Lift the Lid: 23 Voices was a 10-week podcasting and journalism course co-hosted by LEEDS 2023 and Creative Lives, providing participants with the skills and confidence to create their own media about the culture that matters to them. In this article, Erin Christie explores Forgotten Battles at the Royal Armouries.

Forgotten Battles at the Royal Armouries is a treasure trove of unearthed stories mapped through the museum and throughout our history. 

The exhibition, running until March 2024 in partnership with Leeds 2023, has been created by queer volunteers and researchers, led by Dr Kit Heyam (they/them or he/him) – a Leeds-based heritage practitioner, writer and academic who specialises in trans rights. 

Heyam developed a tool kit with James Daybell, a professor of history at the University of Plymouth, which considers the whole lifespan of an object rather than simply who used or owned it, revealing institutionalised history’s hidden gendered perspective largely focusing on men in power. They said: ‘there’s no neutral position that a museum can possibly take’ when a choice must always be made about ‘whose stories to tell, whose stories not to tell’.

The exhibition moves through histories such as that of anti-colonial figure and commander in chief Yaa Asantewaa, the hidden influence of working class women on weaponry in the British army, and is rooted in research led by Luna Morgana (she/her) into the life of French diplomat, spy and soldier, La Chevaliere D’Eon.  

That a trans woman be the person to research someone like her was, as Luna says, ‘integral to the project, as much of D’Eon’s history has been misrepresented by cisgender people’. This, importantly, reflects the project’s entire ethos.

Workshops were run by Kit Heyam, Luna Morgana, Kit George Art (they/them, he/him or e/em) and Cat Stiles (she/her) with volunteers from TransLeeds, Non-Binary Leeds, and We Are IVE. Ezekiel Foster-Eardley (they/he), a volunteer and writer for the exhibition, said that ‘learning so much about important historical trans figures’ has been ‘nothing short of magical’. Kit George Art said: ‘It was just such a nice experience, it brought me a lot of joy to see the sword brought from the back of its previous display cabinet’. 

This process was important for participants but also essential to the exhibition’s production. Their lived experience informed expertise in identifying different possibilities. Kit George Art said: ‘History belongs to us, it belongs to people who care about it and who want to know more and the people who tell the stories in a way that means something to them.’ 

History came alive for me in the revised descriptions of the people that held these objects, rather than the wars they fought them with. The exhibition’s various stories demonstrate the intersection of revelation that a gendered perspective of history can provide, exploring aspects such as class, religion and race too. It was clear to me the extent that is lost in the ignorance of this perspective. Every single one of us loses a closeness to the people that came before us, who, though their contexts differed, were capable of feeling, connecting, and reacting in the same ways we do today. 

Portraits depicting a female sniper, Jewish journalist, and those owned by a Russian Empress line a wall across from cinematic drag portrayals of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. In between, stands the community hub, a place to commune and reflect. Alongside sofas and accessible reading materials, pieces of erasure poetry and cross-stitch dot the walls. The work takes museum object labels, erasing words to create new meaning. Likewise, the differences between the exhibition object’s original labels and their new ones demonstrate the erasure of history’s myriad of experiences and the meanings we miss along the way. 

When society institutionally forgets the historical existence of transness this politically and personally impacts trans lives today. As Ezekiel told me, the amount of history revealed in this exhibition alone shows that ‘the moral panic and hatred surrounding the narrative is far newer in comparison to how long we have existed in society’. Luna’s research, for example, goes at least as far back as 2500 BCE, and, as she stated, ‘These stories are not just my interpretations, many include evidence that would take Olympic-level mental gymnastics to deny!’ 

For participants and audiences alike, as Heyam says, ‘connection with history, the sense that there have always been people like you is really really important for people’s mental health and wellbeing, for people finding a sense of community’. In this respect, projects to highlight include Kit George Art’s work with Queerology, Kit Heyam’s book Before We Were Trans (available in the Bookish Type), Luna Morgana’s extensive research into D’eon’s life and other essays, Hold it Up Collective and Leeds Queer Film Festival. 

Look out for upcoming projects from Luna, Kit George Art, Kit Heyam , and Ezekiel Foster-Eardley including Any Work That Wanted Doing with the Armley Industrial Museum, celebrations of Angela Morley’s 100th birthday and the 50th Anniversary of the first trans conference held in Leeds with Leeds City Museum. 

On the 1974 trans conference, Kit Heyam said: ‘There’s an amazing trans art scene, both visual art and performance art in Leeds and if we can honour that tradition that we started 50 years ago by equipping all of those trans people to share that creativity again, and not just having to do it ourselves but with the support of the city, that would be amazing.

Tellingly, the objects were chosen to reflect different time periods and gendered stories were unfailingly found in each one. But also, Luna explains, ‘not all of the research regarding queerness and gender, or even Jewishness and Sikhism, was included in the trail or responded to in the exhibition, which leaves those stories still hidden’. Pages of research were produced for each object now showing only a small paragraph. That so much of the human experience could be unearthed in one museum begs the question of how much is being missed elsewhere. 

Luna advised: ‘Don’t just stick to the trail and the exhibition! One thing we found is that a lot of things in The Royal Armouries collection from the time period D’Eon was alive were in some way contextually connected to her and her life. We could have done a whole tour just of objects that relate to her! So take the exhibition and trail as your launch pad and sail through the collections of every museum you visit, and ask what the hidden story is behind everything you see. The answer might amaze you.’  

The fact that this is only the tip of the iceberg and we are still gifted stories such as that of the most prolific female Soviet sniper of all time, the political influence of women throughout history, and the womanhood of La Chevaliere D’Eon so affirmed during her lifetime that it was engraved into steel and sword, the future of our history is exciting. 

Hi, I’m Erin. I moved to Leeds from West Wales for university and to be closer to my extended family, returning to my northern roots. I am currently studying an MA in Writing for Performance and Digital Media. I am interested in podcasting focused on both experimental fictional storytelling and journalistic documentary/ interviewing. I write and perform spoken word, and I am currently trying to learn the saxophone. I also work at Out of this World in Leeds City Centre and volunteer for LEEDS 2023 and Care4Calais. I advocate for human rights, particularly focusing on my own experience as part of the LGBTQIA+ community. Erin Christie, Lift the Lid: 23 Voices participant