With the exhibition Desire, love, identity: exploring LGBTQ histories soon to open at the British Museum, Keeper Philip Attwood takes a look at the Museum's collection of lesbian and gay badges.
LGBTQ badges in the British Museum
The exhibition Desire, Love, Identity: exploring LGBTQ histories opens at the Museum on 11 May and will 'provide glimpses into LGBTQ experience across time and around the world'. The earliest object will date from around 9000 BC, the latest from our own time. It won’t come as a surprise to many that the Museum can come up with objects from the distant past. But what may be surprising is that the Museum’s collection also includes large numbers of much more recent objects – objects that throw light on the way we live today.
Among the modern everyday objects in the Museum’s collection are some 13,000 badges. Most come from the UK, but there are also a good number from the Unites States, and over 50 other countries are also represented. Included in these modern badges are around 400 that relate to LGBTQ experience.
How did these badges come to be in the British Museum? Ever since its foundation in 1753 the Museum has collected commemorative medals. The first modern-style button badges to enter the collection arrived in 1906 along with a large group of such medals. These badges had been made a few years earlier in support of British forces fighting in the Boer. At the time this sort of badge was a relatively new invention, but, because they were cheap to make, they came to dominate the 20th century, taking over the roles of the earlier medals. That the button badge was in effect the new medal was recognised in 1906 by both the collector who gave them to us, Frederick Parkes Weber, and the Museum itself.
The rise of protest movements in western countries in the 1960s and 1970s gave badges a new lease of life. For example, in the UK Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), badges were produced in huge quantities. Meanwhile the Museum had continued over the years to acquire badges in a piecemeal way through occasional gifts. Then in the late 1970s the decision was taken to collect more proactively and the number of badges began to grow rapidly. As there was no money available, it was a matter of encouraging donations, and we found that people were extraordinarily generous.
The first lesbian and gay badges arrived in the Museum in 1978 as part of a large gift of 258 political badges from an individual collector: 'How dare you presume I’m heterosexual' and 'Lesbians ignite' were among the slogans. As a junior member of staff in the Department of Coins and Medals, I was put in charge of the collection in the early 1980s, and one of the first things I did was to donate some badges of my own. These included 'Gay News fights on!', from the 1977 campaign against the newspaper's conviction for blasphemous libel (a crime that no longer exists) and a 'Gay whales against racism' badge. While the latter is appealing on account of its humour, it’s also informative in that it shows that when it was made in 1980 or thereabouts, gay rights were up there along with Save the Whale and anti-racism as a visible campaign very much in the public eye.
'Finance AIDS research' – arrived in 1985, and was followed quickly by many others that act as a reminder that the gay community was at the forefront in campaigning for funding and greater understanding of the disease. The campaign against Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act, which banned local authorities from 'promoting homosexuality', is also well represented, including a group of badges presented in May 1989 by Trades Unionists Against Section 28. Gifts of badges from the organisations that issued them have always been especially welcome, as this means that they come well documented: we know who is responsible for distributing them, we know when, and, importantly, the badges are all in good condition.
The Museum continues to collect badges, recognising them as a mirror of the times. The badge has always been especially important for the lesbian and gay movement, for visibility has been a central issue since the early days of campaigning. As Jeffrey Weeks wrote in his book Coming out, published in 1977:
"Coming out" was the first and most obvious change … You were encouraged to wear badges … asserting your homosexuality.
The badges now in the Museum’s collection document the activities and campaigns that have led to the astonishing transformation in both social attitudes and the legal status of lesbians and gay men that has happened in the UK over the last few decades. They are also a lasting tribute to the members of the LGBTQ community who both individually and collectively helped to bring this transformation about.
The British Museum is generally associated with its stupendous collection of antiquities and treasures from around the world, with less attention paid to the millions of smaller, less exalted objects. And yet these objects also have stories to tell – stories that are no less revealing about the societies that produced them than those of the more obviously impressive sculptures and other great works of art.
A selection of these works were featured in the exhibition Desire, love, identity: exploring LGBTQ histories (11 May – 15 October 2017).
Supported by Stephen and Julie Fitzgerald.
You can explore the range, diversity and complexity of same-sex experiences through time with the award-winning A little Gay History available in the Museum shops and online.