Rarely seen leaflets, posters, placards and banners are currently filling part of the Barbican as the Bishopsgate Institute brings out some of its archive of gay ephemera for public display.
Much of the archive is made up of rare survivors of documents that were not designed to last — leaflets and flyers handed out at protests and clubs, to be read and discarded, yet some survived.
It’s thematic as a display, from the nightclub flyers to AIDS awareness campaigns and memories of people who struggled for equality. Trans rights are here, and some of the earliest recorded trans rights groups go all the way back to the 1960s. Trans rights may be a big story today, but several generations of campaigns are in the archive.
Some of the material is protected display cases, but there’s also a table set up with documents to flip through, and others rarer, secured with chains. Talking of which, leather is here – the Bishopsgate Institute holds a large leather ephemera collection, although just a handful of items are on show here.
This is more an exhibition about changing times, how different campaigns bubbled up, and usually succeeded only to fade away. From the campaign just to be allowed to exist openly, through the health campaigns of the 1980s to civil rights, and eventually marriage.
Each campaign dominating attention for a while, then fading, but never quite going away. The fight for equality seems a never-ending struggle for all people of all creeds.
Some of the objects will be memorable for the fuss they caused outside the gay community, such as the famous/notorious book, Jenny lives with Eric and Martin, which looks remarkably tame and rather basic today, but at the time caused a huge fuss. It’s also a very thin booklet, which goes to show how few words it can take to upset people. The AIDS crisis is here, in leaflets for public consumption but also the more intimate letters and diaries of people who caught HIV or their friends who watched it take its devastating course.
As an exhibition, it’s both a history lesson in the battles of the past, a reminder of the battles being fought today, but also an aesthetic display, a look at how leaflets and advertising was done in the past by small organisations often with little more than a typewriter and a photocopier, or if really lucky, a local printer running off cheap b&w posters for them.
The exhibition, Out and About! Archiving LGBTQ+ history is in The Curve gallery at The Barbican and is open until 21st March. It’s free to visit and you don’t need to book tickets, just turn up and go in.