Artist Tom Marshman has been doing work in museums for several years, most recently he has worked to create a free LGBT audio tour of the M Shed in Bristol called Move Over Darling (Audio Tour). We interviewed him about what it’s like to be an artist working in this area and about the tour.
What was the first project you did in museums?
One of the first projects I did was with the National Portrait Gallery, my friend Timberlina, myself and another collaborator Catherine Hoffmann, to put together a fun and engaging event. We re-imagined the portraits to be profiles on a dating site, like Grindr or Tinder, using real experiences on these sites, known historical facts of the sitters of the portraits as well as fabrications and imagined fantasies. It was very bawdy and lots of fun. We were then asked to recreate the projects for the Red Lodge Museum in Bristol. So it was a similar process but completely bespoke for the museum and its portraits. I have gone onto work in many museums and was lucky enough to be involved with the Prejudice and Pride activities, which the National Trust held last year. There I hosted a tea party for older LGBT people, made some films and developed a live performance in response to the extraordinary wall painting.
How did you get involved with them?
To be honest I am not sure, I probably just dropped them a line and said I wanted to do an event, ended up going to a shed load of meetings, filling out forms jumping through hoops and avoiding red tape and then still trying to keep the spirit of what I wanted to do in the first place. Thankfully there are people that have supported my work and continue to do so because they see its benefits, but sometimes museums are reluctant to look at things differently, which is what I can bring.
What drew you towards that work?
I love museums because they are the keepers of such a diverse range of stories. They can be challenging spaces as they often omit the stories of underrepresented people, which is what I am curious about. Most of my work is made for and about LGBTQ people, but that isn’t exclusive. And that was what drew me to them as spaces as I really wanted to queer them up and make them really fun. I put on an event at Bristol City Museum and Arts Gallery for museums at night, loads of people came and there was many performance happening in lots of the spaces. It was very refreshing to see the museum being a space where play, people wearing wigs made from toilet roll, gossips happening in the gallery and drag queen dolls being made from wooden spoons.
What else have you done?
This summer I am making a performance tour of the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, it is made from the stories of young people from Creative Youth Network and Freedom Youth, it will be part of Pride and we have re-imagined the objects to be belonging to the Grimm’s fairy stories, but they are not the classic tales, they have been re-worked to make them more relevant to LGBTQ+ lives.
Tell us about the Move Over Darling Audio Tour.
Working together with Rowan Evans (sound artist) we have created an alternative audio tour of the M-shed. The tour connects up some of the stories I have collected for my performance work within the exhibition about Bristol, sharing stories I heard when interviewing older LGBT people in Bristol about the stories that lie at the roots of their LGBT identity.
The stories are funny and touching, and I’ve presented them very lyrically so the tour almost becomes a long poem that moves you around the first and second floor of the M-shed.
If you would like to do the tour the audio devices are kept behind the information desk on the ground floor, all you need to do is ask for one from a member of staff. It’s completely free. The audio devices are encased in vintage matches, so you collect your headphones and match box and move around the space.
The piece was originally a live performance walk around the old city, around St Nicholas market so a lot of the stories are based there, most significantly the Radnor Hotel, which was a known gay venue from the 1930’s onwards.
What is it about audio that made you decide to use this medium?
Each story is represented by the sound of a match striking; the stories burn brightly and quickly like a match, sharing a story before you move on to the next story. The idea for this came from one particular story where a man met his life partner by being asked for a light.
I really wanted people to feel like they were heading back in time with this work and that there was a retro vibe going on. I didn’t want them walking around the galleries with cutting edge technology I wanted something more tactile and evocative of stories people tell, this is why I chose the matchbox.
How does your tour differ from a usual museum audio guide?
In my work I am not so concerned with facts and figures, what I want to do is tell a good story and in particular the stories of older LGBT people which could soon be lost. I think they add a new texture to the exhibits in the M Shed, bringing out the human stories within the objects and focusing on LGBT stories. LGBT stories are often whitewashed in museum versions of history, where we told the stories of the ‘powerful white upper class men’ instead. This work, I think, helps address this imbalance, and adds a new range of stories so that M Shed represents the diverse and exciting Bristol we live in. These are stories I think everyone will enjoy hearing the stories, although some of the language is a bit racy so over 16’s only!
Do you think the technology presents any barriers to access?
As an artist I’m based at the Pervasive Media Studio within Watershed where many artists and technologists are exploring ways to work with technology in new and exciting ways. Amusingly, I am a technophobe, so for me to understand it, it has to be very simple. Because of this, what we have created is super easy to use, the only thing you have to do is turn it on, find the right volume, and follow the directions of where to move to within the audio tour. If people have smartphones they can also request a link or scan a QR code, to find the tour online. So technically they don’t need to have the matchbox, but I feel that spoils the fun slightly!
The important thing for me, when I am working with technology, is that it doesn’t get in the way of the stories and that the technology supports it, rather than presenting a barrier. And if anyone finds any teething problems, then I hope they’d mention it to the information desk so we can improve accessibility.
How do you think the museum could learn from this project when developing their own audio resources?
The M-shed is not just about Bristol as a place, it’s also about the people of Bristol. And I love that it places importance on a wide-range of people too, not just people that are deemed to be ‘the great and the good’. I think our project reinforces that and tells us about a group of people whom you don’t often hear about. I hope adding this will bring new LGBT audiences into museums to connect them our history, as well as introducing non-LGBT museum-goers to it, all in an engaging and fun way. As an artist I love working in museums because they are rich in stories, and I think it’s important to find new ways to share and celebrate within the museums.
Move Over Darling talks about people’s lives, deaths, loves, friendships and sex lives in a way that many museums don’t. The way our society treated LGBT people up until very recently has become a shocking and shameful secret history, and projects like this one can help museums tackle these difficult issues as well making sure the positive stories of lgbt people are not lost.
There’s a personable quality to the work I make too. All the people I tell my stories about on the audio tour I have met, I know them and we have exchanged our stories in face-to-face conversation. Though you don’t get to hear my stories on the tour, the human exchange during this research has indelibly influenced and shaped how I tell these stories..
How can people access the tour?
You can collect the matchboxes from the front desk at the M-shed anytime they are open, you can also find it online here and listen as you walk around the museums. This is an ongoing part of the exhibition so hopefully my voice will be in the museum forever or at least until it doesn’t feel relevant anymore. Perhaps in a few years I will add more stories, we’ll see!
How can other people make work for museums?
It seems to me that museums are always trying hard to make their collections more relevant to a range of diverse people. I would think if artists want to work with them and have a story to tell they should approach them directly. There are so many stories to tell in so many different ways.
More work from Tom, that he has been doing with National Trust for their Prejudice and Pride program