Ever since joining the Auckland museum, I was eager to discover and accumulate the fascinating gay stories from its collection, hoping to share them with friends and family one day.
Museums have been magnets for gay people for generations, becoming places to discover and explore ones sexuality, places to worship beauty in art, to learn and to educate. Gay history has always been an integral part of the human history and it can be traced through all cultures and periods, though often hidden from sight, waiting to be rediscovered.
Like precious ancient treasures that get buried under layers of sediments, so do gay stories from the past – covered up, censored and classified in less accepting times, sometimes hiding away right under our noses. Revealing those gems may require archeological digging into history, sometimes restoration, sometimes dissection or even detective work. It can be as exciting as cracking the Da Vinci code or following the ‘Path of Illuminati’.
In June the British Museum published A Little Gay History book as a guide to objects in its collection related to the same-sex desire. I hope that the Auckland Museum follows the lead and runs gay-themed guided tours of its collection next year during the Auckland Pride Festival.
The Auckland Museum was built to rival the Parthenon in Athens and with the same functional purpose – as a national treasury, which is reflected in its Maori name: Tamaki Paenga Hira, memorial to fallen chiefs and their gathered taonga. It’s also a shrine, a temple and a magical time machine.
It makes sense to start the gay tour of the Auckland museum in the Volcanoes Gallery, checking artifacts from Pompeii and reflecting on the story of this ‘Sodom of the Roman Empire’; a city buried under the ash for millennia, preserving culture so explicitly bi and homosexual in nature that when first discovered in 1599 it was buried again for more enlightened generations of the future, then rediscovered in the 18th century but only open to very few until full public access was granted just recently in 2000.
We are lucky enough to live in exciting times when gay history is reshaping before our eyes, when we unearth and reclaim our dramatic and glorious past and incorporate that knowledge into creating a better future. It parallels the period of Renaissance when after the centuries of the Dark Ages geniuses of Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo Da Vinci emerged to change the world forever.
On the balcony outside the Volcanoes Gallery there are magnificent classical sculptures that have been unearthed in Rome in 1506 and 1533 that greatly influenced Michelangelo who participated in their restoration: ‘Laocoon and his sons’ and the ‘Dying Gaul’.
The Dying Gaul is of a particular interest to our story. Among all Celts, the Gauls were especially famous for their bravery and for fighting stark naked. As Greek historian Polybius put it: “The appearance of these naked warriors was a terrifying spectacle, for they were all men of splendid physique and in the prime of life.” What is less known is that according to several sources including Aristotle, Celts were rather unusual because they preferred male lovers. Another Greek historian Diodorus Siculus further specified that despite their women’s beauty, Celtic men preferred to sleep together and that “the young men will offer themselves to strangers and are insulted if offer is refused.”
No wonder then that the Dying Gaul has had significant relevance in the world’s gay history. Among others, it inspired Eugen Sandow, father of bodybuilding and founder of the iconic and homoerotic Physical Culture Magazine. In 2005. Dying Gaul became the title for the critically acclaimed Craig Lucas’ movie, psychological thriller where novice writer sells off a story of his late partner’s battle with AIDS and gets sucked into the love triangle with the manipulative producer and his wife.
Famous for his nakedness, Dying Gaul in the Auckland Museum has however had his genitals covered by plaster; this is the reference to post-Renaissance art censorship when the Council of Trent ruled that manhood on sculptures and paintings should be covered up with fig leaves. Even works of Michelangelo did not escape censorship, including famous Sistine Capella frescos that have been effectively de-sexed. Apart from popes, Queen Victoria was also very much sensitive to the male nudity so that the adjustable plaster fig leaf was arranged to cover up genitals of Michelangelo’s David copy in the Victoria and Albert Museum during royal visits.
While fig leaves have been used to conceal parts of male dignity, much more drastic measures have been in place to delete or suppress any visual reference to homosexuality in art and history, with many objects being destroyed, Greek and Roman statues smashed by barbarians, explicit Moche ceramics destroyed by missionaries, golden Inca objects melted by conquistadors, queer books burned by Nazis, etc.
Surviving objects have been misinterpreted or even banned, like the famous Warren Cup, priced at £2000 on its discovery but rejected by all museums and even refused entry into the US in 1950 until finally purchased for almost £2 million in 1999 by the British Museum. Other surviving objects are still hidden in the museum vaults or locked away in private collections like Greek gay pottery.
Two years ago the Auckland Museum was the first in the world to introduce the interactive Aqua Trail of the museum where visitors were provided with iPads to follow the groundbreaking tour highlighting objects related to water. Stories about museum objects were complemented with video footage and other reference materials. The same approach would be ideal for the future gay trail of the museum where treasures on display could be illustrated in wider context, their stories enriched with additional references.
Either way, there is a lot of queer history both hidden and in the full view in the Auckland Museum and I invite you to join me next time on a tour of its galleries starting with the raunchy Ancient Worlds and continuing through the sensual Arts of Asia, passing through the outrageous Pacific and Maori galleries, stopping on the Natural History floor to discover the same-sex attraction in the wild before reaching the sanctuary of the War Memorial and the Holocaust gallery to pay our tributes to the people marked with pink triangles.
| Alexander Lowë