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Blog post Part of special issue: Researching gender and sexuality

Unboxing gender in the fungi collections at the National Museum Wales

Kate Marston, Lecturer at Cardiff University

In recent years, educational research into gender and sexualities has turned to creative methodologies to respond to the widely documented difficulties for educators seeking to open up conversations around this sensitive topic. This has included work with the museum sector illustrating how their artefacts can inspire discussion about contemporary relationships and sexuality issues (Fisher et al., 2016).

‘Historically under-studied relative to flora and fauna, there has been an explosion of interdisciplinary scholarly and public interest in the “marginalised science” of fungi in recent years.’

This blog post shares emerging insights from a pilot project in which I worked with the National Museum of Wales to explore how fungi collections can be harnessed as stimuli for exploring changing cultural understandings of gender and sexuality. Historically under-studied relative to flora and fauna, there has been an explosion of interdisciplinary scholarly and public interest in the ‘marginalised science’ of fungi in recent years (Kaishian & Djouukian 2020). Working in partnership with botanical curators, youth workers, mycologists and environmental artists, six participatory research and engagement workshops were devised to explore the museum’s fungi collections and fungal ecology. A core group of five LGBTQ+ young people aged 22–28 years old volunteered to trial and refine these workshops.

Image 1: Cryptogamic Herbarium

A key observation was that fungi collections can be sites to explore changing cultural understandings of gender and sexuality. Curators of the museums’ cryptogamic herbarium (see image 1) explained how fungi came to be marginalised and classified as ‘lower plants’. This was due to the influential classificatory system developed by eighteenth-century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. Considered the ‘father of modern taxonomy’, Linnaeus drew on ideas of monogamous marriage between men and women to infuse nature with heteronormative and repro-centric ideas of gender and sexuality (Kelley, 2012). Consequently, it did a disservice to organisms such as fungi which reproduce invisibly via spores, without flowers or seeds, and confound heteronormative binary classifications of the natural world. Fungi are often described as non-binary. They are neither plants nor animals but possess qualities common to both groups. It is also rare for fungi to have only two biological sexes (Kaishian & Djouukian, 2020). Introducing the LGBTQ+ youth forum to these histories opened up new ways of thinking about how human values have influenced our understanding of the natural world. Participants also drew connections between these histories of classification and their own contemporary understandings of gender and the emerging taxonomies they encounter to describe diverse genders and sexualities.

Rob Cover (2018, p. 19) observes how young people are embracing an expanding lexicon of non-binary, fluid classifications and descriptors of gender and sexuality, often facilitated by social media, which ‘mirrors the institutional scientific labour of taxonomy’. As Cadai (pseudonym), a 22-year-old non-binary and asexual participant, observed: ‘on Tumblr I could be with people who were activists and they were nerds and I was also seeing gender labels that I had never seen before’. These vocabularies creatively challenge the focus on fixity and innateness in institutional authoritative discourses of gender identity and sexual orientation. Despite rapidly changing cultural attitudes towards gender and sexual diversity and the increasing visibility of LGBTQ+ youth, participants highlighted the enduring silences and spectacles surrounding trans and gender expansive youth within education. They noted that their identities were either subject to debate or banned from discussion. Binary notions of gender identity and expression were further reinforced through uniforms, changing rooms and sports.

Through the project, however, participants reflected that ‘learning about how fungi don’t fit into that binary is really cool and really important because everyone needs some role models and ways to connect themselves to the rest of the world’ (Cadai’s words). Arts-based workshops harnessed the allegorical potential of fungi to challenge constrictive norms of appearance and embodied expression. Fungi fruiting bodies come in all kinds of shapes, sizes and colours. Inspired by the wax model collection of fungi fruiting bodies in the museum, participants were invited to create their own fungi fruiting bodies using wax modelling clay before naming, describing and assigning these fruiting bodies to boxes (see image 2 and 3). In a group interview, Cadai embraced the figure of the fungi fruiting body to articulate how it feels to freely express one’s gender in a manner that is ‘loud and proud and as offensive as possible!’

Image 2: Cadai’s wax fruiting body

Image 3: Cadai’s wax fruiting body description

Overall, emerging insights from this pilot project indicate that the gendered and sexual history of botany collections can function as productive sites with which to engage with contemporary understandings of gender and sexuality. In an increasingly hostile context for trans and gender expansive youth, it is vital that we continue to hold space for affirmative and imaginative interventions that enable young people to creatively express their feelings and ideas about gender and sexuality.


Cover, R. (2019). Emergent identities: New sexualities, genders and identities in a digital era. Routledge.

Fisher, K., Grove, J., & Langlands, R. (2016). ‘Sex and history’: Talking sex with objects from the past. In L. Allen & M. Rasmussen (Eds). Handbook of sexuality education. Palgrave.

Kaishian, P., & Djoulakian, H. (2020). The science underground: Mycology as a queer discipline. Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience, 6(2).  

Kelley, T. (2012). Clandestine marriage: Botany and romantic culture. Johns Hopkins University Press.