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Welcome to Queer Britain

“A space to learn about our history as an LGBTQ+ community: the challenges and, most of all, the achievements.”- Ian Mehrtens, Co-Founder of Queer Britain

Tuesday 17 May marks International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, an important reminder of the millions of people around the world who continue to face prejudice and injustice “simply for who they are, or whom they love”, according to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres in his remarks to commemorate the Day.

But tucked away in the heart of central London’s buzzing Coal Drop’s Yard is a unique space which celebrates the stories of resilience, resistance and joy that emerge from this long history of prejudice: Queer Britain, the UK’s first LGBTQ+ museum, which opened its doors to the public on 5 May 2022.

Queer Britain's Main Gallery space, image courtesy of Queer Britain
Queer Britain’s Main Gallery space, image courtesy of Queer Britain

Earlier this year, UNRIC spoke to Queer Britain’s Director Joseph Galliano about the importance of the Museum and the many obstacles encountered during the journey to establish it. Now, with a successful launch behind it and over 1600 visitors in its first week of opening alone, Queer Britain is set to fill the long-overdue gap of a physical space to showcase LGBTQ+ art, history and culture in the UK.

Visitors will be able to explore a diverse selection of photographs and artwork featuring collaborations with Getty Images and M&C Saatchi and browse a shop which includes a bespoke Queer Britain wine and a selection of books curated by Gay’s The Word, the oldest LGBTQ+ bookshop in the UK, with all profits going directly back to support the Museum and charity. Entry is free to all, with a focus on making the Museum a truly inclusive space for everyone, both those who identify as part of the community and those who do not.

To celebrate the launch’s success, UNRIC spoke to co-founder Ian Mehrtens and trustee Robert Taylor, whose work is featured in the temporary “Welcome to Queer Britain” display, about their involvement.

What is your role on the board, and what experiences are you bringing to the Museum? 

Ian Mehrtens (IM): I am the Co-Founder, a founding trustee and currently chair of the Museum Board of Trustees. I have spent my whole career in higher education, working with young people and understand only too well the challenges of identifying with anything of difference.  My latter years were in university senior management and as a chief operating officer, knew how to establish a charity, its governance, systems and processes in order to be able to deliver this exciting venue; we are well established, credible and professional.  We have built a diverse board of trustees, arguably one of the most diverse of any charity, ensuring a diversity of thought to our discussions and decision making. 

Robert Taylor (RT): I hope to bring some of the benefits of over 30 years’ experience in portrait and art photography, with an extensive range of commercial and voluntary sector commissions deploying photography for campaigns and exhibitions dating back to the 80/90s HIV/AIDS challenges, human rights battles, black and black queer arts movements, and myriad collections of portraits promoting diversity and inclusion in STEM and academe. I have an extensive professional archive that I hope to make available to Queer Britain, as appropriate and in the best interests of powerful museum offers. As a black gay man in my mid-60s, I’m particularly keen to help ensure that our plans and projects are genuinely relevant and appealing to as wide a range of queer identities, and potential allies as possible. There’s also much to learn and interpret from much younger colleagues and allies.

Featured images in the “Welcome to Queer Britain” display, image courtesy of Queer Britain
Featured images in the “Welcome to Queer Britain” display, image courtesy of Queer Britain

Who would you like the Museum to reach, and what do you hope people take away from it? 

IM: I hope that the Museum will reach an audience beyond the LGBTQ+ community.  We are a museum for all, irrespective of gender and sexuality. The Museum is free to enter ensuring full inclusion, especially economic inclusion. I want people to be able to explore themselves and their identity in a space where nothing shocks and all is accepted.  I want young people from schools, colleges and universities to use the space to learn about our history as an LGBTQ+ community the challenges and, most of all, the achievements. 

RT: There will always be demographics who are well informed and connected to life’s opportunities for fun, fulfilment, learning and inclusion in the things that matter. QB will be succeeding if, in addition to these folks we are attracting and retaining the interest of as wide a range as possible of the sorts of folk who don’t often attend museums or cultural spaces, get involved in community action or try new things outside familiar mass mainstream culture. I’d hope that they’d start to see us as relevant to them in some novel and appealing ways. They might show up in person or find us on line. We’ll only find out if we are breaking through to these folk if we are imaginative and effective in garnering audience response. The other possibility is that we’re being so fabulous that people feel the need to tell us.

How do you see the Museum developing and growing in the future, and where would you like to see it in 5 years’ time? 

IM: We began 2022 by moving into our meanwhile space, initially on a two-year lease but hopefully with an extension.  Work has already begun to identify our permanent home and whilst there is nothing to announce, I would hope that in 5 years’ time we will have moved into bigger purpose built space having spent the previous 5 years growing our reputation to become the leading space for learning about the LGBTQ+ community.

RT: It’s almost inevitable that despite the tremendous care and creativity devoted to getting to this point, as we open up the Granary Square space to a varied public, we’ll hear a lot of things that we’ve missed, underplayed, or somehow misunderstood. Apart from our home-grown plans, I hope that we’ll be responsive to input from elsewhere. I hope we will have continued to work in alliance or cooperation with other organisations that are well set to do certain queer focussed things better or significantly differently to us.

I’d hope that in 5 years’ time, we’ll at least have identified and better still moved into our long term home. In particular, I’m hoping that in 5 years’ time we’ll have exhibited or broadcast a number of projects that will have countered the current toxic misapprehensions and otherings around race, gender and sexuality by telling some great human stories about real individual human beings and how we can thrive and learn together across boundaries.

Planning your visit

“So fabulous that people feel the need to tell us” – and, without a doubt, the need to visit and see for themselves. Queer Britain is located at 2 Granary Square, London, N1C 4BH and opens its doors every Wednesday to Sunday from 12pm – 6pm.

For more information on upcoming exhibitions, visit Queer Britain’s website or follow them on Twitter and Instagram to keep up with the latest news.

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