Interview: Sean Curran of Sutton House

A few weeks ago, we were lucky enough to catch Sean Curran’s talk ‘There’s no place like homo: the deconstruction of the queer country house’ at the V&A’s ‘Queer and Now’ Late. We were instantly struck by their deeply interesting research and incredibly engaging presentation – not lest because they work with Sutton House, based right here in Hackney. Thankfully, Sean agreed to interview with us shortly after and we are now privileged to share their answers with you, giving readers a glimpse into their work as a PhD candidate at UCL and beyond! This is a great opportunity to learn more about queer East London, and the ways in which spaces which might not appear immediately queer, coukd have some untold stories that need discovering. We hope you enjoy the interview as much as we do!

What does your research at Sutton House involve? Why is this important?

My work with Sutton House is quite serendipitous and it is my relationship with the staff there, and the opportunities that have arisen that has shaped the direction my research has taken. I am interested in the invisibility of LGBTQ narratives in National Trust historic houses, and through my work with Sutton House, this has taken on a more practical and hands on approach. I began volunteering there in the summer of 2013, and soon after the Black History Month exhibition, for which I did some research, I offered to curate an exhibition for LGBT History Month 2014, and the staff there were happy for me to do so. The Trust is sometimes criticised for its reliance on volunteers, currently numbering over 70,000 across the country, but (and obviously this differs from property to property) often they are prepared to allow volunteers to take agency in pushing their own ideas forward.

The outcome of my research so far, has been two exhibitions. The first, in February 2014 was called Master-Mistress, and the second, throughout February and March 2015, was 126. Both aim to celebrate LGBTQ identities through the work of Shakespeare, and build a new layer of history for Sutton House. I spent a lot of my Sundays as a child visiting National Trust properties with my family. My childhood was full of confusion and sadness, I neither had the language, nor the space to talk about how I felt, about my awkwardness and discomfort in my body. I remember when I was about 12 during a visit to London with my family I saw a very visibly queer looking person in Camden and I was excited and felt what I know now to be something like recognition, for the first time. That moment sticks with me so vividly, and remains the reason why I think visibility for queer people is still so political, and more than that, it can save people. If we who work and study heritage can extend those moments of recognition into history, to say ‘people like you have always existed’ then it is our responsibility to do so.

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Credit: Alex Creep http://www.alexcreep.co.uk

Can you tell us a bit about your projects? What are your aims? Have you achieved these?

‘126’ was a crowd-sourced exhibition in which LGBTQ identified people read Shakespeare’s Fair Youth sonnets. Contributors recorded their sonnet and short video portraits on their smartphones, and they were exhibited in the chapel at Sutton House. The results are now available to be viewed online. ‘126’ formed part of ‘Queer Season’, which ran for two months and included an exhibition of work by queer artist Nick Fox, and a film screening of the Craft by queer cult film collective Amy Grimehouse. The aim of this exhibition was to get LGBTQ issues on the National Trust’s radar. The previous exhibition in February 2014, Master-Mistress, was the first ever LGBT History Month exhibition to be held in a National Trust house, which is pretty remarkable given how well other museums have engaged with it, and also given that the Trust owns and manages over 300 properties.

How receptive have people been to your work? Is it difficult to break down perceived barriers?

We received two complaints about ‘126’, both before the exhibition had opened. One was from a member threatening to cancel their National Trust membership, worrying about children seeing the exhibition, and another from a gay man who objected to the word ‘queer’ in the publicity. We addressed both of these and I hope that they came to see the exhibitions (though I presume they didn’t), so that they could see how warm and moving it was. The National Trust relies heavily on its members, it currently has more members than the labour party, the conservatives and the liberal democrats put together, therefore the members rightly feel they should have a big say in how the organisation works. However, many of those members are LGBTQ, and allies, or otherwise are open to reinterpretations of history, so I take comments from people who feel something inclusive is cause for complaint with a massive fistful of salt. At a recent conference in New York someone asked me ‘how do we avoid offending homophobic people?’ to which I snappily replied ‘to be honest it’s never been a concern of mine if homophobes are offended’.

For ‘Master-Mistress’ I heard some worrying comments from one of the volunteers at Sutton House. I addressed this directly, and others dismissed the matter as a generational thing. I accept that people come from a generation where LGBTQ issues were frowned upon or ignored entirely, but people can grow and change, so I hope the exhibition and its successes helped that person to change their attitude.

Overall both exhibitions, especially ‘126’, were received with warmth and enthusiasm, with most visitors who gave feedback hoping that this was just the start of a shift of approach for the National Trust. The London Project has already began to make ripples with more radical forms of heritage, including tours of the Big Brother house and the Balfron Tower, and the GPS app Soho Stories. I haven’t heard any feedback from the higher ups at the Trust, but I hope they are paying attention.

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Have you got a favourite story that you’ve uncovered through your research? Why?

A chance meeting with a student when I was giving a lecture at Central St Martins led me on an interesting journey. She told me that William Morris’ daughter May had a long relationship with a woman named Mary Lobb, that is widely interpreted as a lesbian one. I visited Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire (which isn’t a National Trust property) where the two lived together for nearly 20 years. I was looking forward to seeing how this relationship was interpreted there, but really saddened to find that she was reduced to a figure of fun, with an unkind caricature and an unflattering quote from George Bernard Shaw. I emailed the staff there afterwards and said ‘I can think of two possible reasons for this oversight, the first is that those who oversee the interpretation at Kelmscott Manor are not willing to explore the relationship between May Morris and Mary Lobb because they do not wish to be faced with the possibility that the relationship could be considered, in contemporary terms, a lesbian one. Secondly, and equally as concerning, is that in a house full of Pre-Raphaelite beauties, Mary Lobb is not considered sufficiently beautiful to warrant covering her role in May’s life in any great detail.’ The reply was swift and defensive, and assured me that the lack of interpretation was to do with staff and finance issues, but they said I seemed to know a lot about it so maybe I could help. I took it upon myself to make a sound piece using verbatim snippets from letters and diaries at the William Morris Gallery archives, suggesting that these sources of gossip and speculation could be used as historical evidence that even her contemporaries had questions about the nature of their relationship. I also made a zine called ‘The village folk had a lot to say about it’ and a protest banner made from a William Morris tea towel. I offered the sound piece to the staff at Red House, a William Morris house managed by the National Trust, but was told that they didn’t have the staff, or the money for it, even though I had made the sound piece and offered it to them for free. This is a subject I would like to pursue further once my PhD is finished.

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What’s next for Sean Curran?

I am currently writing up my thesis now, using ‘126’ as a central case study, but I am also involved in some really exciting projects in my spare time. I am delighted to be part of the steering committee for Twilight People: stories of faith and gender beyond the binary, which is a HLF funded project to collect oral histories of trans people of faith. I am also part of the organising committee for the 2016 LGBTQ+ Archives, Libraries, Museums and Special Collections conference, which will be hosted by London Metropolitan Archives from 22nd-24th June 2016, the theme of which is ‘without borders’ and we are hoping to build on the success of previous events, the last of which was held in Amsterdam in 2012, and to attract an international audience. In the mean time, I will be writing my thesis, with a hope to finishing it by the end of summer!

Sean is studying their PhD at the UCL Institute of Education and blogs at towardsqueer.blogspot.com and tweets from @meltingswans

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