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The British Museum adds five LGBT+ treasures to its permanent collection

The British Museum adds five LGBT+ treasures to its permanent collection

  • From an ancient coin showing lesbian poet Sappho to a joke fake banknote depicting gay gangster Ronnie Kray.
Roman oil lamp depicting female oral sex from Turkey.

The British Museum has added five new treasures to its permanent display, ranging from Japanese prints showing attractive third gender youths to a rare lamp depicting lesbian sex.

The artefacts, which span almost 2,000 years of history, will be on permanent display when the museum in London re-opens after coronavirus.

They will add to The British Museum’s impressive collection of LGBT+ objects. This already includes The Warren Cup – a Roman drinking vessel showing gay sex scenes – which is arguably the holy grail of queer history.

Curators chose the new objects to showcase as wide as possible a range of LGBT+ identities.

Stuart Frost is head of interpretation and volunteers at the museum.

He said: ‘We’re really pleased to be putting these five objects on permanent display.

‘They join a number of other objects on permanent display that collectively demonstrate that same-sex love, desire and gender diversity have always been an integral part of the human experience.’

Here are the five objects which guides will now include on their LGBT+ tours of the museum:

Nine Bob Note

Duckie Nine Bob Note.
Duckie Nine Bob Note. British Museum

LGBT+ club event Duckie created this fake currency for people attending it’s post-Pride party in 2008.

Duckie ran annual ‘Gay Shame’ events for several years to lampoon the over-commercialisation and limited inclusion of London’s Prides at the time.

The 2008 theme was ‘Gay Shame Goes Macho’. It was a riotous event where Duckie jokingly sold the clubbers’ own urine back to them as cologne.

The ‘Nine Bob Note’ features the image of the legendary, gay London gangster Ronnie Kray in place of Queen Elizabeth.

It copies the design of the original ten shilling note from the time before the UK switched to modern currency. At the time ‘as queer as a nine bob note’ was a common phrase.

Medal of Chevalier d’Eon

Medal of Chevalier d’Eon
Medal of Chevalier d’Eon. British Museum

This bronze medal of Chevalier d’Eon dates from 1777.

D’Eon was a famous 18th-century soldier, diplomat and spy. They lived openly as a man and as a woman in France and England at different stages of life. Moreover, they attracted much public interest and acclamation.

Today history remembers the Chevalier as a talented and tumultuous personality.

Coin of Sappho of Lesbos

Coin celebrating Sappho.
Coin celebrating Sappho. British Museum

The Greek island of Lesbos and it’s most famous poet Sappho are literally synonymous with gay women – giving us the words lesbian and sapphic.

Sappho lived from around 630 to 570BC and composed lyric poetry.

This coin dates from hundreds of years later – the second century AD. But the authorities in Mytilene on Lesbos issued it to celebrate the city’s most famous daughter.

It is one of the earliest images of Sappho in the museum’s collection.

Terracotta Roman lamp

Terracotta Roman lamp showing lesbian oral sex.
Terracotta Roman lamp showing lesbian oral sex. British Museum

While historians know quite a lot about gay and bi men’s lives in ancient Rome, they have much less evidence about female sexuality.

That’s why this first century AD terracotta Roman lamp from Turkey is particularly precious.

Lamps like this would be common, everyday objects. But if you look closely you will see this one depicts two women enjoying oral sex.

Oral sex by a man on a woman was definitely taboo for Romans. They thought it reduced the man’s masculinity. However the typical attitude towards lesbian sex was likely to simply deny it happened.

Japanese wood block print

Print of wakashu from Japan.
Print of wakashu from Japan. British Museum

The permanent collection will now also display a Japanese wood block print from around 1600 to 1900.

These prints often depict wakashu – male youths. Both men and women desired these youths. Meanwhile their androgynous appearance means they were a kind of third gender.

The museum says it will rotate the specific object on display for conservation reasons, but it will always have an LGBTQ+ theme.

Other LGBT+ treasures of the British Museum

The British Museum also boasts a range of other LGBT treasures.

These include the Ain Sakhri pebble. It’s 11,000 years old and the oldest known sculpture in the world of a couple making love. Curators can’t work out the gender of the two love-makers, so say it could be an LGBT+ object.

The museum also houses a genderfluid depiction of a Babylonian deity from around 1800 BC. And it has busts of the Roman emperor Hadrian with his lover Antinous, and more.

Perhaps the greatest LGBT+ treasure of all is the Warren Cup. The silver drinking vessel contains racy engravings full of phallic imagery. The British Museum purchased the Warren Cup for £1.8million ($2.23million €1.99million), making it the most expensive item the museum has ever acquired.