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Episode 62

LGBTQ+ tours in Zoology Museums

Natural history museums are a fantastic way to learn about nature, they allow you to look at the natural world in ways which are not always easy or otherwise possible. Specimens might be collected from parts of the world few people will ever get to visit, like the deep oceans. Natural history museums also preserve a record of nature and animals which can stretch back hundreds of years, offering insights into long-term trends which might otherwise be invisible. Museums are not just repositories, they also curate and display their collections, and in doing so they construct and convey narratives.

It is impossible to tell every story at once, so by necessity some will get left out, or in some cases, purposefully suppressed. And in the same way you might find some books don’t engage your interest or speak to your experience, some communities might not engage with museums because they don’t see themselves or their interests reflected in the museum’s interpretation.

Tours can be a relatively straightforward way for museums to bring out different narratives and engage with a wider range of people. Tours are inherently more flexible than a printed interpretation panel, and provide museums an opportunity to try out different narratives and see how visitors respond. In today’s episode I’ll be speaking with the Museum of Zoology in Cambridge about their Bridging binaries tours, which have been put together to bring out LGBTQ+ themes and narratives from their collection.

Bridging Binaries: LGBTQ+ tours at the Cabridge Museum of Zoology

Curating nature

  • For any given animal, there are an infinite number of facts about that animal. There are biases in who chooses which facts to say. Some information may even be purposefully or subconsciously hidden.
  • Museums choose which animals to display, they do not display everything equally. 80% of living things are arthropods, but that is not usually what we see in museums.
  • Had been a trend in museums to display fewer specimens, in favour instead of using models.
  • Other ‘fashion trends’ in museums have included taxidermy, dioramas, and painted murals.

Bridging Binaries programme objectives

  • Recognizing the ways in which science can be bias because of cultural or social norms
  • Recognizing the scientific contributions of LGBTQ+ communities and perspectives
  • Counter suggestions that homosexual behaviour is “against nature”

What is the relevance of sexual identity?

  • Human social prejudices creep into the way we talk about animals.
  • Scientists have changed their reported or published data to line up with cultural or social values, for example by removing references to same-sex sexual behaviour.
  • The tours are not focused on a piece of research which happens to have been written by an LGBTQ+ person. The tours highlight instances where the perspective provided by that identity contributed to discovery and learning.

Advice for institutions thinking of getting started

  • Work with the community to help choose and frame stories.
  • Check with the community that stories are being told in a constructive manner.
  • Just get one with it, because it’s the right thing to do.

Advice on engaging marginalized communities - IMCA.org (International City/County Management Association)

Missteps or rough spots

  • Navigating use of reproductive terminology or describing sexual behaviours when families and children are around. Pick your moment or get people to gather in so you don’t have to be too loud in the gallery. Families are welcome on the tour, but an introduction to the language which will be used on the tour allows participants to know what to expect. Visitors not on the tours have not had this discussion and their expectations should be respected.
  • Unpicking binaries when constrained by binary language is difficult.
  • Use of ‘gay’, ‘straight’, or ‘homosexual’ to describe animal behaviour, risks conflation with human behaviour.
  • Explanation what will be meant with the use of terms like ‘queer’, which have been/are used as slurs. Grounds the language to help participants feel comfortable.

“Animals don’t do sexual identity, they just do sex.”

Eric Anderson, sociologist.

Rough idea of what kids might be discussing in relationship and sex education in school - BigTalkEducation.co.uk

Inclusive language guide - Vic.gov.au

Next steps for the programme

  • Give tours content a permanent presence within the museum.
  • Updated written interpretation, printed or digital trail through the museum

Animal narratives


Intersex fin whale - ResearchGate

Make a whale bookmark - University of Cambridge Museum of Zoology

Hermaphrodism in a dolphin - Institute of Cetacean Research, Japan


Over 90% of sexual behaviour in giraffes is between same-sex individuals. This stat emerges from these sources:

  • Pratt DM and VH Anderson. 1982. Population, distribution and behavior of giraffe in the Arusha National Park, Tanzania. Journal of Natural History 16 pp481-489
  • Pratt DM and VH Anderson. 1985. Giraffe social behavior. Journal of Natural History 19 pp771-781. I do not see an article by Pratt and anderson in 1979.
  • Dagg, AI and Foester JB. 1976. The giraffe, its biology, behavior and ecology. New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Anne Innis Dagg - Ann Innis Dagg Foundation


Male penguin pair foster chicks - NPR

Why are penguin’s sex lives so scandelous? - Atlas Obscura

Dr. George Murray Levick (1876-1956): Unpublished notes on the sexual habits of the Adélie penguin - ResearchGate

More queer animal narratives

Oxford University Natural History Museum

Contributions of LGBTQ+ scientists

Joan Roughgarden - Transgender Map

Critiques biased language in natural history. Argues for alternatives to theories of sexual selection.

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