Woke row grips Henry VIII museum as objects from Mary Rose branded ‘queer’

Critics blasted a museum after it tried to “interpret” historical objects found on Henry VIII’s warship through a queer lens and link them to present-day understandings of LGBT+ sexualities.

A post by a curatorial intern on the Mary Rose Museum’s blog aimed to “use queerness as an interpretative tool” to link objects including nit combs, a gold ring and a mirror to represent LGBTQ+ stories.

The museum is dedicated to the famous ship that was raised from the depths of the Solent in 1982 after more than 400 years on the seabed.

And the post titled “Queering The Mary Rose’s Collection”, sparked backlash when its author claimed the nit combs found on the ship can represent how hair is a “central pillar” of queer identity.

They also claimed the gold ring can show the “long history of queer people marrying or viewing themselves as married” whilst the mirror “can bring up lots of emotions for both straight and LGBTQ+ people.”

“Queering the collection” has become a popular approach used by museums around the world to interpret LGBTQ+ experiences through the artworks on display.

Among the items cast under this lens is an Octagonal mirror, which the author said would be a “luxury item on the warship”.

It read: “A circular, reflective surface would have sat within this beech frame. This mirror would have been considered a luxury item on the Mary Rose. Looking at your own reflection in a mirror can bring up lots of emotions for both straight and LGBTQ+ people.

“For Queer people, we may experience a strong feeling of gender dysphoria when we look into a mirror, a feeling of distress caused by our reflection conflicting with our own gender identities.

“On the other hand, we may experience gender euphoria when looking in a mirror, when how we feel on the inside matches our reflection.”

The author admitted that whilst the 82 combs found on the ship would have been used by the men to remove nits, not style their hair, for Queer people hair styling is a “central pillar of our identity.”

“For many Queer people today, how we wear our hair is a central pillar of our identity. Today, hairstyles are often heavily gendered, following the gender norm that men have short hair, and women have long hair.

“By ‘subverting’ and playing with gender norms, Queer people can find hairstyles that they feel comfortable wearing, ” they said.

On the gold ring found on the lowest deck of the ship, the blog post claimed that while same-sex marriages have only been legal across the UK since 2020, “there is a long history of Queer people marrying or viewing themselves as married.”

On paternosters – a type of rosary bead found on the ship – the author claimed they showed many of the sailors were Christians, before talking about how the English Reformation led to the introduction of the Buggary Act.

They said: “Paternosters were uncovered on every deck of the ship, demonstrating that many members of the crew were practising Christians.

“In 1533, Henry VIII broke away from the Roman Catholic church and formed the Church of England so that he could annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. This also meant that a significant church law was transformed into criminal law. Before 1533, men who had sex with men would have been punished by the church.

“However, in 1533 the Buggery Act was introduced which, in part, punished men who had sex with men with the death sentence. This act played a role in the execution of only one man during the Tudor period, as Walter Hungerford was also accused of treason and witchcraft.

“Executions because of this act were infrequent until the 1700s and 1800s. Between 1806 and 1835, 56 men were killed.”

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The blog post has sparked a backlash from historians and the public.

Professor David Abulafia, of Cambridge University, said: “With all due respect to its authors, the highly speculative comments about Queering the Mary Rose have as much connection to the shipwreck as a tin of Heinz baked beans.”

Historian and author James Heartfield added: “I’m afraid people will just laugh at these captions. I don’t think it makes them very serious historians and I don’t think it makes them very good gay rights activists either.”

One social media user said: “This reads like an absolute parody of itself. I can’t understand why such a prestigious institution would allow an intern to make them look so foolish.”

A spokesman for the Mary Rose Museum said: “As one of the UK’s most historically significant attractions, we actively encourage people from around the globe to visit, experience and interpret the Mary Rose for themselves.

“‘Queering the collection’ is an approach used by museums around the world.

“We are proud to support all of our dedicated employees, volunteers and interns as they offer their own personal reflections through our blog.”

The items are now displayed in the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth.

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