OUR MUSEUM: OUR VOICES
During spring 2020, 24 University of Oxford students worked with the Ashmolean's University Engagement Programme to write alternative labels for objects on display in the galleries.
The objects and artworks were entirely the students’ choice, and each text reflects the resulting conversation between participant, object, and the Museum’s existing displays.
Sappho of Lesbos was a poet active during the 6th century BCE. Her poetry became incredibly important to European LGBTQ culture, with queer women exchanging violets (a reference to another poem) as a token of their secret love. The word ‘lesbian’, in its present meaning, is derived from her home island of Lesbos.
Lakshmi: Goddess, devotee, teacher
Devotion and love, that is what counts. Lakshmi sits beside God, highlighting gender, class or creed are not of importance. She appears in her dual form of both the goddess of wealth and as God’s ideal devotee. Her raised position in this idol is a reflection of how she is widely celebrated in many Hindu traditions for her own powers and what she teaches others about devotion.
Look closer. This is the stretch of a lover, whom you have watched rise every morning. A pose that is known so intimately that the moment in time can be expressed in a bronze sculpture. Although never confirmed as homosexual, it makes one wonder, what caresses of both flesh, clay, and metal lead to this creation?
Richard Johnson (Canada)
Why the long teeth?
Combs are not just for removing tangles. Ever thought what the shape of a comb tells you about the hair texture of its owner? The tighter the curl, the longer the tooth.
Long-toothed combs have changed little in design for thousands of years, neither have the hairstyles they help create.
Spot the dreadlocks, sculpted plaits, braids and afros amongst the exhibits in the neighbouring rooms.
MSc Teacher Education
Indian Buddhist literature describes the Buddha as a virile paragon of masculinity—he is said to possess 32 characteristics of a great man, including eyelashes as long as a cow’s and a penis hidden by a sheath. These attributes stand in contrast to Western constructions of idealised manhood. 19th and 20th century art historians accordingly saw the Buddha as asexual. This conception was reinforced by colonists’ characterisation of the Indian male body as effeminate.
It’s impossible to talk about China’s manufacturing past without mentioning what it has become today. Imagine a factory city as big as the City of London. Hundreds of thousands of employees living on site under execrable labour conditions in order to produce mobile phones for multinationals. Because of China’s regulated communications, alarmingly little is known about the people who occupy this factory city.
On Jesus’s Vulva, and How the Mystics Found Him Sexy
Some medieval images of the crucifixion depict Christ’s wounded side as a vulva, giving birth to the Church. In this 15th-century ceramic wall tile from Great Malvern, however, Jesus is buff and masculine.
Blood spurts suggestively from his side. His mouth appears to be pouting.
The writings of the medieval mystics often presented the body of Christ in these ambivalently gendered and erotic ways. In this devotional tradition, Christ’s gender was so important, yet so unimportant. He simply existed to be adored.
Gay, trans PhD student
The Emperor’s Boyfriend
Antinous was the lover of the Emperor Hadrian. They travelled extensively together across the Roman Empire until Antinous’s tragic death in Egypt. Upon his death, Hadrian had him deified, an honour saved for members of the imperial family.
Past scholars have attempted to erase this, but it is undeniable that Hadrian and Antinous were lovers. Antinous should be remembered as being more important to Hadrian than his wife.
Non-binary Ancient Historian
Does this queer body offend you?
Sculptures such as this one show that transgender and intersex beauty has been worshipped since ancient times, and that there is a rich history to gender variance beyond the recent advances in trans rights. Hermaphroditus was the child
of Aphrodite and Hermes, the Greek gods of sexuality. Born a man, the nymph Salmacis fell in love with him and prayed to the Gods to be united with him forever. Her prayer was answered, and their bodies became one, both male and female.
Pre-Raphaelite Beauty (Perlascura)
What is it that makes Rosetti’s subject so striking? What is it that makes her beautiful? How does she differ from mainstream beauty standards? Pre-Raphaelite art is often recognisable for its depictions of androgynous beauty. Square jaws and thick necks characterise the works, blurring gender-boundaries and empowering gender variant people today. Whilst contemporary critics derided their art as ‘unmanly’, today the aesthetics of the pre-Raphaelites empower queer beauty.
“Civilising” the “Savage”
What’s the beauty in a humble coconut? In their curiosity cabinets, Renaissance elite captured its purported healing powers by blurring the boundaries between art and nature: transforming it into a boastfully magnificent cup. More sinisterly, this was meant to refashion the supposed “brutishness” of new-discovered lands into European ideas of “civility”, exploiting the cultural exchange which accompanied seapower developments. The cup’s stem, an indigenous archer, is unsurprisingly an exoticised illusion.
Sophie the Swamp Witch
Don't worry! Be happy! Sunshine reggae!
So quiet here! But you know that in Indian temples, you’d be hearing the tinkle of brass bells and gentle prayer chants. At home, Ganesha is surrounded by ripe bananas and cashews, fragrant clouds of incense and flickering lamps. Observe how this trickster deity is throwing his head to one side, ecstatically swinging his arms and raising his knee up to his belly. What music do you imagine he’s dancing to?
2019, MSt Creative Writing
All along the walls of the temple, couples engage in maithuna (sexual union). The place of the Gods welcomes the sexual energy of humanity.
Who stares at you, lovers? The disgustingly depraved, distracting themselves during worship, or the enlightened and spiritual seeking true unification with the universe, a natural purification of the mind? Carved out of stone, their transient bodies are fixed forever in an act of unified love and pleasure.
What do you suppose they see in their neighbours?
Excitable feminist literature fiend
For the Greeks, sexuality was fluid and rarely thought of in a binary way. Homoerotic encounters were just as common as mixed-sex ones, and the art of the classical world reflects this. Male couples are often marked out by contrasting age - younger men converse with older, bearded ones. To our eyes, this scene looks like a platonic gathering. An Ancient Greek onlooker might assume the men depicted to be lovers.
Sexual Assault in the Museum
With the victim’s genitalia only visible from certain angles, this depiction of sexual assault was intended as a joke for the Greek or Roman viewer. However in the modern day, the discovery that a sex partner is trans is still used as a legal defence of sexual violence in courts around the world, and trans women continue to suffer from high rates of murder and assault.
Should we present depictions of sexual assault in the museum? If so, how?
How can we challenge the transmisogyny (violence against trans women) and lack of respect given to gender non-conforming people in the museum and in our lives?
Hand Signals: Seated Guanyin
Facial expression, clothing and symbols are the usual ways that Western statues speak. Buddhist imagery is different. Faces are often hard to read, while clothing and symbols follow complicated convention. Hands are always expressive though. For a viewer one thousand years later, the grace of this Guanyin's hand language speaks to us over a great distance and many centuries. It's a shame that only one hand is left.
Catherine de Guise
White and Willowy: Seated Guanyin with raised knee
This beautiful white-robed woman appears to conform to conventional ideas of femininity. Actually, she retains elements of the male bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. Her flat, exposed chest and her raised knee were signs of masculinity that were missed by early European viewers. Today they reveal the eternal complications of gender.
Catherine de Guise
What was the Orient?
Before the 19th century, Europeans knew little about specific Asian countries. Elements of the “Orient” depicted in Western art were consequently drawn from a range of Asiatic cultures including Turkey, China, Japan, India, and Algeria. Sometimes, these cultural motifs were also blended with European elements. Notice the European influences in the dress worn by the Chinese woman in item 19, for example. Try to spot this cultural ambiguity in other objects in this gallery.
Do you know how much you've been loved? 500 years of desire, countless reflections, recastings, pastiches. What was it in your pose, twisted, on the verge of action, that occupied the hearts of so many men whose own nakedness had to stay so covered? Who, like statues themselves, were unembraceable. You, who remain THE body, THE beloved, do you know Michaelangelo refused to fix you?
Max Tristan Watkins
Who's the fairest of them all?
Saint Catherine remains a mystery but is remembered for her heroic virtue, intelligence, beauty and royal birth. She was supposedly born in Alexandria, Egypt, which may seem surprising given her ghostly, white skin. Why did Crivelli do this?
Whiteness has become emblematic of beauty, purity and class, acting as both a product and driver of the erasure of non-Western cultures. 500 years after Crivelli, and diversity is still lacking, eurocentric beauty standards dominate – has anything really changed?
Odd one out?
Who is the figure on the left? Is his darker skin a reflection of his social status or ethnicity, or even both? Ultimately, we can’t be sure but the ambiguity speaks volumes.
In this entire gallery, this is the ‘darkest’ figure we can find. Regardless of his identity, he serves as a poignant reminder of the historic lack of BAME representation, especially in European histories, where such communities were and still are marginalised.
Kinnara: Eternal Lovers
‘We are everlasting lover and beloved. We never separate. We are eternally husband and wife; never do we become mother and father. No offspring is seen in our lap. We are lover and beloved ever-embracing.’ – Ghosh, S. (2005). Love stories from the Mahabharata, trans. P. Bhattacharya. New Delhi.
In this quote from the Mahābhārata, an ancient Sanskrit poem, the Kinnara describe their eternal love. Kinnara were mythic creatures – sometimes half-human and half-bird, sometimes half-human and half-horse – who lived with their lovers high in the Himalayas.
Bisexual British-Pakistani from Liverpool
Two women carrying a drunken Hercules, probably from a woman’s dressing room.
We are in control here. Outside of this space, men dominate: our voices are silenced, intentions ignored.
But here, among soft clouds of perfume, the echos of women’s voices, and the clatter of makeup being mixed; we have power.
Even Hercules, icon of masculine strength and power, is reduced to stumbling helplessness. Whilst the women are clothed, his body is exposed; they stand upright, he slumps. This time, the strength is all ours.
Bisexual British-Pakistani from Liverpool
Do remember me? Do you recognise my hair, writhing, twisting? You might have seen me before, holding up Greek temples, tongue lolling, eyes wide, mouth gaping. Or maybe on the armour of warrior women and strong heroes who run through the myths of the Mediterranean.
But here I am, carved in the heartlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan; a mongrel, bastard child; a “Classical” character reborn outside your limits of “civilisation.”
Bisexual British-Pakistani from Liverpool
The Absence of Africa
The Ancient Egypt and Sudan galleries remain the only spaces within the Ashmolean Museum with a focus on Africa. Moreover, Ancient Egypt and Sudan are partitioned from the rest of Africa and positioned to be in cultural exchange primarily with the Mediterranean world. Outside of these two Nile Valley civilizations, the collections on Africa beyond the 7th century AD are limited, and gallery space devoted to sub-Saharan Africa is non-existent.
Student at Oxford University
The Curators’ Reply
The Ashmolean doesn’t have much material from the rest of Africa. The division of the University’s collections still reflects 19th-century ideas that separated the study of ‘great civilisations’ from other ways of life around the world. One of the legacies of these outdated and racist ways of thinking is that many sub-Saharan artefacts were added to the anthropological collections in the Pitt Rivers Museum. Our aim at the Ashmolean is to present ancient Egypt and Sudan as a bridge between Africa, Europe and Asia. While no single museum can claim to be encyclopaedic, Oxford’s collections together reveal something of the diversity of human experience across time and place.
Shikhandi & The Yaksha
In the Mahabharata , the Princess Shikhandini is raised as a boy, trained as a warrior and married off to the princess of another kingdom. When her assigned gender is exposed, she is cast out of court and forced to flee to the forest. Distraught, Shikhandini earns the sympathy of a yaksha, or nature spirit, who offers to switch his gender with her. The princess who entered the forest leaves as the male Shikhandi. The erasure of stories like Shikhandi’s mark a distinct shift in Indian attitudes towards queerness, from pre-colonial acceptance to contemporary stigmatization.
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