The United Kingdom’s first national LGBTQ museum opens its doors in London’s King’s Cross neighborhood Thursday, almost exactly 50 years after England’s first Gay Pride march took place just a few miles away.
Queer Britain is the culmination of years of behind-the-scenes work by co-founder and director Joseph Galliano and his team to bring the museum and its charity to life. Galliano, the former editor of the U.K.’s Gay Times magazine, said while the museum’s moment has been a long time coming, it’s finally arrived.
“There’ve been attempts to set up museums like this before, but I think the cultural landscape and the activism landscape weren’t yet quite right at that point,” he said. “It’s also a long job that requires somebody hitting the streets every day to make it work, and I’ve done that for the last five years now.”
A major component of that work has been raising funds, which Galliano said have come mostly from private individuals via Queer Britain’s patron and membership programs. Corporate partnerships have also funded specific pieces of project work, and direct support has come in from a few companies.
Queer Britain’s first show in its own space — on the ground floor of 2 Granary Square, a building owned by the British national arts charity, Art Fund — will be the aptly titled "Welcome to Queer Britain." The temporary display will act as an introduction to Queer Britain and its mission by presenting works from the museum’s growing archive alongside pieces from exhibitions previously co-mounted in other spaces.
Also on show during this opening phase will be the top two artworks (by Sadie Lee and Paul Harfleet) from last year’s first Queer Britain Madame F Award competition, a collaboration with Madame F wines. "Welcome to Queer Britain" is curated by Matthew Storey, an art, design and LGBTQ history curator at the U.K.’s Historic Royal Palaces organization.
“We wanted to open as quickly as we could with a celebration of photographic material that we’ve already exhibited,” Galliano explained. “We wanted to be able to welcome people into the space with stuff that’s meaningful while we were preparing a more complex exhibition.”
That full exhibition, yet untitled, will open this summer and, according to Galliano, will set the full stage for the museum’s diversity-committed mission.
“We’ll always be changing and adapting and putting on exhibitions that will address different community stories and different communities’ stories,” he said. “Our next exhibition, however, is going to be a sort of flag in the sand for the kind of things that Queer Britain wants to do. It’ll be a cacophony of different community voices, artifacts, art objects, imagery and people.”
Galliano said that behind the scenes, the museum’s trustees have been expressly recruited with both skills and diversity in mind.
“Diversity is in the very DNA of what we’re trying to do,” he said. “And when I look at our board, this is one of the most diverse boards I’ve ever come across. I’m really delighted to be working with them, as they all bring in different perspectives.”
Admission to Queer Britain will be free to the public, with donations welcomed to support its work. The new space will include a shop selling Queer Britain merchandise alongside books curated by Gay’s the Word, the U.K.’s oldest LGBTQ bookseller, with all profits directly supporting the museum and charity.
With the United States' own national LGBTQ museum in the works and slated for a 2024 opening in New York City, Galliano said he believes we’ve entered an era when queer history and culture are being explored and respected as never before, even by people who don’t identify on the LGBTQ spectrum.
“If you go back to the 'Queer British Art' exhibition at Tate Britain in 2017, that clearly demonstrated a massive thirst for queer stories,” he said. “Given that their exhibition visitors were about 50-50 LGBTQ+ identifying and not LGBTQ+ identifying, I think that goes to show us not only that you can create a blockbuster, but how broad the audience for that blockbuster on these things can be.”
For now at Queer Britain, though, Galliano said he’s more focused on creating blockbuster experiences than blockbuster numbers.
“The point about who comes through the door is not one of mere quantities,” he said. “What we’re looking for are the qualities that people leave the door with, and the emotions and understanding that they leave the museum with. I want people to feel celebrated, I want people to feel thoughtful, and I want people to be seen and to feel that they’ve been seen.
“If we only hit one person like that, we’ve done the job.”