Plymouth and West Devon Record Office

Archiving the lives and histories of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Community in Plymouth

Summary of the project

The project resulted in a specific archive accession to represent the lives and histories of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) community in Plymouth which had been a previously somewhat overlooked area in terms of archive material. It involved a local LGBT community group and volunteers who were trained as oral historians to interview and capture the memories and recollections of this community.  Volunteers also collected memorabilia where appropriate and revisited materials already in the archive to establish any LGBT connections. All of these materials were displayed at an exhibition at the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery in the summer of 2012 before being deposited with Plymouth and West Devon Record Office  (PWDRO).

This was a specific Heritage Lottery Funded project, although legacy work continues with an AHRC funded PhD supported by PWDRO in partnership with Plymouth University and the formation of an LGBT community heritage group interested in the further development and use of the materials and expansion of the collection. The project has also received funding from Plymouth Pride Forum.

Partnership working

Project partners were the Plymouth Pride Forum – a local LGBT community group who provided links into the wider LGBT community and contact with a number of LGBT groups in the city. Also, Plymouth University have supported the PhD project which is part of the legacy work.

What were the challenges of the project?

The biggest challenge was establishing trust within the LGBT community. For many of the individuals participating in these oral history projects, the process involved talking about aspects of their lives that they had attempted to actively conceal in the past. Also the LGBT community represents four diverse strands of people with differing histories and experiences. Trying to ensure each was reflected in both the archive and the exhibition remained a constant challenge.

How did you respond to the challenges?

Using a sensitive approach helped establish trust with the communities and also harness the potential of the material that could be made available. Despite concerns and worries from individuals, it was possible to detect from the very earliest stages of the project, a desire on the part of much of the LGBT community of Plymouth to see their stories and histories acknowledged in the wider heritage of the city.

Through oral history training, PWDRO made it possible for volunteers from the LGBT community to go out and collect histories from their own community. The positive effects of this were two-fold as it fostered trust on the part of the interviewee and empowered the interviewer in their investigation. Oral histories therefore reflected more accurately the experience of those LGBT individuals living in the city and, over the course of the project, more and more volunteers came forward to share their stories, motivated by word of mouth accounts from those who had already enjoyed taking part in the project.

What opportunities did the project provide?

The project was an opportunity to uncover stories and perceptions of the city of Plymouth that had been previously overlooked in the traditional archive.

It was a chance to revisit material already held by PWDRO to establish any LGBT links.

The intergenerational work of the project also provided insight into the lives of a diverse range of people who are often seen and treated as a homogenous rather than heterogeneous group. The involvement of the different age groups from within the LGBT community provided a greater understanding of the histories and issues faced by different generations, and so, the project enabled a diverse group of people to establish connections as a community in their own right and take pride in their part of the city’s history.

What were the outcomes?

  • Materials already deposited at the PWDRO were catalogued retrospectively with LGBT links
  • New material including papers, documents, photographs, autobiographies, creative writing, oral history interviews and memorabilia of LGBT organisations, institutions and businesses in Plymouth collected since September 2011 has been deposited and catalogued as a new accession
  • The Plymouth LGBT online archive was created and retains a very popular presence. Website statistics reveal that the site was visited on 3,155 occasions by 1,985 unique visitors and that there have been 8,993 page views from May 2011 until September 2012
  • Plymouth’s LGBT archive won the ‘Most Inspirational Community Archive’ award at the 2012 Community Archive and Heritage Group award ceremony in London on June 27 2012
  • Visitors to the Pride in Our Past exhibition were overwhelmingly positive. The following quotes are indicative of many others that were made by visitors to the exhibition:

‘Enjoyed the exhibition, very thought provoking. Powerful exhibition to be held in Plymouth and putting the LGBT history for the city on the map.’

‘The exhibition itself was well presented – a good variety – from written word, audio, photographs, books, clothes etc. It was good to see young people as well as adults included.’

What went well? What didn’t go quite as well?

  • Early mapping of key individuals, networks and agencies to access materials and potential oral history interviewees through community engagement helped to promote the project and exhibition, eg various community forums
  • Sensitivity to the needs of oral history interviewees enabled them to be reassured and able to tell their stories, which at times were harrowing and poignant, with confidence. Subsequent promotion of project by the interviewees to others within the LGBT community helped increase the final number of interviews carried out
  • Meeting young members of the LGBT community at an early stage of the project and enabling them to participate in the project on their terms resulted in the production of fantastic artwork which was displayed as part of the exhibition and which received huge praise from visitors to the exhibition
  • Earlier analysis of volunteer capacity, competency and availability to deliver the project within tight deadlines, earlier clarification of the expectations of the respective key partner agencies, the roles of their organisations and staff groups within the project and a realistic appraisal of their capacity to support the project would have enhanced planning of the project

Future development

  • Continue to maximise contributions and use of the archive through the PhD project and the volunteers from the LGBT community who promote the archive through community events and conferences and link with other key agencies
  • Use the regular archive newsletter to connect the volunteers and wider community with the archive
  • Legacy work with the Plymouth Police Diversity team and schools and colleges will enable a greater understanding by key education staff of the role they can play in enabling younger LGBT members to aspire and achieve
  • The University of Plymouth is also exploring use of the LGBT Oral History Collection as part of an MA in Public History module and the Plymouth College of Art is planning to work with LGBT artists in Plymouth to hold an LGBT art exhibition in 2014
  • Stories from the archive have recently featured in a play about Plymouth in The Drum theatre

For further information see PWDRO’s online catalogue.