happy two hours in this single room space, near deserted because of the popularity of David Bowie Is, next door. So I really recommend that you go (preferably early on a Sunday morning), read the walls, and learn how to adorn your own with your memories. Fill in the gaps. Exercise the life of your mind.

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