Out in Oxford LGBTQ+ Heritage Trail: a conversation with Beth Asbury

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As part of the HLF South East England Team’s focus on LGBT+ Heritage, we welcome Beth Asbury, the project manager for Out in Oxford, to have a chat with us.

The Out In Oxford project, based at the Pitt Rivers Museum, created an LGBT+ Heritage Trail across all of the University of Oxford’s collections, working with a wide range of volunteers who identify as LGBTQ+ or are allies, supported by collections staff.

The project was partly funded through the Oxford University Museums Partnership, which receives funding from Arts Council England, and partly through a five-year HLF-funded project, VERVE. The project would have also been a great fit with HLF’s smaller funding programmes, Sharing Heritage and Our Heritage. Its combination of a user-led approach and training for volunteers, a rationale based on representation and access, and strong heritage focus fit closely with a range of HLF Outcomes.

 

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Images

  • Volunteers and staff of Out in Oxford celebrate the trail launch
  • Drag King Adam All performing at Pitt Rivers Museum
  • Performers at Pitt Rivers Museum
View Joseph Minden's profile Joseph Minden Nov 10 2017 - 10:54am
  1. Thanks for joining us Beth! To kick things off, it would be great if you could just say a little bit more about Out in Oxford and your role in it.

  2. View Joseph Minden's profile Joseph Minden
    Offline | Last seen: 1 week 4 hours ago
  3. in reply to

    I went to a lecture held near where I work one evening by Professor Richard Parkinson. Richard worked at the British Museum before becoming Professor of Egyptology at the University of Oxford and was behind the online ‘Desire and Diversity’ trail there, as well as writing a great book, A Little Gay History. The lecture had been organised by the University’s Equality and Diversity Unit for LGBT History Month and was about the British Museum’s trail. At one point, Richard said something along the lines that he would like every museum to have at least one thing on permanent display labelled as being part of LGBT history and I basically thought, why not?!

    The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford has objects from all over the world, so I thought we must have something relevant that we could highlight. I spoke to my colleague, Helen Adams, who was the head of an HLF-funded redisplay and outreach project at the Pitt Rivers called VERVE, and she suggested that I create a trail of lots of objects, a bit like Richard’s. Helen also suggested that I ask volunteers to write the interpretations of the things on the trail, which would help bring more diversity of voices to the collection.

    Here is the trail we created, named by one of our volunteers, ‘Out in Oxford’! www.glam.ox.ac.uk/outinoxford. Richard Parkinson and Stephen Fry, who is a friend of one of our volunteers, kindly wrote forewords for it. I was its project manager.

    You can watch Richard’s lecture here: https://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/great-unrecorded-history-lgbt-heritage-and-world-cultures and here is the British Museum’s trail: www.britishmuseum.org/visiting/planning_your_visit/object_trails/desire_and_diversity.aspx

  4. View Beth Asbury's profile Beth Asbury
    Offline | Last seen: 1 week 8 hours ago
  5. The project was not funded directly through an HLF grant programme - though it could have been, as I noted above! Could you say a little bit more about how the project was resourced?

  6. View Joseph Minden's profile Joseph Minden
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  7. in reply to

    I roped in some other colleagues of mine who were a dream team when it came to the set of skills they all had for the project, covering event planning, community engagement, volunteer management, the Museum’s object collections and design skills. We split the project into two, with me concentrating on the trail and production of a booklet, and my colleague Jozie Kettle organising the booklet’s launch events.

    I applied for internal funding to create the trail and booklet itself. The maximum I could apply for was £5000 and I had to spend it all by February 2018 – perfect timing for a launch of Out in Oxford during LGBT History Month! Other colleagues who contributed, including Jozie, were at least part-employed through the HLF-funded VERVE project. So you could say that Out in Oxford was half HLF funded really, as I think Jozie spent about the same amount on the brilliant launch events she and other colleagues put together as I did on the trail bit. 

    Videos

  8. View Beth Asbury's profile Beth Asbury
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  9. It's clearly been a huge success, and the trail booklet is such a great resource for anyone wanting to explore the University of Oxford's varied collections. What do you feel were the key features that made the project work so well?

  10. View Joseph Minden's profile Joseph Minden
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  11. in reply to

    What really made the project work well was that everyone who got involved was enthusiastic about what we were trying to achieve and wanted it to be a success. There was so much joy and energy in the Museum during our first (of five) launch events. It was beautiful! There were rainbow flags up in all of the departments that were involved and I think people genuinely feel proud of what we achieved.

    All of the departments of the University’s new ‘GLAM’ division (Gardens, Libraries and Museums) wanted to be involved and have items from their collections included on the trail. It ended up being the University’s first cross-collections trial, the first successful GLAM project and the collections’ first LGBTQ+ project. We sent my request for volunteers out through several different LGBTQ+-related mailing lists and we received expressions of interest from nearly fifty people who identify as LGBTQ+ or as allies, mostly from Oxford city (including staff and students from Oxford University and Oxford Brookes University), but some from much further afield. About half of that number were really active on the project, coming to the workshops, training and events we held, writing and recording interpretations, even going on local BBC radio and TV (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jzSmTuv-H18&t=4s)! I owe them a huge debt for giving up so much of their spare time for me. I have nominated them for awards and they were Best New Group Award runner up at the Oxfordshire Charity and Volunteer Awards in May!

    Videos

  12. View Beth Asbury's profile Beth Asbury
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  13. It's amazing how many 'firsts' for the collections you managed to pull off with one project! And it's great to hear about the centrality of work with volunteers throughout the project, as this is such an important thing for HLF as a funder.

    Setting the successes aside for a second, though, are there any things that you would do differently if you were to run the project again, or undertake a similar one?

  14. View Joseph Minden's profile Joseph Minden
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  15. in reply to

    I think I would be less nervous about getting it wrong. Because I identify as an ally and am not part of the LGBTQ+ community I was worried that I might fall short of people’s expectations or hopes for the project. I just wanted to make the collections more accessible to people who might have felt excluded before or, at least, not actively represented, and I worried that if I misjudged the project, at the worst, I could have the opposite effect and actually damage the museums’ relationship with LGBTQ+ people.

    I shouldn’t have worried because our volunteers were engaged from the start and we asked them what they wanted from us and from the project, as well as the other way around. That two-way engagement was really helpful for both sides. On one side, it reassured me that we were doing a good thing, and the volunteers advised on what terminology and objects were and weren’t appropriate, for example. On the other, the volunteers felt involved, invested and represented, and the launch events they co-curated with us were excellent.

    The other thing that I would do differently, if I could, was that I ran the project on top of a full-time admin job, and it meant a lot of late nights and unclaimed overtime. The project relied on several individual members of staff all across the University, their good will and availability. What Out in Oxford achieved was amazing, but just think what we could have done with a dedicated cross-collections team!

  16. View Beth Asbury's profile Beth Asbury
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  17. That's a great point about representation, and something HLF really values in projects - that the communities and audiences with which an organisation is working are consulted and involved at every stage, so that the project is truly representative of their needs and interests. I am also so full of admiration for your herculean work delivering the project on top of another full-time role but do want to stress that - for anyone thinking about applying directly for an HLF grant to deliver a project like this - making sure there is adequate pay for project management in your budget is really important and definitely a cost you can include!

    Moving on, though, to the present: what kind of legacy would you say the project has left?

     

  18. View Joseph Minden's profile Joseph Minden
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  19. in reply to

    Within the University, Out in Oxford has shown that cross-collections projects can be a great success and that there is a huge demand for LGBTQ+ representation. It is now the model for two future trails on women’s suffrage and disability access. It was the subject of an MSc student’s dissertation and might feature in a couple of PhDs of students at Manchester and Newcastle Universities. It has also brought the Pitt Rivers Museum in much closer contact with diversity and inclusion networks, both inside and outside the University. I was asked by School’s Out UK to help organise the launch of LGBT History Month 2020 at the University, which is now being taken forward by the University’s Equality and Diversity Unit.

    Jozie and our colleague, Dr Clara Barker, who is the Vice Chair of the University’s LGBT+ Staff Advisory Group, are working together to plan more LGBTQ+-friendly events at the Museum, and the Joint Museums Community Engagement team hopes to do so too, such as always having a stand at Oxford Pride in the future. The project was shortlisted for the Project on a Limited Budget Award at this year’s Museums + Heritage Awards and Clara recently got recognised for all of her amazing voluntary work by the Prime Minister: https://www.pointsoflight.gov.uk/out-in-oxford/. Clara also works with two local youth groups, My Normal (two members of which designed Out in Oxford’s ‘Q’ logo) and Topaz. Both sometimes use the Museum’s seminar room for their meetings now. A curator on the project started writing blog posts about their sexuality and history of mental illness and is now self-publishing them to help others. The project got quite a lot of local publicity and some of the items on the trail have been used to encourage critical thinking in the University’s Oxplore resource too: https://oxplore.org/question-detail/901. I recently learned that, as a result of the project, someone donated a rainbow lapel from a past Oxford Pride event and it has now been accessioned into the Museum’s collection. I hope it will be the first of many new LGBTQ+ objects!

  20. View Beth Asbury's profile Beth Asbury
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