‘Someone will remember us’… LGBTQ+ stories in Reading Museum

For many people, museums act as a repository of not only physical objects, but also the stories that go hand in hand with them. Here at Reading Museum we are proud to tell the story of our town and the lives associated with it.

However, some stories have historically been left off the labels on museum and gallery walls. In recent years the potential that collections have to empower people, and the importance of including stories from under-represented communities in museums, has begun to be acknowledged. An example of this is the Museum Association’s Empowering Collections campaign, which you can read more about here.

English delft royal portrait plate, London, 1702-14. One of the objects chosen by volunteers in the Untold Histories project 2023-24. Museum number 1961.240.14.

As part of Museums Partnership Reading, we have been striving to democratise access to our collections and work with communities to diversify the stories we tell. You can read about some of our other projects such as working with community groups to 3D scan Roman objects or celebrating the Windrush 75th anniversary with local schools. In this blog, I’m going to share one small way in which we have been working towards this – which is also one of the projects I’m most proud of during my time at Reading Museum.


I have thoroughly enjoyed my volunteering with Reading Museum as this Untold Histories research project has been consistently fascinating and fulfilling! Reading Museum has a collection filled with unique objects that have an abundance of storytelling opportunities and this project has allowed me to more greatly understand the important role museums have in bringing these stories to light. A particular highlight of this opportunity was being able to personally handle a variety of objects from Reading’s Huntley and Palmers collection: catalogues, tins, and administrative records with dates ranging from 1955 to 1970.

- Untold Histories Volunteer, 2024 A6841C61-ACD8-4C22-BA6A-1DA1EACB60AA

From September 2023, I supervised a volunteer project "Untold Histories" which aimed to research LGBTQ+ stories that can be told using objects we already have in our collections. We hoped that this would provide a blueprint for future projects uncovering and sharing untold histories within Reading Museum.

We were lucky to have six brilliant volunteers who gave up their time to attend fortnightly sessions at the museum, as well as carrying out research on their own. Different areas of expertise (from art history, to social history, to archaeology) meant that we were able to spread our efforts across the collections. As always, the main constraint was time: there are only so many objects you can look at in three-hour sessions every two weeks! But some fantastic items were picked out. The volunteers were shown how to use Modes, the museum’s collections management database, and then let loose to explore the collections and research stories behind particular objects that caught their eye. Reading Museum curators gave insights into their collections, including brief tours of behind-the-scenes artworks and objects at the museum store.


I feel very fortunate to have been able to get a ‘behind-the-scenes’ look at the work Reading Museum does – using their collection management database, visiting the museum’s offsite store, examining an array of archived material, and learning from their staff members have been highly valuable experiences. Reading's Collections Assistant has been especially inspiring and insightful in her supervision, consistently supporting and encouraging our research throughout. I would recommend volunteering here to anyone, not only those interested in history or art, as there is definitely something for everybody!

- Untold Histories Volunteer, 2024 A6841C61-ACD8-4C22-BA6A-1DA1EACB60AA

In some ways, the hardest part was where to start. Some Reading LGBTQ+ connections are more obvious than others. Many will already be aware that Oscar Wilde, 19th century playwright, poet, and aesthete, was imprisoned in Reading Gaol in 1895 after being sentenced to two years hard labour for “gross indecency”: in other words, homosexual relationships with other men.

Wilde’s conviction came after he attempted to sue the Marquess of Queensberry, father of his then-lover Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, for criminal libel. The Marquess disapproved of his son’s relationship with Wilde and publicly accused him of sodomy. Wilde, against the advice of many close friends, then took the Marquess to court over these claims. This ended in disaster, as not only did Queensbury win the libel case, but the evidence gathered by him in the process was used to arrest Wilde on charges of sodomy and gross indecency.

A Statue for Oscar Wilde, 2010, by William Pye. Museum number 2010.81.1

Oscar Wilde is perhaps one of the most well-known figures of British LGBTQ+ history, and his connection to Reading is an important one – but does Reading Museum hold more stories to be uncovered? This was the question that the Untold Histories volunteers set out to explore.


My time as a volunteer for the museum has been very valuable. Our project goal was to create a new LGTBQ+ admin category for object classification, so it’s gratifying to feel like I’ve been doing important work that will have an impact on how LGBTQ+ stories are incorporated into the historical mainstream. A particular highlight for me was our guided tours of the art and object stores, where we got to see items from the museum’s collection that aren’t currently on display. It was also very exciting to properly examine the objects I’d been researching at our handling session. My favourite find has to be a local artist’s sketch of the titular boat from Arthur Rimbaud’s poem Le Bateau ivre; I’d studied the poem before but through researching the sketch I discovered to my surprise that Rimbaud had stayed in Reading for a few months in 1874. Overall I’ve had a fascinating insight into the heritage sector and I’m now more than ever convinced of the importance of museum spaces.

- Untold Histories Volunteer, 2024 A6841C61-ACD8-4C22-BA6A-1DA1EACB60AA

The volunteers used known connections as a starting point for their research – Oscar Wilde, Wilfred Owen, John Wolfenden and LGBTQ+ pubs and cruising spots in Reading, to name a few. For more information on some of these better-known connections, check out our blog Summer Days and Reading Gays. The joy of collaborating on projects like this is that the volunteers were also able to use their own knowledge or lived experience as a starting point – for example research interests, areas of expertise, personal experiences of Reading, shared knowledge of the area.

'Portrait of Bill' by John Minton. One of the works with LGBTQ+ significance that will be highlighted in our online catalogue. Museum number 1980.163.1

The result is a wide-ranging list of objects from the museum’s collections that will be used to supplement our internal database – ensuring that these stories are accessible for research, exhibitions and other projects in the future. Additionally, the volunteers have selected a few of the objects that spoke to them most and these will be added to our online catalogue with a short overview of their significance written by our volunteers. In this way, LGBTQ+ stories from the collections that may otherwise have remained untold will be made accessible to anyone wanting to know more.


I’ve loved my time volunteering on this really important project. Having access to the museum database and researching the artefacts has been fascinating and has helped me to confirm that it’s an area I definitely want to work in, as being able to collaborate with a group of likeminded lovers of art has been brilliant.  Taking tours of the ‘unseen’ objects in storage and learning first-hand about the real life work that takes place from the knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff kind enough to show us some of their favourite pieces, was incredible. I shall miss my fortnightly visits to the museum and hope to be able to volunteer for more behind the scenes projects soon. Thank you to all of the staff we have worked with for their time and support.

- Untold Histories Volunteer, 2024 A6841C61-ACD8-4C22-BA6A-1DA1EACB60AA

I want to end this blog with a thank you to each of the fantastic volunteers who have brightened up my Mondays for the past few months. Your time and knowledge and enthusiasm has been so appreciated!

The online collection gathered by our volunteers will be published in Spring 2024 and we will be sharing more of the volunteers wonderful work across our social media platforms – with perhaps a guest blog or two in the making, so watch this space...