Display in Focus: History & Equality


I’m Polly, part of the Museum Geeks team. I’ll tell you a bit about how I created the History & Equality display.

mc3dd display
Behind the scenes! – I’m installing the main label into the History & Equality case.

A key part of LGBTQ+ history in Britain is the Wolfenden Report and its effect on the decriminalisation of homosexuality. I thought this was important to include in our exhibition, as it was such a significant part of the progression of gay rights in England and Wales in the 20th century.

Coincidentally, Lord Wolfenden who worked to produce the report was also Vice-Chancellor of the University of Reading 1950–1964, so this topic highlights a thought-provoking aspect of the University’s history.

lord wolfenden portrait
‘Lord Wolfenden Official University Portrait’ by Brenda Bury, 1963.

I used UMASCS to research the Wolfenden Report, and spent a lot of time in the Reading Room at MERL. During my research I came across a range of interesting materials, including handwritten letters, newspaper articles, and even a copy of the report itself. Most of the material I discovered is now currently on show in the Out: LGBTQ+ Equality’ section of the History & Equality display.

Throughout the curation process we all had to make difficult decisions about what to include and what to discard. The label below didn’t make the final cut to be included in the Out: LGBTQ+ Equality’ display:

Sexuality and the law

In England, male homosexuality had been outlawed since the Buggery Act of 1533. This was reinforced in 1885 when the Criminal Law Amendment Act made any homosexual activity between men illegal, including actions conducted in private.

Men across the country were victimised, leading to a number of high profile prosecutions, such as that of writer Oscar Wilde, and cryptographer Alan Turing.

By the end of 1954 there were 1,069 men in prison for homosexual acts in England and Wales. Upon entering imprisonment, each man was interviewed and offered ‘treatment’. Over 80% of these men rejected medical intervention, with many prison doctors skeptical that their treatments were an effective solution

It was discarded as it doesn’t directly relate to any objects in the display case. However, it does cover important facts to consider when thinking about the society that the Wolfenden Report was born from.

If you are interested in learning more about this topic, I would of course encourage you to visit the display (situated in the Archaeology foyer at Whiteknights Campus). Additionally, if you enjoy reading, I would recommend ‘Heterosexual Dictatorship: Male Homosexuality in Postwar Britain’ by Patrick Higgins. It gives a thorough background on the issues covered in the Wolfenden Report Display, including contextual information from the 1950’s and 60’s.

heterosexual dictatorship pic
Higgins, P. 1996. Heterosexual Dictatorship: Male Homosexuality in Post-war Britain. London: Fourth Estate.


When visiting the History and Equality display make sure to keep an eye out for the ‘About: Equality for all’ display case. This other display features MERL collections and community curated objects, and discusses equality with a focus on gender, and issues in the workplace. It aims to complement the ‘Out: LGBTQ+ Equality display by showcasing significant activities which have pioneered and championed equal opportunities for all – and includes current positive activities at the University of Reading.

behind the scenes
Behind the scenes! – preparing labels for the display, with the ‘About: Equality for all’ display behind us.

As a project group we are keen to encourage discussion and share ideas, so feel free to contact us to contact us at museumgeeks@gmail.com for more info – and stay updated on the blog!

See you soon,

Polly  (Museum Geek)


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