Museum Makers: Dan Vo, V&A
- 30 April 2019
Dan Vo is co-ordinator of the volunteer-led LGBTQ tours at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. He explains the importance of delving further into collections to uncover marginalised stories, and why a bow tie is his lucky charm.
When I get to see that magic moment of connection in the eyes of a visitor, it’s truly incredible.The biggest thrill I get is when a visitor tells me they had never thought to visit our museum because they did not think it would interest them, but after going on the tour they found themselves represented many times over.
Being a person of colour unlocking a treasure trove of intersectional BAME (black, asian and minority ethnic) and LGBTQ stories is personally rewarding. I also recently consulted on the University of Cambridge Museums' Bridging Binaries tours and we have launched similar tours at the Polar Museum, Fitzwilliam Museum, Zoology Museum and Museum of Classical Archaeology.
I had been a front-of-house volunteer at the V&A for some time before pitching LGBTQ tours. The audience response was very positive and with the support of our volunteer manager, Caterina Bisquert, and the LGBTQ working group at the museum, they were added permanently to the tours programme. We currently have 10 LGBTQ guides and 20 trainees at different stages of development. In Cambridge, where I continue to volunteer with the Polar Museum, there are a dozen volunteers active across the four sites delivering the Bridging Binaries tours.
My good luck charm is a pretty bow tie. I think when I interviewed for the front-of-house role I wore a lovely deep crimson one with a repeated daisy pattern.
Be specific and clear about what you need to say. I once had a media teacher, Addam Stobbs, who emphasised the importance of good preparation: because when you’re not prepared it leads to ‘bad chat’ and as a broadcaster that’s where defamation and sub judice lie in wait! It’s good advice for any kind of interview, be it for a job or the media, and has always put me in good stead. It’s also essential for storytellers too because as museum guides we’re sharing the life stories of real people, so we have a responsibility to make it clear when we’re stating facts or making an interpretation.
There is a huge demand for LGBTQ stories to be found and told in museums. It was a huge honour to be named ‘Radical Changemaker 2018’ by the Museums Association. Growing up in a refugee family, volunteering was one of the ways I was taught to 'give back'. Around me at the museum is also a wonderful team of volunteers and staff who have helped make this ongoing project a success because of a shared belief that we are making a positive impact on our local LGBTQ communities and beyond.
I love pushing the ‘search’ button in a collection database catalogue. They are the most essential tools ever! The V&A has an excellent collection database and I’m very grateful to the V&A working group for updating and applying keywords to objects that make it possible to search with commonplace words, so entering words like ‘lesbian’ or ‘transgender’ returns useful results. Databases are extraordinary places where the work of so many talented people is corralled into a rich resource.
Find stories of people in your collection who inspire you, and use that as the hook with which to take others on the journey with you. With the LGBTQ tours, we are simply picking up the baton from giants who have come before. For example, one of my favourite go-tos is Carl Winter, who moved from Melbourne to work at the V&A and became deputy keeper. He was then invited to join the Fitzwilliam Museum, where he was director for two decades. He was also one of only three men who identified as homosexual to testify before the Wolfenden Committee to argue for the decriminalisation of homosexuality. I argue that spirit of striving for better diversity, equality and inclusion at the museum is deeply rooted in everything we do because of the legacy left by those like Carl Winter.
“All of this, for all of us”. Those are the words of the V&A museum’s first director Henry Cole and are at the heart of so much of what we do. We recognise the LGBTQ communities and individuals who form part of our rich collections across place, time and culture. If you visit on the last Saturday of the month at 4pm, one of our guides will give you their personal curated selection of literally hundreds of stories of remarkable people behind the objects that can touch and move us, connect and bind us. The tours are our way of saying to all LGBTQ visitors you are accepted, respected and celebrated, we welcome you. It’s an activity that is seeing strong support from more institutions too, and in the future I expect to see similar tours being rolled out in more places.
Dan can be found on Twitter at @DanNouveau.
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