The Young V&A is facing criticism, including from former staff members, after the museum took the decision, before its recent reopening, to remove from display certain literature and materials that express support for trans rights and explore queer identities.
Two books and a poster were removed from the museum’s gift shop and an exhibition display the week before the museum opened on 1 July after a three-year redevelopment project costing in the region of £13m.
The decision to remove the materials was taken by the Victoria and Albert museum’s director, Tristram Hunt, according to an email sent to V&A staff members who belong to the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union. The email was shared with the Arts Professional publication, which broke the story.
The materials in question are the illustrated books Here and Queer: A Queer Girl’s Guide to Life (2022) by the author Rowan Ellis and Seeing Gender: An Illustrated Guide to Identity and Expression (2022) by the illustrator Iris Gottlieb.
Both books are aimed at young people and explore issues around understanding and expressing gender identity, as well as educating readers on things like coming out, being closeted, queer communities and activist events like Pride.
On her TikTok feed, Ellis described herself as “lividly angry” at the decision. She said she felt the book was removed because “of the fact it has trans-affirming content”. She claims she was not informed of the fact the book was being removed, but found out via a social media post.
Museum officials also removed a red and black poster on trans visibility created by the United Kingdom-based LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall that reads: “Some people are Trans. Get over it!”
Members of the V&A’s LGBTQ Working Group, along with representatives from the PCS union, met Hunt on 26 June to argue against the removal of the materials, but their request to reinstate the books and poster was denied.
In response to a request for comment from The Art Newspaper, a spokesperson for the Young V&A said: “We made the complex decision to remove several objects, covering a range of contemporary topics, from a display about how design is used as a creative tool to campaign for different causes.”
Addressing the removal of Gottlieb and Ellis’s books, the spokesperson said the books were not appropriate for the museum’s target audience: “The two books that were removed ahead of opening from the Young V&A shop range have a recommended reading age of 14+, which is above the age of the Young V&A audience (who are 0-14). We are exploring alternatives for our target age range.”
Hunt’s decision has proved controversial, sparking criticism from voices across the museum sector, including former employees of the Young V&A.
In a LinkedIn post, Stephanie Stevens, a trans-rights advocate who worked as a floor manager at the Young V&A between January and June of this year, wrote: “I gave six months of my time and energy to this space, believing whole heartedly their intentions were to deliver an inclusive space, nurturing, learning and encouraging curiosity in all young people.”
Stevens claims V&A staff attempted to hide trans-affirming literature from Hunt before the museum opened.
“I was contacted by one of my former colleagues to say the team was hiding books from Tristram Hunt,” she wrote. “I was appalled, chalked it up to some sort of joke. Unfortunately, here we are.”
Rowan Moore, the architecture critic for The Observer newspaper, was also outspoken in her criticism of Hunt. Moore wrote on Twitter: “Last week I heard Tristam Hunt and others speak about diversity and inclusion at the launch of Young V&A. Now it turns out that some mildly pro-trans material was removed from display. This is hypocrisy. One of the items was a poster that says ‘Some people are trans, get over it!’ What is there to disagree with here? Does removing it mean that young V&A thinks that in fact nobody is trans? It’s also weak. One can only guess that this ban is based on some kind of fear of a backlash from activists. Grow a spine.”
Margaret Middleton, a Belfast-based consultant for inclusive museum practices, says Hunt’s decision to remove the literature demonstrated a lack of foresight on behalf of the museum to deal adequately with such sensitive cultural issues. “This is really disappointing and it’s also totally predictable,” she says.
Middleton believes the V&A should have anticipated questions from visitors and prepared answers, rather than pull the material from display.
“Haters are going to hate, but there are a few things you can do to help prevent this from happening in your exhibit,” she said as part of a Twitter thread. “When planning LGBTQ museum content, either in an exhibit or a programme, remember that homophobia and transphobia is real. This doesn’t mean self censor, this means build your case and prepare for backlash.”
The decision to remove such materials “was not intended to be exclusionary”, the V&A spokesperson said. “We do recognise the concerns that this has caused. We know that these are important topics, and our decision was taken as part of a wider programme that we are developing on how we present gallery content in a more considered and inclusive way.”
The V&A spokesperson continued: “The V&A is fully committed to presenting an inclusive programme and visitor experience across all our museums, from South Kensington to Young V&A. This includes trans representation as well as voices and perspectives from across the queer community, collecting works by trans and non-binary artists, with our events programme, LGBTQ tours, and exhibitions such as Fashioning Masculinities and DIVA that celebrate the diversity of our audiences and society. In the weeks ahead, we will be partnering with young people, educators and academics, as well as V&A colleagues including our LGBTQIA+ network to help shape this work.”