I visited the world’s first virtual LGBTQ museum
LGBQ+ VR Museum creator Antonia Forster in a VR headset and sculpture by Patricia Cronin Memorial to a wedding in . Photo: Courtesy of Fraser and PR
I stand in an indeterminate liminal zone with a floating rainbow icon in front of me. Far below me is the Milky Way, a dramatic astral sight that makes our home galaxy an incidental detail in a sea of stars. For once, this isn’t the result of a heroic dose of acid at a Pride afterparty, but the lobby of the world’s first LGBTQ virtual reality museum.
Designed by Antonia Forster – activist, speaker, self-taught and once declared coder one of Bristol’s most influential queer people – the LGBTQ+ Virtual Reality Museum offers a cultural exhibition based on contributions from the queer community, from the South West of England to Denmark and Ghana. Each exhibit is comprised of a 3D scan of a particular object and an accompanying voice message telling the story of its meaning. It’s here that a set of nail polish becomes an act of defiance, a karaoke microphone an avatar for the proxy community, and a carefully misplaced copy of James Baldwin. John’s room an offer to discover and see.
Forster’s museum began life as so many moments of cultural sharing when she simply couldn’t find one elsewhere. “I kept thinking, ‘Sure someone did this?’ she tells me from a café in Brislington, Bristol. But they hadn’t. It turns out there was no dedicated LGBTQ+ museum in the UK at the time (Queer Britain has since opened as a physical museum, where Forster’s project will make an appearance in July ). So she made one.
In addition to bringing the community together, the project was also intensely personal. After being invited to speak at a TEDxTalk event in 2017, Forster realized the conversation would amount to coming out to his family as bisexual and polyamorous. Most of the conversations didn’t go well; some, she says, turned into blackmail, bribery and threats. “I was given this choice very explicitly: ‘We will continue to support you, but only if you stay in the closet.’ And I didn’t want to do that,” she says. “So my strategy was to become a software engineer.”
The move provided Forster with the knowledge and resources to access and create virtual worlds – and now, the freedom to give back to his community. Thomas Terkidsen was among a wave of contributors who answered a call on social media, and it quickly became apparent that his background in VR development opened up possibilities for deeper collaboration on the project.
“I knew it was a massive undertaking for one person – looking back, it was a huge project for two people trying to do it while working full time,” he says. “I remember taking school trips to museums where I saw paintings of men and women in love. I have never seen any artwork telling stories of men loving men. I’m sure it would have helped me find myself if this kind of representation existed. And now it is.
Upon entering the museum, the experience of stepping into an alternate reality transcends the technical beauty of its pristine surfaces and colorful exhibits. This is my first time using a Meta Quest 2 headset, and its immersive quality is certainly enough to convince me that I’m about to fall in the outdoor garden more than once. But what’s truly remarkable is the sense of occupying a queer space that isn’t a temporary loan, when LGBTQ+ events are so often crammed into right-leaning dive bars, art venues standard or other improvised do-it-yourself stuff. It’s a dedicated space, and you realize the UK is sorely lacking after the helmet is removed.
Some people have waited longer than others for these moments. New York based artist Patricia Cronin contributed a virtual rendition of the marble statue she created in 2002; title Memorial to a wedding, it depicts Cronin and his partner Deborah locked in an embrace to mark their love after death, at a time when they could not marry. It remains the world’s first and only monument to marriage equality. “The challenge of this work was to find a balance between a high level of formal execution and a sharp political protest”, can be heard explaining in the museum. “What I couldn’t have in life, I would have forever in death.”
Speaking to Cronin 20 years later, now happily married to Deborah, she still sees a frustrating lack of visibility for lesbians and the wider LGBTQ+ community. As always, the issues are intersectional: for a Bristol-based project launched the same year, Colston’s statue topplers were eliminated, the question of who owns public spaces and how they decide what is displayed there is more relevant than ever.
“I rarely see my reflection in the heterosexual patriarchal culture of white men. When I see it, lesbians are usually the butt of a joke in a movie trailer or in pornography designed by and for straight men,” Cronin says. “So in addition to not seeing women honored in public monuments and illegal same-sex marriage in the United States at the start of the 21st century, I decided to imagine a world where misogyny and homophobia didn’t exist. not.”
Cronin says she still gives her friends the same advice she gave in 2002: “If you want permanent public art, you have to buy the land. But she doesn’t hold her breath. “I refuse to wait for the outside world, the local and federal municipalities, nor the culture of the art world in Hollywood to validate me. I’ll do it for me, thanks. I have the radical imagination to reject my absence and to insist with dignity on my presence.
This is perhaps where virtual reality comes in to create new spaces beyond this stifling and heteronormative dimension. As the fight for queer rights continues IRL, more and more projects are springing up (including Minecraft’s Groundbreaking Uncensored Library) that allow us to imagine what the future could look like elsewhere. Again, as the metaverse expands, “elsewhere” can become an increasingly nebulous concept.
The reaction so far has been everything you would expect from the internet. “The two criticisms I tend to get when doing queer activism are either ‘we don’t need this because gay people are treated equally’ or ‘go die of AIDS'” , says Forster. “And I’m like, well, kind of refutes the other, right?” The tech industry itself isn’t fully inclusive either. “It’s its own echo chamber because it’s a biased demographic. I don’t know the stats on queer people, but there are fewer women in tech, for example, and so it may be harder for women just because there are fewer of them.
Nevertheless, the museum turns out to be an international success. This month, the project won the New Voice Awards at Tribeca Festival in New York, where the experience was augmented by a biometric element – the user wears a device with electrodes that can measure heart rate and skin conductivity, resulting in emotional arousal and engagement with the contents. In October, Forster and his team will work with the Danish Consulate in New York to stage a New York version of the museum, which will be displayed at the High Line.
For Forster, avowed fan of Dungeons & Dragons and LARPing, other worlds aren’t just there to be discovered – they can be built. And they don’t need to operate by the same rules. “I think we’re very locked into ideas of what the world can be, and they’re very narrow and limited, based on the limited view of our current society, at that time, in the western world,” she says. . “The idea of virtual reality for me was pure sorcery – and it still is. I can create anything I can imagine out of nothing. It’s pure magic, pure conjuring.
The LGBTQ+ VR Museum is currently exhibiting at Tribeca Festival 2022 through July 19.