Obituary | Kate Smith, 1971-2022 - Museums Association

Obituary | Kate Smith, 1971-2022

The 'shy activist' who laid many of the foundations for queer interpretation that we see today
LGBTQ+ Obituary
Babs Guthrie
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Kate Smith, multi-talented museum and cultural sector champion passed away peacefully on 15 November this year. She was 51.

Kate was serious, funny, extremely erudite and fierce about social justice and the environment. She laid many of the foundations for the queer interpretation we see today and will be a hard act to follow in digital comms. 

British Council Arts

I first met Kate working at the British Council Arts department where she was our information manager, making sense of international arts programmes. Friend and colleague Juan remembers her working with poet Roger McGough on an A-Z arts directory around the time of the Iraq war.

Her essential Kate-ness was already on show as she managed to persuade him to include “B is for bombs which we drop before we send in Shakespeare”. Sadly it didn’t make the final cut. Jenny, friend and former boss (who presumably had to deal with the fall out from B is for bombs), had this to say about her:

“I was impressed by her intelligent otherworldliness and determination to forge her own path in life and defend the freedom of others. She found people hilarious and frustrating in equal measure, and her bubbling laughter always shone through as she delighted in the various quirks and foibles of those around her.”

A tweet celebrating Kate's work for the writing festival Write Queer London
Untold London and Write Queer London

Kate’s next job was building and managing Untold London, a website cataloguing London collections with objects reflecting the diverse intersectional cultures of the capital.

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As well as trawling museums to find collections, Kate also set up a network of reviewers and writers to cover topics like Kentish hop pickers, Roma and Sinti communities, Italians in 1950s London, Indian miniature artists, Black Romans, lesbians in the archive and queer Georgians.

She sought out people already writing about queer histories and worked with them to make a bigger impact. Through her editorial and programming, Kate championed LGBTQIA+ history recognition and celebration in work that underpins tours and interpretation today. 

Working with Sara Wajid under the aegis of Untold London, Kate took queer writing festival Write Queer London to new heights. She programmed seasons of events and brought writers and poets into local and national museums to help grow audiences for queer histories. As part of the programming, she wrote the first LGBTQ+ history trail (2007) and tours for the British Museum and Museum of London.

Write Queer London ran for three years, with Kate leading successful funding bids each time. I often delivered our tours because she was no fan of public speaking. But it was Kate’s research that made people who, for the first time, felt connected to a “great unrecorded history”, cry cathartic tears in the galleries.

A Little Gay History

Kate also collaborated on British Museum best seller A Little Gay History (2013) that grew out of our trails and tours. Richard Bruce Parkinson her co-author remembers her:

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“Such modesty and such a star. I can't remember how many times we met in person - not very many at all. But such a friendly presence from the moment we met, and such an impact on my life. Kate's wise, kind approaches to LGBTQ history set the tone for work across the sector. She was the inspiration, the prime mover, the guiding light of the project. Without her there would never have been A Little Gay History.”

Kate and Richard’s work formed the backbone of the British Museum’s 2017 exhibition, Desire, Love, Identity: Exploring LGBTQ Histories, which then travelled across the country 2018-19.

The exhibition had been conceived and pitched four years earlier by then head of communities Laura Phillips. It was brought into being by the British Museum team, led by Stuart Frost, in consultation with LGBTQ+ community groups including Untold London.

2017 was the year lots of big cultural institutions marked the anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, and marked a sea-change in how institutions thought about LGBTQIA+ history. I firmly believe they wouldn’t have had the confidence to do this, and to champion LGBTQ+ history, without Kate and Richard’s pioneering work.

Writing for change and impact

Kate did so much important work within and outside the sector, this could be a very long article. She was the website and newsletter editor for the International Institute for Conservation and National Museum Directors' Council. She project managed History of Place, tracing the lives of deaf and disabled people through eight historic buildings over 800 years.

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She wrote cultural reports for the City of London. She delivered the Poetry Society’s website redesign and migration. She managed comms for medical charities and LGBTQ+ Christian groups.

She once asked me to gather quotes to produce rainbow chi rho fish pin badges. I hope they got made.

I will always remember Kate, full of life and bursting with things to say, gesticulating dangerously with a cup of scalding hot tea. Recommending books, asking for opinions on a new website or digital game. Gently correcting all the things I’d get wrong about history or literature. Wise beyond her years and, just when you weren’t expecting it, devastatingly funny.

Kate, we will miss you.

Babs Guthrie was a colleague and friend of Kate Smith

Remember Kate

Kate’s chosen charity for donations is Pickering Hedgehog Rescue

Comments (1)

  1. sara wajid says:

    Like everyone who had the pleasure of knowing and working with Kate, this news has hit me hard – this is a terrible loss for her family, friends and beyond and she will be very much missed. Kate was an absolute original and lived and laughed in a way that made one feel hopeful but in no doubt of the seriousness of the challenges ahead of us all. Kate employed me as a freelance writer on UntoldLondon and gave me the best possible introduction into museum activism (though she would never have called it that). She was a modest trailblazer. I hope a collection of her brilliant writing will be made more easily available in the future – she can be read on the untoldlondon website archived on UK web archive for example here: https://www.webarchive.org.uk/wayback/archive/20081030034154/http://www.24hourmuseum.org.uk/london/news/ART58103.html?ixsid=qzy98NVY6Ui

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