Archiving online photo albums

By Ellie Turner-Kilburn

Central to the Tommie and Betty archive is their photo album, assembled over many years it tells the story of the two women’s lives together. The album is tactile and personal. Not only can we see their handwritten notes, briefly adding context to the images, but we can imagine the process of taking, developing, selecting and fixing the photographs that went into the album. As a result of this, this photo album is an intensely personal item, and its being displayed as part of the ‘Queer the Pier’  exhibition has thrown up many ethical discussions among the group over the past few weeks. 

Whilst on first glance the photo album might appear a simple, mundane item it’s presence in the museum is radical, this personal, hand constructed record breaks many of the rules that we unconsciously expect when we enter the museum. It is not a piece of Great Art created by someone famous, created with the aim of being admired, it is the opposite. This photo album was made by two ordinary women to document their lives, to keep a hold of the moments that mattered to them. Indeed, from what we have seen of the photo album the contents itself is also not extraordinary, without the context of knowing these two women were in a relationship, you could perhaps pass many of the pictures without recognising their significance. These pictures are of two women quietly living their lives, without even taking into account the fact that these women were queer, these are not the kinds of stories we have been taught to expect from museums, impressive places where we learn about impressive people. To include the ordinary and the ephemeral, as well as the queer, is to break those rules and that can be uncomfortable. 

However, as we learnt when listening to a recent talk by Jamie Brett from the Museum of Youth Culture that is not the way that museums have to be. There is just as much value in collecting  the artefacts and memories of ‘ordinary’ people and the stories they have to tell. When considering these everyday stories of youth culture and how we collect them, we asked how we can approach collecting the aspects of youth culture which take place online.

Even prior to Covid-19, so much of our lives take place online, especially the lives young people, and even more so for queer young people who are able to explore their identities and communities from the privacy of their own room, providing a degree of safety that many are not afforded IRL. These online activities can range from the sharing of memes to the organising of large scale protests and organising. Yet, whilst the internet might be huge, public and ever-changing, we choose how we interact with it, what we see and what other people see of us. Just as Tommie and Betty did in their photo album, creating safe and private space to cherish their community, friendships and their own relationship. 

Arguably, we are still doing the same now, with perhaps the most comparable platform being Instagram. These profiles are curated and created in just the same way Tommie and Betty created their photo album, pictures are taken, edited, selected and posted, with captions attached. We still continue to tell and archive the stories of queer lives through the medium of the photoalbum. Perhaps, this is also why we are more aware of the implications of opening and displaying albums such as Tommie and Betty’s, as we are more keenly aware of issues of privacy, more aware of the implications of others using our images and stories without our permission. We can choose if our albums are public and private, and can stop people from commenting, following, viewing our online archives if we choose. 

Images from Tommy & Betty’s Photo Album, Queer the Pier, Brighton Museum & Art Gallery

Often we choose to use these scrapbooks, these ‘platforms’, to raise awareness of causes and issues which are important to us. Many queer people use their images to speak about issues facing the LGBTQIA+ community and to educate others about, happening on both a micro and macro level. It seems only fitting then that Tommie and Betty, who did not have a the luxury of a public queer identity, of being able to express their identities and opinions in a public way, are now being offered such a platform. Tommie and Betty’s photo album can now serve as a means to raise awareness of what it was like to be a queer person in the 1940s and 1950s. Through their own records they have provided valuable evidence of what it was like to be a queer person in this era. We do not have the luxury of hearing what Tommie and Betty might say about this time, but we do have the luxury of being able to view their lives through their eyes, through the images they have chosen to keep and preserve. 

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