LGBT+ History Month: A space in the archives

Dr Alan Butler
Dr Alan Butler tells us how the Plymouth LGBT+ Archive has captured important stories and continues to evolve as an active part of the community.

The need for positive stories

The journey to represent the LGBT+ community of Plymouth in its archives began in 2011, with conversations between the city archives and LGBT+ groups. The Plymouth and West Devon Record Office (now part of The Box) had noticed stories in their collections relating to LGBT+ life tended to focus on the shame.

People had run afoul of the law or perhaps even received medical treatment for being ‘different’. It was agreed that there were more positive stories to be heard and captured, but how was that to be done? 

“The traditional materials that represent other groups in the archives ‒ such as letters, diaries and photographs ‒ aren’t often there. Instead, we needed to archive specific moments that happened in specific places.”  

LGBT+ lives in living memory have tended to be expressed in the moment, within safe spaces where people felt able to share this aspect of who they were. 

The traditional materials that represent other groups in the archives ‒ such as letters, diaries and photographs ‒ aren’t often there. Instead, we needed to archive specific moments that happened in specific places.  

Two men standing next to a painting of themselves in an exhibition
Pride in our Past exhibition

Pride in our Past

The oral history interview seemed the most appropriate way to do this. People from Plymouth’s LGBT+ community trained as oral historians to be able to talk to people about these moments. The stories could then be recorded, transcribed and made part of the historical record. 

Funding was sought and provided by The National Lottery Heritage Fund. With a promise of a nine-week exhibition at the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery (now The Box), the Pride in Our Past project began.

The intention was to “put some colour into the archives” with the aim of creating an LGBT+ accession for the city collections. 

Archive books and boxes on shelves with some coloured pink.
Putting colour into the archives

That certainly happened, but what was unexpected was how empowered the LGBT+ community felt – being able to share their stories and write themselves back into the city’s history. When carrying out these interviews, the most consistent comments were: “well, I never really made a fuss or drew attention to myself” or “my story is not that interesting or important”.

Over the course of the year though – and with an exhibition as proof – we showed people just how important their story was. 

“It was clear it wasn’t enough to just put all this into a box on a shelf.” 

A dynamic community archive

By the end of the project, we had been awarded the Community Archive and Heritage Group’s Most Inspirational Archive award. And it was clear it wasn’t enough to just put all this into a box on a shelf. 

What has been created since is a kind of hybrid archive with a dedicated accession at The Box, and an active community archive. The latter is run and supported by Pride in Plymouth, which continues to add to the collection in all sorts of ways.  

LGBT+ people have needed a voice and a space in the archives for a long time. That voice has been difficult to hear because society has tried to silence it.

Now that things are changing, there is an explosion of voices, and new and unfamiliar words around identities. We need to be tuned into those conversations by creating the safe spaces to hear and reflect them in our archives. 

Archive photo of a sailor and another man embracing in a pub
A photo from the Plymouth LGBT+ archive

Intergenerational connections

The current work with the archive is an intergenerational project called The Rainbow Connection. This project acknowledges that LGBT+ histories are not handed down generationally in the same way that other heritage can be. The next generation of LGBT+ people tend to be born into more traditional families and their parents’ or grandparents’ experience may not match their own.  

A more direct intervention is needed to introduce the next generation to its LGBT+ elders. We are working with Barnardos and schools across the city to form a mentoring system to create this space for conversation. 

“Now there is an explosion of voices, and new and unfamiliar words around identities. We need to be tuned into those conversations by creating the safe spaces to hear and reflect them in our archives.” 

Creating more space

The ongoing partnership between Pride in Plymouth’s community archive and The Box is this year producing a series of resources and sessions for teachers and schools. We hope these will also create a space for discussion and learning.  

A new LGBT+ history film is being created for The Box’s film archive display. In addition, a ten-week history club begins in March to allow members of the community to interrogate The Box collections. 

We now have an active archive which continues to grow and evolve, and a space for conversations that acknowledge the past while looking to the future. 

 

Inclusive heritage

At The National Lottery Heritage Fund, we want heritage to tell everyone’s stories and represent everyone’s past. By ensuring heritage is inclusive, we ensure that no one’s experience is missing. Let’s work together to achieve this.

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