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.

View the Virtual Exhibition

ABOUT THE PROJECT

 

About the Project

Part of the beauty of an object, or a museum collection, lies in its capacity to respond to more than one gaze and to unlock more than one story. The Ashmolean is committed to hearing and telling as many of those stories as possible. We want to discover what it means to be an Ashmolean for All. Our Museum: Our Voices is one of the ways that the Ashmolean is doing this.

New, bright blue labels, written by University of Oxford students, have been installed in the Museum, alongside objects chosen by the students themselves.  A virtual exhibition of these objects, and their new labels, can be found below. The labels are written from personal experience as well as expertise, with participants considering their ethnicity, gender and sexuality in responding to the collections.

 

THE 'VOICES'

 

Who are the 'Voices' we are hearing from?

Although the group responsible for starting this project identifies in a variety of ways – as LGBTQ+ and/or one of many, diverse ethnicities – no acronym or label is sufficient to describe the range of experience they summarise. Furthermore, we recognise that intersectionality is as important as individuality and we hope that, as it grows, Our Museum: Our Voices will celebrate commonality as well as difference.

Our Museum: Our Voices begins among the diverse communities of the University, because the Ashmolean is, first and foremost, a University museum. These are the voices of our students and colleagues.

 

WHAT'S NEXT?

 

What do you think we should do next?

The Ashmolean is a public museum, a museum for Oxford, a national and a global museum, and this first iteration of the project makes no claim to be exhaustive or comprehensive. Over time we want to include and amplify more (and more diverse) voices, hear other stories and learn new ways of looking. What do you think we should do next?

 

ABOUT THE 2020 PROJECT

 

In winter 2019/2020, the University Engagement Programme at the Ashmolean Museum, funded by the Mellon Foundation, kicked off a new project, Our Museum, Our Voices. The aim was to amplify a range of diverse voices from amongst those with a stake in the university collections. A group of 24 students from the University of Oxford, who answered a call seeking collaborators, were chosen to participate in workshops over the course of the spring term. They wrote new labels for objects on display in the galleries, considering both their academic expertise and their ethnicity, gender and/or sexuality in responding to the collections.

We know that objects can bear many stories and convey a range of meanings; mute items become eloquent and resonate with varied perspectives. We also know that museums are not neutral: the stories that are told, the objects that have been collected are a product of choices and privileges, sometimes made over centuries. This can affect who feels welcome in a space, who can see themselves reflected back in the exhibits. The project group wished their interpretations to resonate with people from within their communities, and seek to broaden the understanding and experience of those outside them. They wanted to invite visitors to look again through their eyes and hear their voices in conversation with the object and the existing displays. The project took the form of a series of three workshops with the group. Scheduling was tricky, with Oxford students very busy in lectures, tutorials and classes, but we managed to work with portions of the group each time and kept in touch digitally. In the first workshop, we discussed what a label is, what it does, and how labels have affected each of us. Quiet at first, conversations soon developed in small groups, and spilled over into our exploration in the Ashmolean’s galleries to see what makes A Good Label.

In the second workshop, we considered the design and interpretation style for the labels, working with the Museum’s Head of Design, Graeme Campbell, and Interpretation lead Natasha Podro. With Graeme we also discussed how we would present ourselves visually as a group, while acknowledging the individuality of experience and voice behind the new texts. Natasha challenged the group to think about who the audience would be, what kind of relationship they wanted to build with them, and how we could move away traditional label formats to something more playful and diverse.

The tour of the museum from the first workshop also started the group ruminating on which object they would each like to select for a new label, and this workshop gave another opportunity to visit favoured galleries and have another look. Greco-Roman sculptures of Hermaphrodite and portraits of Antinous, Hadrian’s young lover, proved popular, along with objects from South Asia, pre-Raphaelite art, and more.

That left plenty to do in the final workshop. With objects chosen and draft texts submitted in advance, each student had the chance to work on their label further, one-to-one, while the rest of the participants broke into three groups to decide the final design, develop a leaflet, and to brainstorm ideas for an online platform. Ellie Field, Ashmolean web content editor, showed the group what could be done using video and social media promotion, as well as how best to provide information on part of the Ashmolean website dedicated to the project.

Texts, chosen signatures or pseudonyms, design briefs, and launch ideas were all submitted by the end of term, and then it was just over to us in the museum to make it happen…at which point we were sent home, locked down, and furloughed. Disappointed at first, we’re really delighted that we could return to this and redouble efforts to make sure that group’s work gets out there as soon as possible. The new labels are thought-provoking, funny, atmospheric and moving, and provide new contexts in which to think about the objects and their current interpretations.

The decision to work in the first instance with University of Oxford students was deliberate: this is a museum for the university as much it is of the university. It is fitting that those within this institution have contributed to what is displayed and feel some stake in it. Yet, the Ashmolean also has a wider outlook, to Oxford and to the world. We hope this will be the first tranche of a rolling project, working each year with different communities, in the University and across the city, with the aim of extending our shared ownership of this extraordinary place, all under the Our Museum: Our Voices umbrella.

This is the not first time that the Ashmolean and its sister museums in the University have done something like this. The ‘Out in Oxford’ trail, launched in February 2017, and the Pitt-Rivers Museum’s Beyond the Binary project, have involved a range of partners from students and researchers to community activists. At the Ashmolean, the existing ‘Nice Cup of Tea?’ exhibit is a step towards looking critically at works on display and the Museum is committed to a long-term strategy called Ashmolean for All, which aims to broaden its audience by community collaboration and through equitable and inclusive policies on display and interpretation. Our Museum: Our Voices will be one of the most tangible outcomes of this enabling vision.

It is at the intersections of the various facets of identity that difference can be felt most keenly, and broad efforts are needed to offer equity of opportunity in a truly diverse and inclusive museum environment. The protests of recent months have further underscored the work we need to do. We hope that this project will promote understanding and inclusivity, and will show how much we all have in common as well as celebrating the diversity of our shared human histories.

Penny Coombe, October 2020

With thanks to the project team in the Ashmolean (Natasha Podro, Jim Harris, Graeme Campbell, Ellie Field, and Sarah Casey – particularly to Natasha and Jim for their valuable comments on this piece), and to all of our amazing participants.

 

OUR VIRTUAL EXHIBITION

Created by University of Oxford students, these labels – which appear in the Museum galleries – are written from personal experience as well as expertise, with participants considering their ethnicity, gender and sexuality in responding to the collections.


 

Drawing of empty plinth

Empty plinth in Greek literature section

Sappho

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.

Natalie McGowan

 


 

ea 1965 161 a

Figure of Vishnu and Lakshmi,Gallery 32 India from AD 600, EA1965.161

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.

Meera Trivedi  

 


 

unknown 1

Frederick Lord Leighton, The Sluggard, bronze statuette, Gallery 66, WA1927.41

The Stretch

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)
Confirmed homosexual

 


 

A long-toothed comb

Pre-Dynastic Comb AN1896-1908.E.955

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.

Rachel
MSc Teacher Education

 


 

ea os 56 a

Figure of Buddha beneath the Bodhi tree, Gallery 32 India from AD 600, EAOS.56

Buddha

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.

Rhea Stark

 


 

The China to AD 800 Gallery at the Ashmolean Museum

The China to 800 Gallery at the Ashmolean

Uncharted Territory

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. 

박미연

 


 

ors2 2426

Medieval tile from Great Malvern showing sacrificed Jesus, Gallery 41, AN1967.672

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.

George Haggett
Gay, trans PhD student

 


 

cat 6 2 antinous osiris

Antinous Osiris, Cast Gallery

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.

Aleks Fagelman
Non-binary Ancient Historian

 


 

an michaelis 34 a

Hermaphrodite sculpture, Randolph Sculpture Gallery, AN.Michaelis 34

Hermaphroditus

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.

Jenny Scoones
Student

 


 

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.

Jenny Scoones
Student

 


 

wa 2013 1 208 a

Coconut cup and cover, Gallery 53, WA2013.1.208

“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!

 


 

ea 1994 111 a

Ganesha, Gallery 32, EA1994.111

Wave Your Arms in the Air  

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? 

Sylee Gore
2019, MSt Creative Writing

 


 

ea 1998 39 a

Tara –  Mithuna, India 2500BC – AD600 Gallery, EA1998.39

Spiritual Sex

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?

Tara  Mewawalla
Excitable feminist literature fiend

 


 

an 1965 127 a

Athenian red-figure stamnos, attributed to the Copenhagen Painter, c. 500-450 BC, AN1965.127

Symposium

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.

Lauren Shirreff

 


 

cg h 107 a

Hermaphroditus, Cast gallery, CG.H.107

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?

Naomi Clark

 


 

ea 1982 2 aa

Seated figure of the bodhisattva Guanyin, China, Gallery 38, EA1982.2

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

 


 

ea 1956 3285 a

Seated Guanyin, EA1956.3285

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

 


 

wa 1967 28 100 z

Ceramic sculpture of a women on a camel, Gallery 35, WA1967.28.100

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.

Cherie Lok

 


 

wa 1961 5 a

Belvedere torso, Gallery 56, WA1961.5

Dear Torso,

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

 


 

wa 1899 cdef p 27 a

       St Catherine of Alexandria, Vittore Crivelli, Gallery 43, WA1899.CDEF.P27

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?

Vaishna Surjid
History Undergraduate

 


 

wa 1949 5 a

Christ among the Doctors by Jacopo Bassano, WA1949.5

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.

Vaishna Surjid
History Undergraduate

 


 

ea 2013 38 a

Box lid depicting a kinnara couple, Gallery 12, EA2013.38

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.

Ayesha Purcell
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.

Ayesha Purcell
Bisexual British-Pakistani from Liverpool

 


 

ea 1993 19 a

Head of Medusa, Gallery 12, EA1993.19

Have We Met Before?

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.” 

Ayesha Purcell
Bisexual British-Pakistani from Liverpool

 


 

Museum Gallery of Ancient Egypt Objects

Ancient Egypt Galleries

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.

Edil Ga’al
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. 

Kunal Patel

 


 

Bust of Antinous

Antinous Tinder Profile

Antinous tinder profile

Natalie McGowan

 

 

 

 

 

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