Summary, Aims and Objectives

The aims and objectives below are taken from the AHRC application, 2021.

Beyond the Binary (BtB) is a collaborative research and public engagement project which asks the following research questions:

  • What can historic performances of music hall and pantomime tell us about attitudes towards gender and gender expression in the past?
  • How can new knowledge around this inform understanding, discussion and exploration of gender diversity today?Through multi-faceted, creative co-production we will unearth and share the histories of gender play and presentation currently lying unexplored in the University of Kent’s music hall and pantomime collections. Other than the national V&A Theatre Collection, Kent’s Special Collections and Archives (SC&A) houses the most significant archive of popular performance from the late Victorian era to the present. BtB will work with two of these collections which have been acquired since 2016 and which are part of the 2021-22 digitisation plan using the new CapCo-funded equipment: the Max Tyler Music Hall collection, which includes 2000+ song sheets, and the David Drummond Pantomime collection which includes extensive scripts, costume and set designs. Music hall and pantomime are forms well-known for going ‘beyond the binary’ in exploring gender: most notably through cross-dressing but also through witty word play, songs and music. These collections therefore make an ideal focus for this project.

The aim of Beyond the Binary is to:

  1. gain new insights into performance and gender histories by working with gender diverse performers and public researchers, and
  2. engage new audiences with diverse, inclusive histories of performance and gender, and thereby contribute constructively to current discourse around gender expression.

To do this, BtB puts into practice the journey of cultural assets articulated in the 2019 AHRC delivery plan (p.20). Phase 1 focuses on preservation and discovery research. We will recruit a collaborative (public, academic, archive professional, and student intern) research team who will uncover and digitally preserve archive materials and explore the two research questions. Phase 2 focuses on creating economic and social benefits via increased heritage participation. We will work with our partners to share findings from phase 1 (both artefacts and knowledge) with new audiences across three public engagement events. BtB will achieve this through four objectives which respond to the AHRC priorities: research unlocking cultural assets, discovery research, and creativity and the creative economy. We will:

  1. Train a diverse, multi-generational team of public researchers who, together with archive professionals, academic researchers, and a student intern, will undertake collaborative, curiosity-led research using both physical and digital archives.
  2. Make accessible a part of the collection which is understudied due to lack of digital surrogates but which attracts widespread academic, creative industry and public interest. We will do this through cataloguing and digitising a large proportion of this collection.
  3. Work collaboratively with researchers and performance-makers from across the gender spectrum – including queer, gender-fluid and non-binary people – to uncover and share new understandings and perspectives on performance and gender ‘then and now’.
  4. Co-produce and delivere a creative public engagement programme including a touring pop-up exhibition; an interactive Hands-on-History workshop presented at The Beaney; and a showcase lecture-concert co-created with non-binary performers, the Lunatraktors and featuring comedian Mark Thomas.

Following phase 2, we plan to apply to Arts Council England and/or the National Lottery Heritage Fund to support a wider tour of the lecture-concert and pop-up exhibition.