Neil MacGregor is the superstar curator who ran the British Museum. His queer icon is the Warren Cup

Queer Icons

Queer Icons is BBC Radio 4’s celebration of LGBTQ culture. Guests on the station’s daily arts and culture programme Front Row choose queer artworks which are special to them.

Neil MacGregor is the former director of the British Museum and the National Gallery in London. He’s currently the founding director of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin.

I’ve chosen the Warren Cup in the British Museum. It’s a silver wine goblet. It’s Roman. It was probably made somewhere between 15 BC and 15 AD.

I’ve chosen it because firstly it’s a very accomplished piece of silverwork, but what’s really special about it is that it shows two scenes of two male couples engaged in making love and they’re being watched from the side by a slave peeping round an opening door. In both cases there’s an older man with a younger one, and in both cases the younger one looks to be in their mid-teens.

We know from the way their hair is cut that these are free men and we’re witnessing a very well-established Greek tradition; that boys between the age of about 13 and 16 were the object of great affection of older men and it was part of preparing a boy to take his place in male adult society.

It is quite startlingly explicit. On one side, we’re clearly witnessing an act of penetration. On the other side, it’s intimate cuddling.

What we do know is that the Romans — and this is a piece of Roman silverware — were fascinated by this aspect of Greek society, and what’s so interesting to us, I think, is what a clear statement it makes about the fact that sexuality varies so profoundly between different cultures.

We believe this cup was found near Jerusalem. So what we are looking at is an object showing homosexual love used at exactly the time that St. Paul is writing his letters with his very severe views about sex. The Jews did not admire this particular aspect of Greek culture in the way that so many Romans did.

It’s called the Warren Cup because it was collected by Ned Warren, an American who lived with his boyfriend in England. And the Warren Cup was at one point offered to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, but first of all it had great difficulty getting into the United States — the customs authorities regarded it as obscene and felt it shouldn’t be imported — and then the Metropolitan trustees declined to buy it.

The British Museum trustees acquired it in 1999 and it’s been on show ever since. There are other objects in the British Museum showing active male homosexual intercourse. For most of the museum’s history, they were not on public show and you needed special authorisation to see them. Since 1999 this magnificently wrought and made and very explicit illustration of active male homosexual love has been in the public gallery without concern.

A few years ago, the British Museum put on a small exhibition beside the front door, of this cup, putting it in context. There was a small notice outside warning people about the subject in case they might be offended. Strikingly, in the course of nearly two months there were no complaints by the public at all.

What this means to me is two things: the object in itself is evidence that there have frequently been societies where homosexual love was totally accepted, and indeed admired, and that attitudes to homosexual love are constructed and changed; and the other thing it means to me is, because of the way it is now displayed in the British Museum, is the evidence it gives in itself of the change in attitudes in our country within my lifetime.

— Neil MacGregor

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