Inside Queer Britain – The UK’s First LGBTQIA+ Museum
For years, queer history has been obscured, erased, hidden and hard to find. While the internet has opened up LGBTQIA+ histories, making our past more accessible, cultural institutions, museums and educational establishments have been slow to follow. Queer Britain, the UK’s first LGBTQIA+ museum, hopes to change this.
The museum, which opened in May 2022 in London’s King’s Cross, is the brainchild of Joseph Galliano. While working in the mid-noughties as the editor of queer magazine Gay Times, he realised many young LGBTQIA+ people knew little about queer history. Galliano ruminated on the idea for a decade until he noticed a sea-change in the UK’s cultural sector, such as 2017’s Queer British Art exhibition at the Tate Britain and the rise of the Queering the Museum movement, which saw collections at the V&A and the British Museum reappraised through an LGBTQIA+ lens.
“I was fearful that if someone didn’t commit to making sure that energy didn’t dissipate it would be another 50 years before anything would happen,” Galliano says. “We also wanted to make something available so that trans people, women, people of colour and people with disabilities – a much broader and diverse set of our communities – could see themselves reflected in ways that they hadn’t before, and have their voices be part of it as well.”
Along with co-founder Ian Mehrtens, a diverse board of trustees, countless volunteers and generous financial donors, Galliano dedicated the past five years to turning Queer Britain from a dream to an actuality. While the space is compact, it packs a punch. The opening temporary exhibition included a photographic timeline of LGBTQIA+ rights in the UK and portraits of queer chosen families.
We Are Queer Britain, the museum’s latest exhibition, which opens this week, will “be a riot of historical objects, artefacts and things that have not been seen before,” says Galliano. “We’ve got a thread back to the Queer British Art exhibition where we’re going to be exhibiting the door of Oscar Wilde’s prison cell from Reading Gaol. There will also be documents from our community covering activism, social history, legal change, and socialising. We’re doing an awful lot in a small space.”
Lisa Power, one of the museum’s trustees who has spent her life advocating for LGBTQIA+ rights in the UK, says she was insistent the museum incorporates queer stories from all over the country. “I live in Wales, and I was clear that I wanted us to be for Britain, not just London,” she says. “And I want us to celebrate the queer people who have come to the UK from around the globe, often fleeing persecution but finding family here.”
In 2022, the lives of LGBTQIA+ people have never been more visible, and the success of an institution such as Queer Britain only solidifies that. However, as we see a rise in anti-LGBTQIA+ hate crimes and legislation such as Florida’s Don’t Say Gay bill, there’s still a need for vigilance. “The way we respond to that is by being here and by insisting on inclusivity within the boundaries of what we’re doing,” says Galliano.
But Galliano didn’t realise what the emotional ramifications would be. “There have been instances of people walking through the door and bursting into tears. It’s that idea of being seen. For some, that has been unbearably moving,” he says.
“I hope it makes people value their history,” adds Power. “I hope it becomes somewhere a teenager coming out can take their parents to show them who we – as well as they – are.”
Alim Kheraj is a freelance writer and host of the podcast Queer Spaces. His first book Queer London is a guide to LGBTQIA+ London, past and present