Queer Matters

Image courtsey of Xander Karkruf.

Image courtesy of Xander Karkruff.

By:  Xander Karkruff

Queering the museum, just like the word “queer,” can mean different things to different people. I recently completed a thesis called “Queer Matters,” a degree requirement for the graduate program in Museum Exhibition Planning and Design at University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and landed upon two primary definitions. Queering the museum can be as straightforward as increasing visibility for queer constituencies in the museum, and as conceptual as subverting dominant discourses about sex, sexuality, and gender. My thesis came from both a personal interest in seeing more queer folks like me represented in cultural institutions as well as my academic interest in identifying and subverting heteronormative discourse in museum practice.

The theory underpinning “Queer Matters” is this: the way we talk about queerness in museums – in fact, the very act of speaking about it at all – can influence the way we talk about queerness in society. Given the museum’s role in legitimizing identity and enacting national values, queer representation is about restorative justice. After centuries of silence and omission, it is our right to be seen and heard and to take our place in the historic narrative. In “Queer Matters” I propose the concept of “ally practice” as a foundation from which museum professionals can build queer visibility into their practice and identify (and subvert) the influence of heteronormativity on all levels of the museum’s functioning. The product of the thesis is an outline for a series of ally practice workshops that introduce staff to issues affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans* and queer (LGBTQ) populations, on the premise that raising awareness is a catalyst for allyship.

As I researched and wrote and revised, I began looking at museums with an increased awareness of the effects of heteronormativity on museum practice. Heteronormativity, much like any other form of oppression, affords privilege (and the status of “normal”) to one group at the expense and marginalization of another. In our society, heterosexuality and gender conformity are considered “normal” while queerness and gender non-conformity are considered “abnormal,” resulting in a queer blind spot in our cultural and civic institutions. Museums are no exception. For example, when I saw the exhibition “1968,” created by the Minnesota Historical Society, I marveled that they didn’t include any mention of the gay rights movement that was building around the country at the time. The exhibition covered many other major social movements of the late 1960’s, including feminism and the sexual revolution, Vietnam War protests, workers’ rights, the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement. Why not gay rights? Whether the answer is a gap in knowledge, a dearth of material culture, or a lack of conviction that it is important enough to include, the cause is of a heteronormative nature. Heteronormativity, along with racism, sexism, ableism, and so on, is a force that shapes museum practice in spite of the politics and good intentions of museum professionals.

This was the essence of the problem – the queer “blind spot” in museums – that I set out to address in my thesis work. The case studies I conducted informed the conclusion in profound ways. One case study, the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in the UK, staged an exhibition called Queering the Museum which, akin to Fred Wilson’s “Mining the Museum” at the Maryland Historical Society, re-contextualized items in the collection to tell a queer story throughout their galleries. I also examined the Jane Addams’ Hull House Museum, where the discovery of a painting of Mary Rozet-Smith, Jane Addams’ lifelong companion, inspired the staff there to raise questions about Victorian-era same sex relationships and incorporate sexuality and gender themes into their programming. Through speaking to professionals at these institutions and others, I came to the elements that would make up the concept of ally practice:

  1. Queer visibility in the museum is radical in and of itself, and is a key component of any queering the museum project.
  2. Queering the museum must go beyond exhibitions about LGBTQ history and look at museum practice as a whole.
  3. Projects that prioritize queer visibility depend on the advocacy and support of institutional allies.
  4. Homophobia and heteronormativity manifest in myriad subtle ways, and queering the museum must begin by raising staff awareness about these issues.

Ally practice is enacted through three phases – Identify, Engage, and Process– that serve as guidelines for incorporating queer visibility into all levels of museum functioning, including administrative policies, collecting policies, exhibition and interpretation, marketing, etc. To summarize, the Identify phase leads participants through the process of learning to identify heteronormativity and how it manifests in museum practice. The Engage phase is where participants plan and carry out ally actions and make connections with queer constituencies, and the Process phase involves the evaluation of ally actions. The ally practice workshops serve as idea- and momentum-generating tools, and they make use of social justice training techniques to explore concepts such as the relationship between mainstream and margin, systemic oppression, and heterosexual privilege. Ideally, ally practice will be an ongoing effort and will inspire museum professionals to create avenues for the expression of intersecting identities.

I defended my thesis in March of 2014, and finally had some time to reflect on my project. During the process of researching and writing, I frequently doubted the validity of my thesis topic but brushed the doubts aside because I had deadlines to meet and no time to worry. I wondered if my own queerness would cause others to assume I was pushing my own agenda. I thought I would have to convince non-queer museum professionals to care about this topic. As I reflected, though, I realized that these thoughts were a product of internalized homophobia – a phenomenon I thought I had managed to escape. If I was doubting the validity of this project in an academic context (and only upon reflection realizing why), then I can only imagine how doubts like these could unconsciously effect people in a professional setting where one has a livelihood, not just a master’s degree, at stake. This revelation – that the external force of heteronormativity works in tandem with internalized homophobia to maintain the status quo – was proof to me that queering the museum needs constant advocacy, and not just from queer museum professionals like me. To change anything, we will need the help of allies.

Xander Karkruff recently graduated with an MFA in Museum Exhibition Planning and Design from University of the Arts, and is seeking employment in the field. Xander can be reached at xander.karkruff@gmail.com.

Project: Hidden Voices

The Reading Museum in Reading, UK recently developed a LGBT focused exhibit.  In the following post, the Reading Museum,  details the exhibition and its’ development. The timing of this exhibition supports the LGBT History Month int he UK and brings to life the unique role Reading, UK played in LGBT activism.

By: Bobby Smith

Project: Hidden Voices

Photo: Courtesy of Bobby Smith

Photo: Courtesy of Bobby Smith

The preview opening of the Hidden Voices was a landmark occasion in the history of the Reading Museum with  the Mayor of Reading, Cllr Tony Jones, and invited members of the Reading’s LGBT community in attendance.

Never before has the town centre venue hosted an exhibition focusing on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) heritage. The Hidden voices project has been a partnership between the Support U and the Reading Museum, aided with a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The idea was first conceived in 2012, when the charity’s founder, Lorna McArdle, lent the museum her Olympic Torch, which she had run though the town during the Olympic relay. Lorna had been selected for this honour as a result of her LGBT campaigning work. The museum Olympic year exhibition, ‘Bikes, Balls and Biscuitmen: Our Sporting Life’, displayed the torch with clear reference to it as an item of material culture with LGBT properties. This was seen as something of a ‘toe in the water’, testing how the museum could be open in representing, to its general audience, a minority group in Reading who define identity by sexual orientation. It is not an entirely straight forward subject matter, precisely because Reading is made up of such a diverse range of other communities, a small number of whom still hold the unenlightened attitudes towards homosexuality that only public discourse and education will counter.

Hidden History

Photo: Courtesy of Bobby Smith

Photo: Courtesy of Bobby Smith

Research into Reading’s hidden gay history, conducted by volunteers recruited by Reading’s LGBT Support U charity, sheds light on the town’s place in the story of homosexual oppression throughout the centuries. Through oral history recordings the project has also uncovered more recent local campaigns that have taken place in a journey towards gay liberation.

Here are a few examples of the scholarship we found:

Oscar Wilde’s incarceration in Reading Gaol in 1895 following his conviction for homosexuality is well documented and amongst the objects now on display at the museum is a Victorian prison key, which was recently donated to the collection by the Ministry of Justice after the prison’s closure in 2014. This key opened the master key safe at Reading prison during the period of Wilde’s imprisonment and, as such, must stand as one of the world’s most significant artifacts in relation the LGBT history.

Also on show is the Huntley and Palmers biscuit factory visitor’s book signed by Wilde on 22 September 1892. Wilde was amongst the society friends of Jean and Walter Palmer and three years before his downfall had been a guest at ‘Westfield’, their family home on Southcote Road.

It is less well known that 21 years before Wilde’s enforced stay, the French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud lived just a stone’s throw away from the prison, at 165 Kings Road. It was here, whilst working as a language tutor during the late summer of 1874, that he drafted Les Illuminations, generally considered to be his greatest work. An archetypical Enfant Terrible, Rimbaud’s up-front stance on homosexuality scandalised French literary society but, despite giving up writing at aged just 19, his influence on modern poetry and art has been pervasive.

In a remarkable further literary connection to Reading, Wilfred Owen, the Great War poet, spent formative years before the outbreak of hostilities as lay assistant to the vicar of Dunsden Church. Owen took an active part in the cultural life of Reading and in his spare time attended botany classes at the University College. His letters also reveal details of his visits to Reading Museum to see the Silchester collection of Roman antiquities.  He writes:  ‘Walked into Reading, went to Museum and joy of joys was shown all over Roman remains from Silchester. What a morning and what a museum!’

Owen’s sexual orientation was kept a closely guarded secret long after he was tragically killed in action, just days before the armistice. In an age when homosexuality remained outlawed, his friends and family saw the importance of preserving his reputation intact.

Above all these figures in LGBT history with a close association to Reading, it is perhaps John Wolfendan, Vice Chancellor of the University of Reading in 1954 when he was appointed chair of the Home Office committee debated changes to the laws relating to homosexuality. The Wolfenden Report recommending decriminalisation was published in 1957.

Despite the changes to legislation, prejudice against people on the grounds of their sexual orientation continued beyond 1967, when the recommendations of Wolfendan’s report finally became law. Indeed a report published by the

National Centre for Social Research in 2013 found that discrimination has remained widespread in subsequent decades. As such, by bringing the life and times of Reading’s LGBT community into a public spotlight, the ‘Hidden Voices’ project, represents a further milestone in promoting tolerance and acceptance.

As project manager Bobby Smith put it while speaking very movingly at the Hidden Voices preview event:

Photo: Courtney of Bobby Smith

Photo: Courtney of Bobby Smith

“Throughout the project I have learned that love, the beauty of it, the joy of it, even the pain of it, is the most incredible gift to give and to receive as a human being. And we all deserve to experience love fully, equally, without shame and without compromise

If all goes to plan this March, representatives from the Hidden Voices project will travel to Derby Museum to attend the concluding event of the inaugural Museum Association Transformers programme. This presents a good opportunity to disseminate the positive output of the Hidden Voices project, further afield. Perhaps it may encourage other similar local museums in the UK to consider the positive benefit that embracing partnerships with the LGBT community can bring. In Reading; besides deepening engagement with a wider set of social issues effecting gay people, by uncovering enlivening historical narratives the museum has positioned itself as a place of pilgrimage during this year’s LGBT history month. A final port of call for tourists might be St Marys Minster Church where, in 2003, but for the controversy surrounding his relationship with another man and his pronouncements on those others made in God’s gay image, Dr Jeffrey John might well have been moved to go through with his consecration as the first Gay Bishop of Reading in the world.

Reading Museum in the heart of Royal Berkshire England

Reading Museum was founded in 1883 and it’s Art Gallery in 1897. From its earliest days it collected broadly in the fields of Archaeology, Art and Applied Art, Natural History, Numismatics and Ethnography as well as objects relating to the history of Reading and its environs. Collections of international significance include the Romanesque stones from Reading Abbey, the Victorian copy of the Bayeux Tapestry, and the finds and records resulting from various excavations of the Roman town of Silchester.


Bobby Smith is the project manger for Hidden Voices Was to visually and orally bring the history of the Reading’s LGBT community to life by remembering what came before equality. By opening up the past and bringing understanding to the present, we can bring inspiration and education to future generations. To give a voice to those that had to be kept quiet. To open the mind that was once closed and to inspire the inquisitive.Together we can listen to the Hidden Voices so that the loneliness and fear can be heard. May the past be remembered so that the future can be unbiased and equal.

2014 has come and gone, now what?

2Barbie Hull Photography014 was a big year, full of research, travel, and more importantly connecting communities in museums. Nicole and I are going to carry on the work of QTM but before we are face to face with 2015, here is a recap of Revealing Queer:

  • Exhibition opened 2/14/2014
  • King County Executive Dow Constantine declared 2/14 King County’s Official LGBTQ History Day
  • RQ supported a 17 % Growth in MOHAIs digital communication channels, including 2,405 new followers
    • On MOHAI’s Facebook there was an increase of 1,014 followers or 14%
    • On MOHAI’s Twitter there was an increase of 1,007 followers or 16%, with 376.4k impressions.
        • 612 favorites
        • 3% average engagement
        • 204 Tweets about Revealing Queer
        • @MOHAI shared 31 tweets w/ #RevealingQueer
        • 45 total Favorites & 49 Retweets
    • On MOHAI’s Instagram there was an increase of 384 followers or 139%
      • 48 posts using #RevealingQueer
      • MOHAI posted 9 photos related to Revealing Queer on Instagram
    • During the run of the exhibition MOHAI launched a collections initiative to build their LGBTQ collections resulting inBarbie Hull Photography
      • An increased of their 3-d objects from 284 to 345 objects
      • All of the exhibition information went into the object records to advance the research of Northwest LGBTQ histories
      • MOHAI continues to look for LGBTQ related objects as they continue to research their collection
    • Public programs were incorporated into MOHAI’s educational offerings welcoming in over 1,000 people for the LGBTQ specific events, including:
      • Member Preview and Opening Night Celebration, February 2014
      • History Café—LGBTQ Seattle, February 2014
      • Safe Spaces Training, April 2014
      • American Alliance of Museums Onsight Insight—Insider’s Look at the Queering the Museum Project, May 2014
      • Revealing Queer Walking Tour: A History of Queering up [Capitol] Hill, June 2014
      • Revealing Queer Walking Tour: “The Queen City Comes Out”: A Walking Tour of Early, Queer Pioneer Square, June 2014
      • Pride Family Day, June 2014
    • MOHAI continues to build their relationships with LGBTQ communities by hosting Queer theme public programs with their History Café program, on February 19th MOHAI will host a History Café titled The Impact of HIV/AIDS in Seattle.

In reflection the partnership between MOHAI and QTM produced an exhibition that was well received, built capacity for MOHAI, and a benefit for the LGBTQ communities.


So now what?

Over the last year Nicole and I took a year off to gather our thoughts, write them down, and put them out there in the world. We have both been working to ensure that our work is useful to the field. In an attempt to continue our work we have decided to make use of this website as a resource to continue understanding how museums are engaging with Queer communities, ideas of other, intersectional approaches to the field, as well as emerging research addressing non-normative ideas of identity. This website will likely develop over time into more than a blog, but also into a forum for people to engage with these ideas. The 2015 comeback will allow this website to be useful for professionals across the world, and will grow to include the voices of a multitude of professionals. We invite you to share with us work that engages LGBTQ audiences; together we can create a more comprehensive understanding of the field and continue to advance LGBTQ engagement in museums.

Email us at queeringthemuseum@gmail.com

The Road to Revealing Queer

The pathway to developing the Revealing Queer exhibit was recently featured on the Incluseum blog.

Check out these posts for an interview with Curator Erin Bailey (Part 1 and Part 2) and some behind the scenes information about the development of the Digital Storytelling Workshop with Nicole Robert.

Revealing Queer opens February 14th!

Westlake Rally 1977-99.2.14

Protesters at a Westlake Rally, Seattle, 1977
Credit: Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Museum Project

Over the past year and a half curator Erin Bailey has collaborated with a Community Advisory Committee to develop Revealing Queer, an exhibition that explores the last 40 years of regional LGBTQ histories. The exhibition looks at legal reform, activism, community organizations and exceptional individuals that highlight the breadth of people and events that shape the diverse LGBTQ communities in the region. 

Using a Community Advisory Committee is not a new model, the Wing Luke Museum has mastered the process and tells a multitude of complicated histories in beautifully touching exhibitions. Queering the Museum project adopted the model to create an advisory committee that supported our symposium in 2012, the digital storytelling workshop and the Revealing Queer exhibition. This committee supported the exhibition by shaping the content, editing text, connecting us with objects and spreading the word. Our committee was dedicated to the process and tirelessly worked on this exhibition over the last year and a half. Without them the exhibition would simply not exist. We intentionally approached LGBTQ groups in the region to join the committee in October of 2011, finalizing the list early 2012. The organizations that accepted our offer include, API ChayaEntre Hermanos, Gay City Health Project, Ingersoll Gender CenterGender Alliance of the South SoundLily Divine ProductionsNorthwest Lesbian and Gay History Museum ProjectOasis Youth Center, Puget Sound – Old Lesbians Organizing for ChangeQueer Youth SpaceRainbow CenterSeattle Gay News and the University of Washington.

Revealing Queer opens on February 14, 2014 with a bang! Opening Night Celebrations start at 7 pm, come and groove to DJ SassyBlack (Cat of THEESatisfaction), watch queer burlesque performed my Lily Divine of Lily Divine Productions and Pidgeon Von Tramp of Pidgeon Coop Productions, play gay bingo hosted by Mama Tits, and join gallery tours led by Erin Bailey, Nicole RobertGeorge Bakan and Larry Knopp. Throughout the night Queering the Museum’s Digital Storytelling workshop films will be screened.

Interested? Can’t wait to go? Us too! Tickets are available here.  The ticket prices includes access to all of MOHAI’s exhibitions, including Drawn to Seattle and MOHAI’s permanent exhibitions.

RQ invitation

Following the opening join us on February 20th for a History Cafe that explores community history projects that are helping to save our histories. 

We can’t thank everyone who helped make this exhibit enough.  Through loaning objects, time and knowledge, Revealing Queer is truly a collective effort.

See you on the 14th!

Sistah Sinema Screening Digital Stories

We are excited to share that Sistah Sinema will be screening two of the digital stories created at the QTM workshop!  Sistah Sinema’s theme for their Nov. 30th event in Seattle is “Celebrating the Stories of Native American Queer Women.”   In a series of film shorts, the narratives of Dahlia Blackthorn and Jacque Larrainzar will be featured.  Both Jacque and Dahlia are QTM film makers and will be present at the Seattle screening to participate in a discussion of the films shown that night.  Learn more about the event here.  Hope to see you there!

Names, dates, oh my!

QTM curator Erin Bailey has been working round the clock with the MOHAI team and the Community Advisory Committee to nail down the logistics of the exhibition. We have come a long way from submitting our proposal to MOHAI just over a year ago and are still going full speed ahead!

First off we are excited to announce that,  with the help of the CAC, we have named the upcoming QTM exhibition. The exhibition is now going by the name Revealing Queer. Pretty chic or at least we think so.

We are still thinking about a tag line to accompany the exhibition, if you have any suggestions let us know! 

Our next order of business is the opening date, which is February 14, 2014. The exhibition will close in the beginning of July 2014, a nice long exhibition!

These are two critical steps that every exhibition must go through and we couldn’t be more thankful to the great team at MOHAI and our dedicated CAC.

Symposium Program

We are excited to announce the program for the upcoming Queering the History Museum Symposium.   Please join us on June 8th, from 10 am to 5 pm, at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle for the following presentations.  Registration opens at 9:45 am.

10:15 am to 10:30 am Opening Remarks

Leonard Garfield, Executive Director, Museum of History and Industry

10:30 am to 11:30 am Concurrent Sessions

Session 1: A Witness to History: Recording the Modern LGBT Movement from the Inside OUT Social Outreach Seattle
Presenters: Shaun Knittel, Founder and President, Social Outreach Seattle (SOSea) and Associate Editor, Seattle Gay News; Dru Dinero, SOSea Video Production Director, Founder and President, Visual Affairs

Session 2: Imperial Theme Park or Site of Resistance? The Case of The GLBT History Museum – GLBT History Museum San Francisco
Presenters: Gerard Koskovich, Curator and Independent Scholar;  Don Romesburg, Curator and Assoc. Professor at Sonoma State University;  Amy Sueyoshi, Curator and Assoc. Dean at San Francisco State University

11:45 am to 12:45 pm Concurrent Sessions

Session 1: Narrating Our Own Tales: A Queer Digital Storytelling Project  QTM Digital Storytelling Workshop Films and Filmmakers Panel
Presenters: Filmmakers– Isis Asare, Mian Carvin, Petra Davis, Margaret Elisabeth, Fia Gibbs, Caleb Hernandez, Jourdan Keith, Jacque Larrainzar; Project Coordinator–Nicole Robert

Session 2: Supporting Our History: A Foundation’s Role in Preserving Individual and Collective LGBTQ Histories Pride Foundation
Presenter: Gunner Scott, Director of Programs for the Pride Foundation

12:45 pm to 1:45 pm Lunch Break

Drop in Revealing Queer Exhibition Plan Review

1:45 pm to 2:45 pm Concurrent Sessions

Session 1: Snapshots and Snippets: Words of Wisdom Snatched from Oral Herstories of our Lesbian Foremothers Puget Sound-Old Lesbians Organizing for Change (PS-OLOC)
Presenters: Members of the Queer Crone Coordinating Council of PS-OLOC–Deirdre Knowles, Lin Simpson, Kathleen Prezbindowski, Suzanne Weinheimer, Gloria Stancich, Aganita Varkentine, Casey Hannan, Jolly Sue Baker

Session 2: Queer Histories in MOHAI’s Exhibits
Presenter: Curt Fischer, Community historian

3:00 pm to 4:30 pm Keynote Presentation

Doing It For Ourselves: Queer Museology Outside the Museum – Pop Up Museum of Queer History
Presenter: Hugh Ryan, Founding Director – The Pop-Up Museum of Queer History

4:30 pm to 4:50 pm Closing Remarks

5:00 pm to 6:30 pm Reception

We will conclude the evening with a celebratory reception from 5 pm to 6:30 pm on the historic steam ship Virginia V with a performance by Captain Smartypants from the Seattle Men’s  Chorus.  Food and drinks will be available.

Tickets are available now on the MOHAI website.  Hope to see you there!

*Please note: Program schedule is subject to change.

Digital Storytelling Success!

In April, our first group of 8 queer-identified individuals participated in a 4 day Digital Storytelling Workshop.  We asked them to work hard and they stepped up to the task!  By the end of the Workshop, they created scripts about important events in their lives, designed images and audio-tracks to enliven those scripts and recorded their own voices to narrate the story.  The results are creative and powerful messages representing very personal experiences of queer lives.  We are so grateful to our storytellers for sharing their powerful stories.  We will screen all eight 4 minute videos at the Queering the History Museum Symposium on June 8th.  Watch our website for future opportunities to view their stories in -person and online.

Thank you to Lily Divine Productions, Angelica Macklin, Rebecca Simms and Ron Krabill for your support of this project.  Big thanks to our Community Advisory Committee and the participants themselves.


Pictured are our Digital Storytellers: Isis Asare, Mian Carvin, Margaret Elisabeth, Jacque Larrainzar, Fia Gibbs, Petra Davis, Caleb Hernandez and Jourdan Keith.

History Makers

As we continue working with the Community Advisory Committee and MOHAI, we are diving into the Queer history of the Puget Sound searching archives and collections for our histories. Most recently we found un-catalogued and never before seen negatives in MOHAI’s collection. These negatives include a variety of topics such as ACT UP! marches, individual community members and one of the earliest celebrations of National Coming Out Day in Seattle. These are just the tip of the iceberg within the collections in and around the Puget Sound and we are excited to continue searching for our shared history.

As we keep digging and developing the exhibition we are looking for suggestions of who our “History Makers” are and who should be considered for inclusion in the exhibition. Our history is huge and our “History Makers” are many, while all of these individuals have made invaluable contributions to the Puget Sound the exhibition only addresses the last 40 years. However, if the “History Maker” falls outside of the last 40 years tell us anyways and we can find out more info about them! Together we can share our histories!

If you have ideas please leave a comment here with who is your “History Maker,” a few sentences why or email us at queeringthemuseum@gmail.com with “History Makers” in the subject line.

We look forward to seeing who you think is a “History Maker.”

Blog at WordPress.com.
The Esquire Theme.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 26 other followers