I spent summer 2022 undertaking an Education, Practice and Society Undergraduate Research Fellowship supervised by Professor Georgina Brewis as part of the Generation UCL project. The aim of my fellowship was to explore the queer history of UCL through the experiences of students, and then to create a walking tour based on this research. As someone who had never given a historical tour before and had been on very few historical tours (most conducted by my parents with a small tour guidebook on holidays), I was slightly daunted by this task.
However, I had been on Georgina’s history tour of UCL, which made me excited about creating my own. If you have not been on Georgina’s tour, you are missing out many of UCL’s alternative explanations, more detailed descriptions, and historical imagery, which have not been made obvious throughout UCL. One example of this is a tour stop outside UCL’s Housman Room where a plaque states the space was used as a Students’ Union common room from 1893, but excludes the fact that women were excluded from the Students’ Union until 1946, and until that point had a separate Union and separate common rooms created with under the guidance of Rosa Morison. Georgina’s tour, therefore, gave me an understanding of how I might be able use UCL’s building to tell the untold stories of students.
As a first step to creating my tour, I wanted to go on an LGBT history tour. I needed an example of how to navigate the tensions between claiming histories as LGBT from time periods where relatively little concrete evidence existed of these relationships and identities and the words that we now use for them and sharing as much about this history as possible. I was worried I would either take any hint of friendship to mean that a relationship or identity was queer or fall into the trope of assuming everyone, apart from those who recording their queerness, was heterosexual and cisgender throughout history (which I know is certainly not the case). Therefore, Georgina arranged for us to be taken on an LGBT history tour of Bloomsbury by a tour guide usually based in Brighton, Ric Morris.
I am not sure what I was expecting of this LGBT history tour, but I was not expecting the only attendees to be me, Georgina, and a Ric Morris enthusiast! Despite the initial surprise, I found the tour extremely useful in learning about the Bloomsbury Group (which I later found links with to UCL) and figuring out how I might phrase some of my research. After that, I felt more comfortable not having all the answers of people’s histories but having suggestions and alternative explanations from looking at history through a queer lens. For example, in my tour I discussed the relationship between Hannah Steinberg and Elizabeth Sykes who have been described as ‘colleagues’ and ‘partners’ and lived together, retiring in the same cottage in 1992, and maintaining relationships with each other’s families, instead of leaving it out because there is no concrete evidence that I could find of them being in a romantic relationship apart from these facts.
After this tour, Georgina was getting more enthused by university tours in her own research and had found a tour in Oxford called ‘Uncomfortable Oxford’, which focused on the less advertised and more ‘uncomfortable’ histories of Oxford University given by an Oxford student. We both thought it would be amazing to attend as an opportunity to learn about similar histories of Oxford to our research about UCL and see how this social enterprise organises its tours. The ‘Uncomfortable Oxford’ tour was one of my favourite tours, due to its conversational nature and the tour guide’s casual interaction with us. A bonus was that it was a private tour booked for me and several really friendly historians from UCL, which led to some interesting discussions over lunch. I would like to say that when I conducted some of my tour, I adopted the same casual nature of our tour guide in Oxford, but I think due to my lack of experience mine was perhaps a bit more traditional. Although, based on my Oxford experience, I tried to maintain a playful repartee during my tour.
The final tour I attended, before the creation of my own, was a new UCL guided tour designed by a blue badge guide and conducted by trained UCL students working to his script. I found this tour slightly uncomfortable, not because the tour guides were saying anything to reveal UCL’s complex histories, but because that is largely not what they were doing. There was some mention of eugenics relating to medical building at the start, however this was quickly glossed over, so we could learn about Coldplay, the ‘amazing’ Petrie Museum (with little information on potential issues with Egyptologist Flinders Petrie) and the sustainability of the Student Centre (with no awareness or mention in the script of the site it was built on, despite a question about that being asked). After having been on these other tours with valuable histories and thought-provoking discussions, this felt like the tour content was deliberately downplaying UCL’s fascinating and challenging history.
So, after being a participant in all these tours, it was time for me to step up to the plate, take the metaphorical leap, and present my own tour. This was one of the more nerve-wracking things I have done at UCL, because I was presenting my historical research to over thirty historians, archivists, and history enthusiasts as well as the supervisor for my EPSURF. I wanted to do the history justice and showcase all the work that had gone into this project from myself and Georgina. As I stood in front of the Slade School of Art ready to talk about the Bloomsbury Group my heart raced, my face went red, and all I could be comforted by was that if I did freeze then I had a friend on standby to cause a distraction.
Despite this feeling, as soon as I started talking about Dora Carrington, Lytton Strachey and Henrietta Bingham, I felt a lot more at peace. I felt as though these histories had somehow been returned to their rightful places. I do not know how often those names have been spoken or their queer stories have been told, but talking about them in that space, even to just twenty or so people, made me feel seen and proud as someone who is part of the LGBT community. It made me feel a sense of belonging, and at that point I knew, without a doubt, that there was a purpose in sharing these histories.
You can book on a UCL walking tour here