Since its inception, the Museum of Oxford has sought to "tell the story of Oxford and its people", but as Community Engagement and Exhibitions Officer Marta Lomza admits, this has not always been straightforward. "We are conscious of gaps and omissions in the stories we have so far documented and showcased...it was very clear to the Museum team that LGBTIQA+ stories were underrepresented and we would like to change that", Lomza told Pink Times, Oxfordshire's LGBTIQA+ magazine.
Queering Spires, the Museum's new exhibition on queer spaces in Oxford, is a significant step forward in addressing this issue and including all communities in the documentation and celebration of the city's diverse history. The Museum has teamed up with Tales of Our City and Oxford Pride to bring to life a colourful, engaging and groundbreaking exhibition about Oxford's queer community, past and present.
An eye-catching display at the entrance to the hall depicts the vast array of flags associated with LGBTIQA+ activism, which extends far beyond the familiar rainbow banner. Each flag is accompanied by an information panel detailing its origin and meaning. One particularly powerful quote from Gilbert Baker, designer of the original Pride emblem (which featured more colours than the one seen today), reiterated the symbolic significance of these flags: "Flags say something. You put a rainbow flag on your windshield and you're saying something".
A timeline from Stonewall, the LGBTIQA+ charity, chronicles the major milestones in the history of the LGBTIQA+ community in the UK. As a millennial who came to consciousness in more accepting times, it served as a sharp reminder of the hard-earned victories of activists and campaigners in the previous century. Some of these landmark moments in the fight for equality came astonishingly recently.
In the main room, visitors can use an old telephone to listen to stories and recollections from members of the city's LGBTIQA+ community, who have collaborated with local queer history project Tales of Our City. The recordings provide a fascinating and at times very touching insight into the lives of the contributors. Many speak candidly about the liberation they felt when they first visited queer spaces in Oxford, such as the Red Lion, the Coven and the Apollo. Visual material is also available through the Queering Spires Videothéque, and clippings from gay publications such as the Pink Times and the Oxford Gayzette showcase news and adverts for past events, such as the opening of Northgate Hall on St Michael's Street. The Hall (which is now Bill's restaurant) was Oxford's Gay and Lesbian Community Centre between 1991 and 2005, and was inaugurated by Sir Ian McKellen.
Nearby, a collection of boxes contain information about LGBT+ venues in Oxford, and contributors have donated their own memorabilia too. Some of these locations have been and gone, such as all-male nude bathing spot Parson's Pleasure, the subject of numerous Oxford anecdotes. However, a wall of sticky notes next door is evidence that there are a plenty of new places for LGBTIQA+ people to find their community: social media platforms such as Tinder and Tumblr get a mention, as does the Oxford Roller Derby and queer nights such as Molly's FriYay. There is also a cabinet with objects and souvenirs from Oxford Pride and a series of portraits from local artist Jack Smith.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Queering Spires is the emphasis placed on collaboration and inclusion. The Museum team have gone to great lengths to make it easy to contribute to the exhibition: sticky notes can be added to displays, and visitors and locals are warmly invited to submit their own stories and memorabilia related to Oxford's LGBTIQA+ community. The exhibition will run until April, which allows plenty of time for people to offer their own impressions. As Marta Lomza aptly describes, Queering Spires will not be "a static, finished product", but rather a collaborative project that recognises "the multiplicity of perspectives and diversity of voices". If encouraging early signs are anything to go by, the Museum of Oxford is already well on its way to achieving this aim - and establishing a fascinating, creative history of the city's queer spaces.