Why is Torquay Museum creating an LGBTQ+ Trail? 

A terracotta statuette after the renown sculpture by Emilio Zocchi of young Michelangelo sculpting the head of a faun. 

A terracotta statuette after the renown sculpture by Emilio Zocchi of young Michelangelo sculpting the head of a faun. - Credit: Torquay Museum

Museums are actually very dynamic places, people expect them to be static and are often surprised when they haven’t visited for years that they are not as they remembered.

Good museums embrace change and when we announced we would be creating a trail through the collections and galleries highlighting LGBTQ+ history we have been met with this question.

In its incredibly long existence, Torquay Museum has never focused any research on LGBTQ+ history and culture and it has not collected specifically in this area either.

This is an oversight but one of many relating to local history.

In 1993, when I joined the museum, it had no collections relating to the local story of World War Two - now it has more than 700 items.

In 2000, it had only a little understanding of the local marble industry - now it has a small, permanent gallery and much greater knowledge of the history of that industry.

Now is the right time to begin this work.

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Torquay Museum is far from the first museum to look at LGBTQ+ history.

It is part of a movement gathering pace throughout Britain.

Museums around the country are teasing out stories of gender nonconformity in artefacts that have until now been left untold or even actively suppressed.

One of the inspirations for our work has come from a project at Pitt Rivers Museum called Beyond the Binary: Queering and Questioning Collections and Displays.

It was eye opening to see the range of items that were included in their research and the diversity of stories they could tell.

Torquay Museum has a huge collection for a town museum, and we realised we could tell these stories too, and sometimes from the items we already had on display.

One example, staring us in the face daily, is the Torquay Terracotta Company statuette of a young Michelangelo at work.

The renaissance artist was reputedly gay and statuettes of his greatest work ‘David’ were used as a discreet come-on by travellers returning from the grand tour.

If you had one on your shelf it was a hint for others to approach you.

To involve the local community research to find more objects like this we have asked for volunteers to join us and help find these hidden histories.

Winnaretta Singer, a benefactor to many artists, supporter of sciences and a member of the LGBTQ+ community. 

Winnaretta Singer, a benefactor to many artists, supporter of sciences and a member of the LGBTQ+ community. - Credit: Torquay Museum

We approached Max Price, co-founder of Devon-based social enterprise Proud2Be to help guide aspects of our work.

They said: "We are thrilled to be able to support Torquay Museum as they create their first LGBTQ+ trail.

"The fact is that LGBTQ+ people have always existed and it is vitally important that our stories and contributions are represented and celebrated in this way."

One of the museum's project volunteers said: "It is also important to specifically shed light on the experiences of LGBTQ+ individuals in the past and how they navigated and understood their existence in often difficult circumstances."

The museum has realised that by not addressing this history, we are excluding people from this community who currently do not show up in numbers on our visitor surveys.

LGBTQ+ people have always been part of society and this work will show their important contributions.

As a museum striving to represent all of our local community, we seek to embrace and celebrate diversity.

This project is supported by a grant from the South West Museum Development Recovery Fund.