Amy Saunders is a PhD Candidate at the University of Winchester and has held various visitor experience roles at museums including the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Museums Sheffield. Amy’s current research explores sexuality and gender in relation to the seventeenth century Stuart monarchy.
RSJ Blog: I very much enjoyed your recent RSJ article, The Afterlife of Christina of Sweden: Gender and Sexuality in Heritage and Fiction. What drew you to this particular monarch, and what inspired you to examine her portrayal in modern film, fiction, and heritage?
Amy: Before starting my Undergraduate degree at The University of Winchester I read Karen Maitland’s historical fictional novel, Company of Lairs. Set in the fourteenth century this was the first historical fiction book I read which contained LGBTQ+ characters but wasn’t set in ancient Greece or Rome. I was spellbound by the narrative and it got me thinking about how we present sexuality in historical fiction. When we were asked to choose a topic for our Undergraduate dissertations, I knew immediately that I wanted to do something in this area. I went to my personal tutor, Ellie Woodacre, knowing what I wanted to explore but with had no idea where to start. I knew there was work around the sexuality of James VI & I and Henri III but if I was going to do a comparative study of early modern monarchs, I wanted to include a woman. Ellie immediately suggested Christina. I looked at fictional literature and film as there were several depictions to explore for each monarch. The heritage aspect came in later. During my first weeks at the V&A I realized that there was a print of Christina’s funeral in the European Galleries. I was so thrilled and every time an interested visitor came into the gallery, I would show them the print. It is so unassuming next to one of the huge Ommegang paintings (another great display of female power) and in the same gallery as an amazing Bernini sculpture (Christina was one of his patrons so this felt particularly relevant). Investigating the other objects in the gallery I began to see that there was a whole narrative there about female power, patronage and religion which I could share with visitors. Label texts have limited scope and the one which accompanied the print didn’t mention Christina’s sexuality or gender and this got me thinking about how we present sexuality and gender in heritage spaces. Even now when I go to the museum as a researcher or visitor, I always stop by to say hello to Christina.
RSJ Blog: Imagine you are in charge of an exhibit at the Victoria and Albert museum on Christina. Without having to consider funding, how will you present the queen? What are the chief aspects of her life that you will highlight in the inscriptions? How will you market the exhibit to tourism groups, particularly those from the LGBTQ+ community?
Amy: If money and object loans were no object there are so many things I would want to include. Generally, I prefer a thematic exhibition, but I think organizing it chronologically might be more effective in this case. I would want it to cover all of her life and interests, and it would place her conversion within the wider context of the religious conflict taking place in seventeenth century Europe. This would really highlight how dramatic and high profile her conversion actually was. It would explore Christina’s childhood, and look at how she was affected by the narrative around her birth and the death of her father. Major focuses would also include her abdication and her life afterwards in Rome. The fictional representations end at her abdication or at her acceptance into Rome so it would be great to explore Christina beyond this. These fictional representations would also have a place in the exhibition, probably at the end, with montages from the three films. Christina was a great patron and collector of art. In Rome she created a room called the ‘Room of the Muses’ which contained statues that had been discovered at Hadrian’s Villa. The room had yellow marble columns and as the ninth muse was missing, Christina had her own throne installed in the space, placing her opposite Apollo. These statues are now in the Prado in Madrid, so if we could reconstruct that room that would be amazing. If this exhibition was to take place, the Prado would be the perfect partner as their collection also contains the wonderful equestrian portrait Christina sent to Philip IV of Spain. Christina’s coronation robes also still exist in Sweden so those would be a stunning edition to the exhibition. I think in terms of the interpretation text, the main thing would be to ensure that Christina’s gender and sexuality was openly included and discussed instead of marginalized or ignored. The V&A has a huge social media following and there is a very active LGBTQ+ community which engages with museums across the UK and shares events and exhibitions that explore LGBTQ+ narratives, which would help massively with advertising the exhibition. I would also want to create a program of events which coincided with the exhibition, which could range from talks and tours to film screenings and interviews with those involved in the production of these representations.
RSJ Blog: Why, do you think, it is that women are less included in examples of LGBTQ+ historical figures than their male counterparts in heritage collections? What about film and literature? I have seen countless depictions of Edward II of England’s sexuality, which is generally assumed to be homosexual, but, as you describe, the two films that tell Christina’s story choose to focus only on a heterosexual portrayal!
Amy: In terms of Christina and film, there are two films which present her as having heterosexual relationships and then there’s the most recent one directed by Mika Kaurismäki that explores her love for Ebba Sparre. In all of these depictions Christina’s relationships are ultimately unsuccessful whether due to an untimely death or because of the duties and expectations placed on her partners. In terms of the male homosexuality being more present within heritage sites, there could be a number of reasons for this. In Britain, homosexual acts between men were illegal until 1967, and even after this the age of consent was higher for same-sex male couples than it was for heterosexual couples. Women’s sexuality was discussed less, and it was believed that lesbianism was much less widespread. In this context highlighting male homosexual relationships in heritage spaces can be seen within a frame of rebellion, free speech and as supporting LGBTQ+ political movements. Not that long ago these narratives would have reflected illegal relationships, whereas now they can be freely discussed, celebrated, and openly identified with by members of the audience. I think this male homosexual focus will slowly start to shift as more LGBTQ+ histories are researched and presented to new audiences. The recent success of BBC series Gentleman Jack has increased visitors to Shibden Hall, the Yorkshire home of Anne Lister and her wife Ann Walker, by over 300%, showing the impact that uncovering and presenting LGBTQ+ narratives can have on heritage sites and their visitors. In terms of the ‘prescribed set’ that I discussed within the article being largely male, many people are already familiar with ancient Greek and Roman homosexual relationships, for example Achilles and Patroclus (the subject of Madeline Millers fantastic fictional book The Song of Achilles) and the Emperor Hadrian and his partner Antinous. This latter pair are found in almost every museum LGBTQ+ trail, suggesting that heritage sites feel that they are integral to exploring LGBTQ+ narratives within museum spaces. Moving forward into the late 19th century, you’ve got artists and literary heroes such as Oscar Wilde who have become iconic LGBTQ+ figures. I think LGBTQ+ figures like Wilde and Hadrian have become an expected part of the LGBTQ+ historical narrative and that their homosexuality has become a commonly discussed aspect of their lives. Their presence in tours and talks at heritage sites can be used to attract visitors and audiences who need some sort of familiarity to encourage their interest. Through these initial, commonly known narratives, heritage sites can then introduce these visitors to less well-known LGBTQ+ histories.
RSJ Blog: What is next for you? Will you continue to explore Christina?
Amy: I’m currently focusing on my PhD which looks at James VI & I, Anna of Denmark, Charles I, Henrietta Maria, Charles II and Catherine of Braganza, and how the sexual activities and perceived masculinity of the husbands affected their wives. Part of this will also examine how these figures are presented in heritage and will explore what factors cause them to be overlooked. If I’m fortunate enough to remain in academia after completing my PhD I would love to teach about Christina and share her fascinating history with other people. If any situation arises in which I can work, write and talk about her with other people I certainly will! Christina was buried in the Vatican and I’ve now dragged and encouraged countless people to go see her and think about why she’s there. I’ve never visited Sweden, so in terms of Christina that’s probably the next big thing!
RSJ Blog: Thanks so much, Amy, for sharing your research with us. We look forward to reading your upcoming work in the near future!