Artillery Row

Meet your masters

“Beyond the Binary” was like wandering into a room after an art therapy session with disturbed children

There is a grotesque display of colonialism on show at the Pitt Rivers Museum (PRM) in Oxford. You won’t find it in the artefacts that jostle for space in the anthropological section it’s just past the piss-covered gender-neutral toilets at the “Beyond the Binary” exhibition.

Partly funded by a Heritage Lottery grant of £91,200, the curators explain “this exhibition is a positive step in tackling oppression, which LGBTIAQ+ communities often feel in spaces such as this one”. It’s a collaboration between “community creators” and the PRM’s researchers.

The brightly-lit, decolonised safe space is a veritable hate crime against the senses. In one corner the walls are daubed with scribbled messages such as “be gay do crime”, “screw terfs” and “Amelia loves boobs”. It has the aesthetic appeal of a faeces-smeared prison cell, though without the intellectual depth.

Visitors are reminded throughout of the deeply oppressed people who live among us: a group apparently known as “the queers”. Throughout the infantile baby pink and powder blue displays, there is a neurotic, fetishized narrative of victimhood. As a bisexual woman I’m apparently spoken-for by the Beyond the Binary exhibition and yet, when standing in the room I have rarely felt more “othered”.

A plaque informs the curious that a 2018 report by the Student Union LGBTQ+ campaign found that “98 per cent of University of Oxford trans students have mental health problems”. Looking at the unhinged scribbles covering a sizeable portion of the exhibition, this does not come as a surprise.

One of the “community curators”, Lance Millar (who helpfully includes “He/They” pronouns for anyone who cares) took the unusual step of adding their own soft toy to the display. Millar, who appears to be an adult with a PhD from Oxford, explains:

“My cuddly gosling comes with me when I feel vulnerable, and keeps me safe from my own criticism. When I came to Oxford as a queer working-class person, I experienced a chasm of identity separating me from others.”

Forget the generation of gay men wiped out by AIDS, or the lesbians who lost their children

The presumed white-cis-heteronormative scum visiting are then treated to some nuggets of wisdom about the experience of trans people of colour who “come under closer scrutiny than their white siblings” and therefore “may not receive social validation of their gender or transness”. Mystifyingly, the exhibit accompanying this text is a Beastie Boys band t-shirt with a “Happy Birthday” badge. The uneducated are further informed that for the queer-identified “the greatest freedom of expression” can come from “non-gendered items” like “hair dye or tattoos” — doing little to assuage the suspicion that identifying as queer might be a fashion for the over-privileged and under-occupied.

Under the leadership of director Laura N. K. van Broekhoven, the PRM has been set on the course of “decolonisation”. Predictable liberties are taken with cultures where (usually homosexual) men were and are encouraged to identify as what are widely termed “third genders”. Accompanying text bemoans the impact of Europeans and Christians on the fa’afafine of Samoa. Summoning-up the fa’afafine to support a post-structuralist, queer theory take on identity is a remarkably arrogant feat — twisting indigenous identities to fit a niche Western ideology.

The focal point of the room is a pink and blue telephone box covered in stickers. It is hard to hold back tears while listening to the narrator describe her tireless work of pulling off disagreeable stickers so that she can replace them with trans-positive messages. Forget the generation of gay men wiped out by AIDS, or the lesbians whose children were taken to the brave queers of Oxford, the sticker war is real and raging.

Overall, the experience was like wandering into a room following an art therapy session with disturbed children.

The history of sexed oppression is a stubbornly binary, un-fluid phenomenon

Unlike the qualification-laden curators, I don’t have much formal education. But as someone with a love of learning, I’ve often visited the Pitt Rivers Museum. There are few places where I feel more at home than when winding my way between the cases, inspecting seal-intestine mackintoshes and mammoth ivory draught pieces. I have a real affection for the objects of exquisite beauty and skill, brought back by pioneering anthropologists including Beatrice Blackwood, Barbara Freire-Marreco and Marie Antoinette Czaplicka. As an aside, one wonders how long it will take the current team to decide that these women who added to the collection were trans — they certainly didn’t adhere to the strict gender norms of the time.

Sadly, the Beyond the Binary exhibition has dribbled out of its room to infect cases in the wider museum. The curators have taken it upon themselves to smear exhibits with their queer-theory laden ideological gloss. Unfortunately for the curators, the history of sexed oppression is a stubbornly binary, un-fluid phenomenon. Those who were (and are) subjected to extreme beauty practices, from Chinese foot-binding (challenged by Christians) to the spine-crushing neck rings worn by some of the Kayan Lahwi in Northern Thailand, are overwhelmingly female. Undeterred in their project, the Beyond the Binary team grimly promise:

“In a time of challenging politics — nationally and globally — the museum is standing as an ally with LGBTIAQ+ communities around the globe. We are an ally to the Trans community and will not tolerate transphobia. The museum will continue to make changes to our permanent displays after the exhibition has ended.”

Unlike those who would see offensive works of the past pulled down, I sincerely hope that the exhibition is preserved. It’s important that future generations can learn from, and perhaps have a laugh at, the ramblings of a self-styled cultural elite, hellbent on inflicting their bizarre, privileged worldview on an unsuspecting public. In the meantime, we have no choice but to submit to the faddish whims of our new colonial masters.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover