The National Archives’ ‘Queer and the state’

The National Archives’ ‘Queer and the state’

We asked Vicky Iglikowski, Diverse Histories Records Specialist at the National Archives, and Rowena Hillel, Education Officer at the National Archives, to reflect on the success of their Being Human event ‘Queer and the state’. This series of two events in collaboration with the London Metropolitan Archives invited people to delve into previously closed secret police and government files how queer spaces were targeted and spied on, and the resilience of the community’s response. The events led to a recreation of a lost queer space, the Caravan Club – which has subsequently found a new lease of life in Soho in a post-festival project with the National Trust.   

Tell us a bit about your event. What subject areas did you cover and what did you want to achieve?

For the 2016 Being Human Festival The National Archives and London Metropolitan Archives ran two events which focused on the historic targeting and surveillance of queer clubs, pubs and outdoor spaces by the state. One of the key aims of our event was to get ‘hidden histories’ to new audiences, in order to do this we used archival material in innovative ways, working with professional set designers Dave Benson and Jade Bove and performers to recreate a 1930s queer-friendly club, the Caravan. Audiences were also invited to explore and debate original archival documents around the underground venues that played host to Britain’s LGBTQ+ communities in the early 20th century.

Our aim was to target a new, young and diverse audience, aged 16-25. To achieve this we recruited and worked with a small but impactful group of young people. This group met regularly and had a key role in shaping and influencing the events. Over the two events we succeeded in attracting approximately 80 people, the majority of whom were under 25 and first time visitors to the archives. Both events were sold out and full to capacity.

What worked particularly well in the planning, design and delivery of your event?

  1. Working with a small but committed group of young people, which allowed us to experiment with new and exciting ways to interpret archive material.
  2. Using innovative methods to engage new audiences, achieved through set design directly inspired by original archival material, live performances and discussion and debate.
  3. Intentionally choosing a topic with both historical and contemporary relevance; the targeting and surveillance of LGBTQ+ spaces. This strong theme enabled us to engaging with current debates around queer spaces past and present.

What were the main challenges and how did you overcome these?

  1. Recruiting and engaging with a youth panel in such a short space of time. This was time intensive but ultimately incredibly worthwhile. The young people we worked with were really enthusiastic, and played an integral role in the organisation and delivery of the events.
  2. Simultaneously balancing the different elements of the project, from original document research to working with set designers and performers. We became aware very early on that there was a huge amount of potential in this project, but we were limited in terms of time and budget.

What, if any, other audience outcomes did you identify? What were the main outcomes for you and /or your organisation?

Feedback was overwhelmingly positive from audiences; visitors particularly liked the combination of set design, performance and original archive material. Audience members commented on the connection between archival material and their own experiences, and many were surprised at how relevant and personal the material was.

These two events have led to an exciting extension of the project on a much larger scale. This has involved collaborating with the National Trust on an in situ recreation of the Caravan in the centre of London, at the Freud Café-Bar. Part of the project involves queer history tours of the Soho and Covent Garden area, led by volunteer tour guides, and a programme of immersive evening events, involving some of the leading cabaret performers in the UK.

After the success of the first events it has been brilliant to extend this as part of a longer project to increase the impact of the research even further.

What top tips would you give to anyone contemplating or running a similar event or events in the future?

  1. Start early! As soon as you have confirmed funding start your consultation process with community groups or youth groups. This process takes time to develop really meaningful relationships.
  2. Chose a topic with contemporary relevance – we have always found it useful to choose historical topics that link to current debates, whether it’s #blacklivesmatter (for our 2015 event) or the closing of queer venues for ‘Queer and the state’.
  3. Be ambitious! We have found the Being Human festival a wonderful opportunity to challenge ourselves (recreating a 1930s queer venue!). Be bold and use this opportunity to trial different means of engagement.
  4. Be flexible – working with a youth panel meant letting go of some of our existing ideas, and our events benefited from it.