CRG@CGP: Class, Race, Gender, Sexuality, Ability, and Museums

“My training as a historian taught me that to separate ideas of class, race, gender, sexuality, and ability from their historical contexts is to miss their true meanings—the real power that they hold in American society to shape and define people’s lives.”

By: William Walker

Each spring for the past seven years, I have taught an interdisciplinary course at the Cooperstown Graduate Program in Cooperstown, New York that explores how museums are (or should be) engaging with issues of class, race, gender, sexuality, and ability in American society and culture.[1] My students and I start by reading classic fiction and non-fiction texts—such as Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk, Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children, Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers, and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. These texts serve as entry points for our discussions, which tackle everything from racial violence and stereotypes to LGBTQ rights and issues of accessibility. As a public historian, I encourage my students to connect past and present while exploring the landscape of museum exhibitions, programs, and other projects that address challenging social and cultural topics.

My training as a historian taught me that to separate ideas of class, race, gender, sexuality, and ability from their historical contexts is to miss their true meanings—the real power that they hold in American society to shape and define people’s lives. Even as we discuss historical narratives, however, my students and I think about contemporary society and critically analyze current museum practice. For example, this past spring, when examining representations of lynching—in Richard Wright’s fiction, the Without Sanctuary exhibition, and the work of artist Ken Gonzales-Day—we also spent time discussing the #BlackLivesMatter movement and followed #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson on Twitter. When it works, the course design allows for seamless integration of discussions of historical interpretation and contemporary issues.

Beyond historicizing, the core goal of the course is to hone cultural competency by developing skills for interacting with many different kinds of people and critically examining the personal biases we carry. My students and I practice constructive modes of engagement, which are deeply influenced by the dialogue methods of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. Key ground rules for class discussion are:

  • Use “I” statements.
  • Don’t look to anyone to represent a whole group of people.
  • Keep an open mind. The questions are often more important than the answers.
  • Practice mindful listening.
  • Engage in gentle inquiry. Ask questions to increase your understanding.
  • Notice how you feel internally and how others are reacting to what you are saying or doing.[2]

In my experience, students honor the guidelines scrupulously. On rare occasions, I have had to remind them of a particular guideline or intervene—gently—in a discussion. Typically, however, we are able to get right back on track after these momentary interruptions. Although our discussions can sometimes be intense, these and other ground rules keep the level of engagement civil and constructive. These modes of engagement carry over into other areas of their work, complementing the team building strategies we emphasize throughout the curriculum, and my expectation is that students will carry these life skills forward into their careers as museum professionals.

My students and I share the common objective of analyzing and brainstorming ways museums can engage productively with issues of class, race, gender, sexuality, and ability. To support this goal, each semester we compile a list of model museum projects (like Queering the Museum) and spend time discussing them in class. Students do in-class presentation and write posts for our course blog detailing these projects. Some examples from last spring are: “Community and Collaboration in Waves of Identity: 35 Years of Archiving,” “Hide/Seek: Raising Awareness of AIDS through Art,” and “Native American Voices: Come and Listen.”

When students leave my course, I expect that they will have an array of innovative museum project ideas at their fingertips from which they can draw in the future. For example, if they are asked to contribute suggestions for an exhibition on Chinese immigration, they will be able to refer to the New-York Historical Society’s Exclusion/Inclusion exhibit or the Museum of Chinese in America’s Waves of Identity. Similarly, if they are charged with developing an exhibition on gender and sexuality, they will have the touchstones of Hide/Seek and Revealing Queer to refer to. In this way, as museum professionals, they won’t be constantly reinventing the wheel, but rather they will build on the work of their predecessors.

Each time I teach the course, my students and I start by creating a list of ways museums can engage with issues of class, race, gender, sexuality, and ability. The list is never exactly the same, but typically it looks something like this.

Museums can:

  • Challenge stereotypes
  • Empower subaltern groups
  • Hire diverse staffs
  • Collaborate with communities of color
  • Explore cultural continuity and change
  • Collect material culture from groups that are underrepresented in museum collections
  • Run social programs
  • Conduct dialogues
  • Create inclusive and universally accessible spaces
  • Host symposia, workshops, and conferences
  • Take public stances against racism, classism, sexism, ableism, homophobia
  • Gather oral histories
  • Preserve historic buildings that relate to diverse audiences
  • Exhibit art by artists who address class, race, gender, sexuality, and ability in their work

Understanding what museums can do, and examining how others have done some or all of these things, is the first step toward creating a new generation of museum professionals who will make twenty-first-century museums more inclusive, engaging, vibrant, and essential institutions. Ultimately, I want graduates of our program to have the skills and knowledge to be able to develop exhibitions, programs, and digital projects about some of the toughest, but also most profoundly important issues in our society. My colleagues and I recognize that a single course cannot train students to accomplish these things. Consequently, we are constantly working on ways to infuse issues of class, race, gender, sexuality, and ability across the curriculum. I would love to hear how others are tackling similar challenges.


[1] The Cooperstown Graduate Program (SUNY Oneonta) is a two-year master’s degree program in history museum studies located in Cooperstown, New York.

[2] Most of our guidelines are drawn directly from, or are variations of, the guidelines shared with me by Sarah Pharaon, Senior Director, Methodology and Practice, Sites of Conscience.


Will Walker is associate professor of history at the Cooperstown Graduate Program (SUNY Oneonta). He is the author of A Living Exhibition: The Smithsonian and the Transformation of the Universal Museum and a lead editor for History@Work, the blog of the National Council on Public History.

Omecihuatl: Reclaiming Gender through Undocumented Stories

Queer Digital Stories: Looking Back This post is the first in a series written by participants of our queer digital storytelling workshop.  Below is the film created by Jacque Larrainzar, Omecihuatl, followed by thoughts about the experience of making this film.

The journey to create Omecihuatl started many years ago. I could say it started when I was very young and I was trying to makes sense of gender and sex. From a very young age I felt different, not girl, nor boy.  I could not find my place in the universe.  I felt lost, afraid and alone. Many years later, while I was doing research for my Queering the Museum Digital Story Project I found an interactive map of gender diverse cultures around the world. The introduction to the map said: “On nearly every continent, and for all of recorded history, thriving cultures have recognized, revered, and integrated more than two genders. Terms such as transgender and gay are strictly new constructs that assume three things: that there are only two sexes (male/female), as many as two sexualities (gay/straight), and only two genders (man/woman).” (“A Map of Gender Diverse Cultures” from Kuma Hina at These words confirmed something I suspected for a long time: There had been a time when my kind had a place in society, where we were part of a community and played a role.  I started to look for the history of “my tribe”.  I remembered a story I had heard as a child on one of the many trips I took to Teotihuacan with my grandfather. In 1992, I found a place in Mexico, Juchitan de las Mujeres, where gender and sexuality were very different from the construct imposed by Europeans on indigenous cultures.

There I learned that gender non-conforming people had been the first to die during the war of Conquest and its tales and lives erased in the name of a new male dominated religion.  Many of my friends died after being tortured, others disappeared. As in many other places, their stories had been erased from History. Today, LGBTQ people all around the world face the same dangers. I have been involved in the fight for LGBT and indigenous rights in Mexico from a very young age. I was more naïve than fearless then, I had been beaten up in the streets several times for “looking like a man” but when I found out that I was on the government black list for giving shelter to women who were organizing an independent union, for providing safe sex education to transgendered women in Chiapas, and helping teachers demand a fair salary, I had no idea of what I would have to face. In December of 1994 I was held against my will, raped and tortured for three days. I was told rape and torture would “cure me” from being a pervert. It did not work, in 1997 II became the first Lesbian from Mexico to receive political asylum based on my sexual orientation. I have continued to work for the civil and human rights of my communities and I laugh when I think that the work that almost killed me in Mexico has won me many awards in the U.S. – I guess, Citizenship has its privileges.

I believe my story is one of many and these stories deserve to be kept and to be heard by others.  Only then we will be able to break and overcome the cycle of violence that has taken so many lives over so many centuries.

Omecihuatl is the story of a personal journey to find my place in the Universe, an attempt to reclaim a legacy lost to me over centuries of oppression. It is a small piece of my soul that remembers and honors the lives and stories of all those, who like me, have struggled to find a place in the world and have had to fight to claim and Identity. Is a story about being undocumented, in more than one way, of coming out to find joy in being.

Omecihuatl is a story lived everyday by many others with whom I share the work to achieve justice and equality in a world where claiming to be indigenous could be more dangerous than claiming to be queer and where claiming both might mean a dead sentence. Is also a reminder to those who do not understand why we are “this way” that nothing can keep us from claiming our ancestry, our gender, our sex, our history, that we will always choose not to live in shame and to fight fear.

This little film is a small seed that I hope will bloom into a thousand flowers.

Jacque Larrainzar

QTMP Film maker and Artivists.


Queer Digital Stories: Looking Back

It is just over a year since the Revealing Queer exhibit at the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) closed, and over two years since the QTM Digital Storytelling Workshop took place.

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

The QTM project chose a digital storytelling workshop for several reasons:

  • We wanted to collect the stories of queer people that would add to the historical archive.
  • Digital stories are a complete narrative constructed by the subject of the story. We chose this method, as compared to oral histories, so that our subjects would have extensive control over the representation of their story.
  • Digital stories are an opportunity to creatively address the lack of material artifacts. Many of our storytellers did not have photos or objects that represented the story they wished to tell.  Instead, the digital storytelling model opened creative space to represent their narratives through collage, symbolic images and with voice and music.
  • Through collaboration and an intense sequence of two weekends, the digital stories are produced relatively quickly.
  • The final product of the digital storytelling workshop is a discrete and portable narrative that can be shared in museums, but also is an accessible historical artifact that can be viewed online and at group screenings.
  • The completed digital story could be shared with QTM’s audiences, but would ultimately be owned by the story-teller. This was important in our quest to share authority and ownership of queer histories beyond the temporary partnerships that were formed in support of the Revealing Queer exhibit at MOHAI.
  • Working together, rather than in isolation, the workshop model of the digital storytelling process creates opportunities to build community, even temporarily, that may have personal impacts beyond the films themselves.

The workshop was designed and facilitated by Angelica Macklin and Nicole Robert, with the help of Rebecca Sims.  The films were created by eight queer storytellers, each with their own unique identities within the framework of queerness.

So, what happened?

We asked the filmmakers to share their reflections on being a participant in this workshop, now that time has passed. We wanted to know what impact the workshop itself had on their lives, as well as the personal impact of the films they produced.  Several of them responded.  We are excited to share these with you In the following months.  Check back soon!

Rocking the Boat: Exhibition Methods of Storytelling the Experience of Gender & Sexuality in Museums

Cover of TIME Magazine, May 2014 featuring Laverne Cox.

Cover of TIME Magazine, May 2014 featuring Laverne Cox.

By: Sarah Olivo

In May 2014, transgender activist and actress, Laverne Cox, graced the cover of Time Magazine heralding the “Transgender Tipping Point.” In the past year alone, we have seen athletes and celebrities question the gender binary, including the first U.S. President to ever use the word “transgender.” This is indeed a tipping point in our culture. Museums are considered the keepers of culture and their reflections of human experience tell our stories and help to better understand one another. Historically, museums have failed to tell the stories of marginalized voices, specifically of gender and sexual identity. The absence of these exhibited stories allows stereotypes and misconceptions to remain unchallenged. “Incorporating identity at the most basic level of sexual identity is an important part of realizing that we all see the world through our own lenses – and sometimes those lenses provide differing views of how it is to live in the world. This then begs the question, just where is queer in the museum world?” (Fraser, 2008, p. 7).

This research was in partial fulfillment for my graduate thesis in the Masters of Museology program at the University of Washington. The goal was to identify and describe emerging models for telling or sharing stories of female-identified and LGBTQ experience in museum exhibition. The research investigated exhibition methods of four different projects focused on historically marginalized stories based around sexual and gender identity. Data was collected through open-ended interviews with professionals directly involved in the projects and exhibits. An acknowledged self-reflexive position informed through the methodological lens of feminist standpoint theory encouraged a dialogue between “participants” instead of “subjects.” “A feminist perspective on the in-depth interview process reveals that it is more of a conversation between co-participants than a simple question and answer session” (Geiger, 2004, p.407). The identified four projects and exhibits, the professional directly involved, and examined narratives include:

  • The aSHEville Museum in North Carolina, with a focus on their permanent exhibit Appalachian Women, featuring The Life of Wilma Dykeman, Asheville native who wrote many novels on feminism, womanhood, and environmentalism; exhibit developer Greta Ouziad was interviewed.
  • The GLBT History Museum in San Francisco, California, the first of its kind in the United States and celebrates 100 years of queer history; executive director Paul Boneberg was interviewed.
  • The exhibition Revealing Queer, a temporary exhibit at the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) in Seattle, Washington that looked at the fifty year LGBTQ history in the Puget Sound region; museum educator Erin Bailey was interviewed.
  • The Digital Storytelling Project, which profiled eight identified queer individuals to create digital stories over two workshop weekends and was a partnership with the exhibit, Revealing Queer; museum professional and academic Nicole Robert was interviewed.

During research interviews, the voice of the community was more than once described as the ocean, and the museum as a boat. Changes to museums are not the result of calm waters. But ultimately, identity-based museums can offer safe harbor and all museums can provide opportunities for inclusivity within their exhibition rotation. The results of this work will add to the growing body of research around museums as platforms for social change through authentic representation, educational storytelling, and inclusivity.


            This research has revealed a collection of approaches when interpreting personal stories of marginalized experience, specifically the female-identified and LGBTQ identity:

  • Research as Foundation
                A similar theme between all participants was research as the formidable foundation. “Making sure that information is credible and matches from one source to another is important, especially for historical exhibits” (G. Ouziad, personal communication, March 3, 2015). They also stressed the importance of acknowledging the field’s past work so to understand the history associated with this exhibition practice to provide supportive materials for future methods.
  • Transparency

Community involvement is a critical way to create authentic storytelling. To achieve this, recruiting for participation in the project must be done alongside initial development. This positions the museum outward and brings various identities inward, switching roles to counteract the historic institutional power imbalance. Three out of four participants indicated the importance of transparency with the community, and the necessity to thoroughly articulate how the museum functions throughout the process.

  • Facilitation

The role of the museum as facilitator was highlighted by all four participants. Acting as an archival sponge that captures all the community has to offer and navigates the translation into museum quality exhibits.

  • Bridge building partnerships

The findings support the value of collaborative dialogue as an informed and proactive approach to doing intersectional museum work.  The importance of language is to make sure all have the same tools and definitions when constructing a narrative, acknowledging that not everyone “speaks” museum, feminist, or queer. Rebuilding partnerships to create bridges, is key to creating access. “Museums have the capability to decide what kind of experience the visitor leaves with” (Gurian, 2006, p. 150).

  • Accessibility to location/space/time

Access to location, space to tell your story, and spare time to commit, are all privileges. The museum asks a great deal of those involved in what they

GLBT History Museum. San Francisco, CA. March 3, 2015. Photo credit: Sarah Olivo.

GLBT History Museum. San Francisco, CA. March 3, 2015. Photo credit: Sarah Olivo.

hope to create, therefore the museum must recognize the reciprocal relationship they have with the community. The importance of location, space, and time sheds light on the importance of temporality of one’s place in the socio-cultural context. This act of finding an alternative space, safe haven, is similar to the idea of third space feminism, which was created in response to the exclusion of women of color and indigenous voices within the feminist movement.

  • Cautious not to marginalize the marginalized

The museum should strive to intentionally acknowledge those marginalized even within an already marginalized context. Every participant mentioned the challenge of lack of stories and omissions in exhibit canons. The museum professionals must listen for silences and gaps in the narrative, what cannot be articulated by objects or what has yet to be said. Both Revealing Queer and the GLBT History Museum spoke of discrepancies representing the transgender community.  Whether due to severe oppression even within the LGBTQ context or just overall lack of material, the transgender experience has been one of overt oppression.

  • Look ahead not just at historical data

Most exhibitions pertaining to this topic are historical cartographies. While this is necessary and should hold a place in exhibition narratives, there must also be representations of contemporary experiences. This will indicate the changing community and cultural shifts by acknowledging a current lived life outside traditional social norms.

  • Valuing yourself, your story, your objects

What is an exhibition without objects? The research exposes a lack of physical material for exhibitions of personal marginalized experiences. Queer history has not been well documented in museums, and what has been considered “other” has unfortunately not held value in the societal eye of the past. Erin Bailey discussed how it was difficult to find originals, as

Photo of GLBT History Museum. San Francisco, CA. March 3, 2015. Photo credit Daniel Nicoletta.

Photo of GLBT History Museum. San Francisco, CA. March 3, 2015. Photo credit Daniel Nicoletta.

there were mostly reproductions of flyers or meeting minutes, not the actual piece that would make an exhibition authentic. She commented that this was due to the historical lack of trust between the community and the museum. “In regards to collecting, what gets kept and what doesn’t get kept is a lot of queers in the community have the objects and multiples of them and they don’t trust anyone in the institution so they put their objects, their ephemeral objects, in multiple archives for fear that one day they will be deaccessioned” (personal communication, March 5, 2015). In addition to lack of trust issues, many of the materials may not be available. Nicole Robert discussed this discrepancy, in particular among the more marginalized communities even within LGBTQ collections, this broken access to their memorabilia could possibly be due to broken relationships with family origin, challenges with maintaining employment or home. The GLBT History Museum also acknowledged this lack of materials as due to the possibility that objects were not kept because they were thought to have no research value. Paul Boneberg spoke about how the GLBT History Museum are beginning to acquire materials for the archive by asking, “What items are we missing from our collection to tell the stories we want to tell?” (personal communication, March 2, 2015).

  • Leave room to add to the archive

Missing objects, a critical feature for exhibition of personal stories of gender and sexual identity, must be collected in other nontraditional forms. Described by all four participants, doing this sort of work is a new role within the museum field, and a response to the ever-growing stories of these communities. Nicole Robert described this as the Digital Storytelling Project’s intention: “Not just to create this intervention but to have some sort of enduring impact on what gets collected [as well as] addressing some of the issues around what counts as LGBT objects” (personal communication, March 12, 2015). These digital works created an artifact that did not exist before and they tell a story that may have not been possible.

The feminist movement and LGBTQ lives are an expansive and unfolding narrative. It is wide, unmanageable, and natural, like the ocean. In order for the museum to reflect and stay relevant to their communities, they must continue to add to their archive. Whether through a social media hashtag or post-its suggesting changes, the museum must offer opportunities to add experience. Revealing Queer did this as Erin Bailey described, “We left it open for people who were coming to add on historical facts, to add on information to the labels or text that we may or may not didn’t have” (personal communication, March 5, 2015). Another method for additions to the archive is the collection of oral histories. This was mentioned by every participant and spoke about with great passion as a reliable and innovative source. Oral histories make it possible to create

GLBT History Museum. San Francisco, CA. March 3, 2015. Photo credit: Stephanie Wilkes.

GLBT History Museum. San Francisco, CA. March 3, 2015. Photo credit: Stephanie Wilkes.

linear and non-linear narratives. This encourages the present material to catch up with the past, allowing for a more current representation than the typical historical exhibition. The GLBT History Museum has engaged oral histories as a reliable method in many of their exhibitions. One example includes the enigmatic History is Now: The Dragon Fruit Project, which showcases an intergenerational historical preservation project within the queer Asian Pacific Islander (API) community in 2013. One of the labels describing the Project read, “Out of the 710 collections in the archive, no more than a handful documents queer Asian Pacific Islanders. As perhaps the first generation of openly out API queer and transgender activists approach their seventies, their history from the 1970s and 1980s may literally be lost” (GLBT History Museum). This created an intergenerational conversation on activism, coming out, love, life, and brought youth closer to their elders.

            An analogy that emerged through the research interviews was the idea of the museum as a boat, which sits atop the water which is the community. Paul Boneberg mentioned this many times in context to the GLBT History Museum. “We exist on this kind of ocean of the community input” (personal communication, March 2, 2015). The boat follows the tides, and as the tides move, the museum moves with it. Waves also have the capability to shift the boat. Created by wind, the wave metaphor could be considered an outside influence. Socio-cultural motivations affect the community, thereby “moving the waters to create waves” that shift the boat. The boat, or in this case the museum, must navigate the change in the waters to stay afloat and sail successfully.

As with any research, this explorative paper and its results do not generalize to all museum exhibition practices and have their limitations. The projects were selected because they are atypical and not representative of general museum institutions or audiences, but can provide a map for institutions that are keen to weave more voices into their exhibit space.

In order for a boat to float it needs the buoyancy of water. The more museums embrace the value of community investment to their exhibits and harness the winds of change, the farther their boats will sail. Exhibiting the experiences of female-identified and LGBTQ lives holds endless opportunity to defy systematic oppression. Creating space for experiences to be shared will teach us about the past and usher in positive change for the future. The range of experience, like the ocean, will never be fully contained, but a deep respect for its voices facilitates sustainable partnerships. The museum and the community can exist in harmony, as a boat sails across water. The open water presents journeys of discovery, just like museums.

Sarah Olivo is a recent graduate from the Master of Museology program at the University of Washington. She currently works at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle and plans to continue to pursue opportunities of authentic storytelling, immersive experiences, and educated social change as practice.


Fraser, John and Joe E. Heimlich. (2008). “Where is Queer?” Museums & Social Issues: A Journal of Reflective Discourse, 3(1), p. 6-14.

Geiger, Susan. (2004). “What’s So Feminist about Women’s Oral History?” In Feminist Perspectives on Social Research, Edited by Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber and Michelle L. Yaiser, 399- 410. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gurian, Elaine. (2006). “Civilizing the Museum: The collected Writings of Elaine Heumann Gurian,” New York: Routledge.

Mertins, Donna M., John Fraser, and Joe E. Heimlich (2008). M or F? Gender, Identity and the Transformative Research Paradigm. Museums & Social Issues: A Journal of Reflective Discourse, 3(1), p. 5-160.

Scott, Joan W. (1991). “The Evidence of Experience.” Critical Inquiry, 17(4), p. 773-797.


Exhibit Critique – Speaking Out and Legendary

Citywide banners announce the celebrations. Photo courtesy Xander Karkruff.

Citywide banners announce the celebrations. Photo courtesy of Xander Karkruff.

By: Xander Karkruff

2015 in Philadelphia has been a fabulously gay year for museums: we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of one of the first sustained gay rights demonstrations to happen in the city with a year-long series of events and exhibitions. The Annual Reminder Days, as the demonstrations came to be known, were held in front of Independence Hall from 1965 to 1969 to remind onlookers that homosexual citizens were still denied the “unalienable” rights outlined in our founding documents. The William Way LGBT Community Center is behind the coordination of the city-wide celebrations; some of the events deal directly with the Annual Reminder Days, while others focus on specific demographics of the community, like an artifact installation and LGBT story-collection project at the National Museum of American Jewish History.

Up until recently, queer history has been relatively absent from the museum world. This year, though, Philadelphia has been inundated with queer history. Exhibitions taking place in museums across the city contribute to a greater public understanding of the issues that affect LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer) communities; however with their centralization of cisgender white gays and lesbians and the fight for marriage equality, some of the exhibitions in Philadelphia might give the impression that equality has been achieved and the struggle is over. The purpose of this essay is to critique and compare two exhibitions: Speaking Out for Equality: The Constitution, Gay Rights, and the Supreme Court at the National Constitution Center (NCC) and Legendary: Inside the House and Ballroom Scene at the African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP). Through the process of critique, I hope to inspire other museum professionals to learn from and build on projects like these.

A common thread throughout Speaking Out and Legendary is the often life-saving force of community in the lives of LGBTQ individuals, and the creative means by which people seek out and celebrate community. As a queer person, that theme resonates with me, and as a museum professional I see that theme as an effective way of inviting non-queer visitors to empathize with the LGBTQ experience. Speaking Out features Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings, two prominent Philadelphia gay rights activists who helped organize the Annual Reminder demonstrations. The exhibit begins with the first Annual Reminder in 1965 and outlines the LGBTQ rights movement through key Supreme Court cases that have either helped or hindered the movement. Legendary at AAMP is an exhibition of the photographs of Girard Gaskins depicting the house ballroom scene in Philadelphia and surrounding areas. His photographs portray queer and trans people of color engaged in a celebration of identity and community. It stands in stark contrast to Speaking Out which primarily follows the stories of cisgender white gays and lesbians from mid-century to today. These exhibitions couldn’t be more different – in fact, it’s hard to compare them with such dramatic differences in content and design. But seen together they present a more holistic picture, complete with implicit divisions and conflicts, of LGBTQ lives and activism.

The 14th Amendment leads visitors to the “Speaking Out” entrance. Photo courtesy the National Constitution Center.

The 14th Amendment leads visitors to the “Speaking Out” entrance. Photo courtesy of the National Constitution Center.

Speaking Out was created by the William Way LGBT Community Center in partnership with the National Constitution Center. The exhibition drew from the extensive archives at William Way, and borrowed some objects from local museums to illustrate the gay rights movement through constitutional law. In conversations with various people involved in creating Speaking Out, I learned that the focus on constitutional law was a constraint placed on content by the NCC with the justification that the exhibit needed to directly relate to the museum’s mission: to “disseminate information about the United States Constitution on a non-partisan basis.” This is noteworthy because past feature exhibits – like the one about Bruce Springsteen – have not met such stringent demands. Given the constraints on content, the designers did a fantastic job of bringing the information to life using color, video, scenic tableaus, a couple of minimal but surprising interactive features, and personal stories.

The exhibition effectively illustrated what it was like to be gay in the 1960’s (when one was either a criminal or mentally ill, or both), and how that has changed over time as public attitudes and laws have changed. One of the highlights was, to my surprise, a graphic chart that outlined the 1986 Supreme Court case Bowers v. Hardwick, in which the court ultimately denied gay people the right to consensual sex within the privacy of their own homes. Learning about cases like this one illuminated the many ways that constitutional law has infringed upon the freedoms that heterosexual people take for granted: the right to consensual sex, the right to be the legal guardian of your child, the right to care for your terminally ill spouse, the right to employment.

Installation of lobotomy instruments in the National Constitution Center’s feature exhibition, “Speaking Out for Equality: The Constitution, Gay Rights, and the Supreme Court.” Loan courtesy of the Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Photo courtesy of the National Constitution Center.

Installation of lobotomy instruments in the National Constitution Center’s feature exhibition, “Speaking Out for Equality: The Constitution, Gay Rights, and the Supreme Court.” Loan courtesy of the Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Photo courtesy of the National Constitution Center.

The most memorable part of Speaking Out  was the section “Being Gay in Postwar America.” Cases featuring lobotomy instruments, handcuffs, and bully sticks, as well as graphic panels displaying anti-gay propaganda, illuminated the hostile environment that LGBTQ people were forced to live in. Exhibit props like a television and a typewriter were evocative of the time period and also displayed content that supported the story arc. This section had a good balance of heavy and light moods; my favorite part was an unmarked door (ahem: closet) that I opened to reveal a graphic panel and case depicting the various ways queer people found each other when speaking openly about queer identity was so dangerous. Learning about speakeasies and queer publications was a wonderful way to allow visitors a glimpse into LGBTQ methods of resistance and persistence.

My main point of contention about Speaking Out  is that it portrays a decidedly white, cisgender perspective without any transparency about why that is so. The acronym “LGBT” was used throughout to refer to the gay rights movement and the people involved in the movement spanning half a century. I found this to be misleading and problematic. The Annual Reminder demonstrations in Philadelphia were organized and attended by gay men and lesbians who wanted to show that homosexuals looked just like straight people. This was illustrated well in the exhibit, and the photos and videos from the demonstrations almost universally depicted white men and women dressed according to gender norms of the time. But the content did not delve into who was not included in the demonstrations (and what they were doing to resist and persist), and the overall absence of trans and QTPOC (queer and trans people of color) voices throughout the exhibition made it seem like the “T” was just for show. It would have been nice to know how trans and gender non-conforming folks were part of the early gay rights movement, and transparency about constraints on content, available resources, and terminology could have addressed this absence.

In the section that addresses Stonewall, white faces are featured. Where are the faces of QTPOC? Photo courtesy the National Constitution Center.

In the section that addresses Stonewall, white faces are featured. Where are the faces of QTPOC? Photo courtesy of the National Constitution Center.

There was a missed opportunity when the storyline of Speaking Out  briefly touched on Stonewall. A text panel mentioned that the 1969 riots were led by gay men, lesbians, and drag queens, and fomented a more radical approach to demanding equality. This would have been the perfect opportunity to mention Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, two trans women of color who were leaders of the riot and instrumental to the newly invigorated movement. But they were left out of the picture (or, perhaps, lumped under the misnomer of “drag queen”) to the detriment of the overall story. The recent uproar  over the yet-to-be-released movie Stonewall and its whitewashing of the 1969 riots demonstrates how reluctant mainstream media still is to celebrate QTPOC figures. I believe that museums can do better; that, broadly speaking, it is the responsibility of museums to fill in the gaps left by the mainstream media, not to mention our history text books. In talking about LGBTQ history in museums it is crucial to recognize that each component of the acronym has been instrumental in the evolution of the movement, and that many of our most vulnerable members have been neglected in the mainstream movement’s focus on cis, white, middle-class desires.

A view of the main gallery space where “Legendary” is displayed at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. Photo courtesy Xander Karkruff.

A view of the main gallery space where “Legendary” is displayed at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. Photo courtesy of Xander Karkruff.

Legendary, on the other hand, provides an intimate portrait of the QTPOC demographic so obviously absent from “Speaking Out.” Where the latter is centered on events that mandated conformity with heteronormative values, the photographs in Legendary rupture those values with exquisitely styled gusto. An introductory text panel stated that house balls were “born in Harlem out of a need for black and Latino queers to have a safe space to express themselves. […] The participants work to redefine and critique gender and sexual identity through an extravagant fashion masquerade.” Where the overall message gleaned from Speaking Out could be that equality = conformity, the message of Legendary might be that liberation = self-expression. Girard Gaskins’ photographs depict queer and trans people of color in the throes of celebration, performing in or preparing for house ball competitions. His photographs capture an infectious mix of defiance, joy, and virtuosity, allowing us access to a community that is rarely celebrated on the walls of a museum.

Gerard Gaskins explains his approach to collaborative portraits. African American Museum in Philadelphia. Photo courtesy Xander Karkruff.

Gerard Gaskins explains his approach to collaborative portraits. African American Museum in Philadelphia. Photo courtesy of Xander Karkruff.

The most salient part of this exhibition was a series of studio portraits in which Gaskins inverts the observer/observed relationship. He explains, “It is my belief that image makers have a responsibility to collaborate with the communities they portray. […] This work is intended to make the observers confront the subject and, by extension, look deeply into themselves.” This collaborative approach, creating the possibility of self-representation, is why “Legendary” stands out to me: the museum world has been abuzz with the idea of collaboration and relocating authority, and Legendary gets to the heart of why that is so important. These photos place control and authority in the hands of their subjects, resulting in a very different kind of representation than the curator/historian-as-authority model used in Speaking Out.

The design of the exhibition itself wasn’t remarkable, and there were inconsistencies in the typeface used on the text panels that I found a bit distracting. Overall I was too absorbed in the emotional moments that Gaskins masterfully captures to be bothered by it. The white walls and simple layout in the small gallery space allowed the photographs to speak for themselves, and each one pops with color and movement. There was also a triad of monitors showing videos on a loop, each with two pairs of headphones and a bench for viewers. I spent several minutes at each monitor; the interviewees expanded on the photographs in important ways, speaking about their experiences at the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality in a way that was altogether refreshing in a museum setting. One interviewee, a black, queer transmasculine person, spoke about the very real threat of police brutality for QTPOC. These words clue the viewer in to the fact that the LGBTQ movement needs to be an intersectional movement; that the kind of police harassment referenced in Speaking Out is not, in fact, a relic of the 1960’s for so many queer and trans people of color.

Fortunately, there are other exhibitions that are part of the 50th anniversary celebrations that highlight trans, gender-nonconforming, and QTPOC voices. Defiant Archives: Trans Histories of Existence, Resistance, and Brilliance is open at William Way through September. The community-curated exhibit includes materials from the archives as well as personal items representing 50 years of activism. Still, I wish that “Speaking Out” had included more references to trans and QTPOC activists. Speaking Out,  being located at the National Constitution Center, will draw a much broader crowd than either Legendary or Defiant Archives. It will be seen by thousands of tourists from across the country and the world, representing myriad political and religious beliefs, who head to Independence Mall to get their American history fix. By dint of location, both Legendary and Defiant Archives are likely to draw a crowd already invested in the issues at hand. Of course, location is a key factor in the shaping of content, and it is no surprise that the exhibit at the NCC is focused on the aspects of the LGBTQ movement that are most palatable to middle-class white heterosexuals (ie. the right to marry, have children, and serve in the military).

Ultimately, both Speaking Out and Legendary were enjoyable and informative. I learned things, I felt proud of the history I share with generations of queer activists, and seeing both exhibitions together made me want to learn more about the divisions, conflicts, and celebrations of community within the LGBTQ movement. One of the most important conversations we can have in the museum – transparently, involving the public – is about who gets represented, who gets left out, and why. These exhibitions have laid the groundwork for that conversation: let’s keep the momentum going.

Xander Karkruff is very newly employed (since Speaking Out opened) as an Exhibit Technician at the National Constitution Center, where she sees lots of opportunities to incorporate intersectional feminism into museum practice.

Dr. Lonnie Bunch on LGBTQ engagement

“I am subversive the best I can.” Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, discusses the place of sexuality and LGBTQ people in museums, the tensions of leading a national and community museum, and why the African American story is a global one.

 by Andrea Rottmann


AR: Dr. Bunch, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with me today. I would like to talk with you about your take on community museums and national museums and the different kinds of work they do, or similar kinds of work, about sexuality in museums and about the visibility of LGBTQ people in museums. My first question is about the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which to me seems to be both a community museum and a national museum. Does that present challenges?

LB: It presents challenges because people expect it to be a community museum. And in many ways, the community aspect is crucial, but it’s really just a lens to look at the bigger national issues. That’s what makes it a little tough on people. Some people are going to say, you’re talking about what this means for American identity, instead of saying more about the Civil Rights Movement. Basically, I don’t buy the dichotomy. We’re using the community to get at a national story, which is very different than any other ethnically specific museums. I even hate that term. Because I think that we’re not, I think we’re an American History museum. That’s the way I feel.

AR: But still there is now a National Museum of African American History and that is its own building and its own museum, so there seems to be a need still.

LB: A great need. What I think is that we can do many things. We can fulfill the community’s need to find a space that remembers, to find a space that honors, to find a space that is both inspirational and prods a community to strive harder for the future, as well as say that all of that community is so powerful, and has profoundly shaped America’s notions of itself. How do we make sure we can do both? I think part of it is literally walking through each exhibit. I actually have the curators tell me: What’s the community story? What’s the national story? In a very linear way. Just so I don’t miss it. And then how we frame the entire museum is really the challenge for us.

AR: To me, it always seems so difficult to connect traumatic history with the need to represent also a great history, a history of overcoming trauma, overcoming violence. And to instill pride, but to stay critical, I guess.

Lonnie Brunch. Photo credit: Andrea Rottmann

Lonnie Brunch. Photo credit: Andrea Rottmann

LB: I think there are a couple things that we wrestle with. One is the realization that there are a lot of people who don’t want the critical story. Because one, they’re worried about victimization, that that’s not a positive story. There are people who say, whatever you do, don’t talk about slavery, but I wish I was as strong as my enslaved ancestors. So what I’m trying to do is put it on its head, to say that this is a story that’s gotta talk about tragedy, separations of family, brutality. But the other side of it is that this is a community that didn’t break during that. Trying to find the right tension, that’s what I’m trying to do for all these questions. If I’ve got the right tension I’ve got it.

AR: What do you do when people are so afraid of controversy?

LB: A couple of things. One is, you’ve gotta figure out, how do you give people those moments where they are gonna cry. And then how do you find those other moments where they find that resilience. It’s about juxtaposition. It’s about basically saying, this is a place that you will find both. Because only by finding both do you find an accurate history. At one point the designers were so convinced that the important things show violence, that they wanted to do a violence line through the entire museum. And I said that makes no sense. You don’t define a people by violence. But you don’t run away from that. So it’s almost like I would walk you through each exhibit, and would be able to say to you, here’s where we find that tension. I also know that in some ways, this is a story where anytime America’s notions of liberty have been extended, it’s been tied to the African American community. So, regardless of the pain, that gives them the sort of centrality in shaping America’s identity.

AR: With a history that has often been very violent, you have objects that speak of that violence, that are often objects with enormous emotional force. How do you balance having these very strong objects that make many people cry, or lose their words, with objects that just in terms of their materiality, don’t seem as strong, even though they have incredibly strong stories in them, like maybe a letter or a diary?

LB: I spend a lot of time talking to educational psychologists and folks who handle that kind of almost post-traumatic stress. Part of it was that there are people in the museum who are there to help visitors negotiate that – rather than leave it simply to the way I juxtapose objects, actually have people there. But I’m also trying to find ways to tell different stories in ways that people understand. For example, there’s a letter I have that is really someone’s freedom papers. He gained his freedom in 1850. It talks about who owned him, and how he gained his freedom. Because he knew that was the only thing that would protect him, he actually made what he called a tin wallet, a handmade tin wallet, and he put it in, because he didn’t want the sweat from work, or anything else, to affect it. Every night, according to family lore, he would take it out, put it back in the wallet, and he would tell his family, “That’s the key to our freedom.” And so the family kept that. They gave it to us. We’re going to use that to tell the story, one of the stories of slavery, but through that letter. The other side is, we have the coffin of Emmett Till. Do we display it? I decided, yes. How do you do that? So really it’s taking each object that has that power and trying to figure out what’s the best way to frame it to give people the experience of it, but not so that the object overwhelms the broader story.

AR: So how did you do that with Emmett Till’s coffin?

LB: I knew his mother before she died, and she used to say that the most important thing she ever did was to make that casket open, so the world could see what they did to her son. So I said, OK, that’s going to be our framework. But how do we do it, do we just put it in a case? And I decided to tell the story of Emmett Till through the mother’s words. So that you enter a room, and the first part of the room is the story told through her words, and then she leads you to the funeral. And the casket is set like it was at the funeral in the church. So for some people, that takes some of the sting off, but you still find the pain. The question that I haven’t answered yet is do you do something in the casket that, you know, shows his face? I don’t think I want to do that. But that’s a debate that we’re having now, trying to make last-minute decisions on that.

AR: So the way to do that would be using photographs?

LB: Photographs, yes.

AR: You were talking about how you don’t like the term “ethnic museum,” and I get that, and how I understand that is that that makes it too easy to compartmentalize, right? I feel like for many people, it’s easy to say, African American history is something for African Americans. And I think in a similar way they will say, LGBTQ history is something for LGBTQ people, and it doesn’t affect us, and it doesn’t tell important stories for us. It’s not important for us to study that to understand our own stories. I know that there’s been discussion of founding an LGBT History Museum, a national museum. What are your thoughts on that?

LB: Well, personally, I would be very supportive of a museum that explores that community as a way to help us all understand how it has shaped our sense of self. When I was president of the Chicago Historical Society, I created “Out at CHS.” And I did it for really three reasons. One is, since my whole work had always been about communities, but the Out at CHMcommunities were defined as ethnic or racial, I thought, let me expand the notion. So I did a big thing on the teen community. On paper I could argue, I’m just doing what I normally have done. The second reason was, I was new to the city of Chicago. I wasn’t a scholar of Chicago. And as I was doing my work to get to know Chicago, I was struck by how different moments in LGBT history really shaped the city. I was thinking a lot about the South Side, where there was this whole notion of drag queens and how that was then embraced as a way to make black culture visible. And so that got me thinking about it. As I began to talk with scholars, I said, let’s do it. And it was the biggest criticism I ever received.

But the other way I was able to do it was – I’m pretty devious, OK, so I’ll be honest. The other way I did it was I said, this is also a community with disposable income and here you have a museum that needs that support. And so when we did the first program “Out at CHS,” I said, if this is important, I need you to join the museum. We got 690 new members that first night. And that gave me the umbrella to keep the board off. So I’m really a big believer of it. I’ve made a commitment to integrate this story at various stages in the museum. And I’m getting criticized from the religious community. I’m getting criticized from the Republican community. But I was going to get criticized from them anyway, no matter what I did. I’ve really worked hard to say, I do not want to create isolated moments that say, Oh, here’s a story, but rather look at things in the long run. So one of the things that I’ve done, which is why I’ve upset the church, is one of the strongest elements of LGBT history is within the Black church, the tension between the conservatism of that church and the fact that often the choir master was gay. So I’ve actually played that out, and people were really mad at me. And then obviously to talk about individuals whose work was transformative. Whether it’s James Baldwin as an author, or Bayard Rustin, the planner behind the Civil Rights March on Washington. So part of what I’ve done is made sure that there’s not a separate gallery, but there are significant moments throughout the museum where this is interpreted not as something special, but as part of understanding the bigger moment that we’re wrestling with. So that’s what I’ve been trying to do.

AR: That’s great.

LB: My either weakness or strength is that I think the job is to make America better, and I think the job is to shine the light on dark corners that haven’t been given the light. And also it really is right for me. You can’t just argue that it’s important to do this group, but not that group.  At least I can’t. Others can, but I can’t.

AR: Do you feel that sexuality is an issue that historical museums should tackle?

LB: I believe so strongly. It is a crucially important question that is the most dangerous question in most museums. I can talk about racial violence, but I can’t talk about sexual violence. At least that’s the perception. So for me, I think it’s really important to do this. But I’m also not convinced everybody needs to do what I did in Chicago. I do believe that even small organizations can find ways to both make sure that there is a presence in their exhibitions, and to take the opportunity to do rigorous programming. At a small place, that gives you confidence to continue to build. And the other reason why I think it’s so important is that there’s now really good scholarship. When I did “Out at CHS” in 2001, the scholarship wasn’t as strong. It’s much stronger now. Now you have debate and nuance. The first generation of scholarship was really, “We’re here too.” And that was important. But that’s difficult for museums to simply say, we’re here too. Now, museums can say, we understand now what this means in terms of, you know, urbanization of some parts of the city. So it’s really important stuff. I’m a believer that not everybody can do it right away, but I think that institutions ought to take this on if they believe that they are a value to their community. And if their community is something important, their community is also the LGBT community.

AR: So how is your museum doing that? What are topics that you can see that being a part of? What are ways to do that?

LB: Part of what I’m trying to do is, everything has to have more than one bounce, because that’s just the only way I can do it. So for example, the Bayard Rustin story has allowed me to talk about why he gets ostracized. It’s because he’s a communist, but it really is more sexuality than anything else. That allows me to raise blacklisting. It allows me to raise the church’s stance. I mean, the most interesting thing about King is this is a conservative minister who on the one hand was comfortable with the kind of leadership of Rustin, while on the other hand, when it came time to say, do I defend?, he didn’t. It was out of his hands. So I want to tell that story. That’s kind of the way I’m trying to do it. While there are moments that we do pull somebody out, so, for example, with James Baldwin. Not just focusing on “The Fire Next Time,” but on “Giovanni’s Room.” We’ve been asked to put a series of stamps together for the Post Office. And I said, we’ll do literature. And we wanna do James Baldwin, and the cover is Giovanni’s Room. They’re like going crazy, you told me one of the best books you ever read is The Fire Next Time. I said, yeah, but what a message you’re sending, if that’s on a stamp that everybody buys and uses. I am subversive the best I can. Part of it is then also trying to make sure it’s not simply a twentieth century story, trying to make sure that as we talk about the colored women’s movement, beginning in the late nineteenth century, where does sexuality play in that kind of issue? So really trying to find ways that it is both embedded in the stories we tell, but also clear enough to say, here are new ways to think about these stories, these moments, these communities.

AR: I was just yesterday at a book discussion about sexuality and slavery. Would that be a place to talk about sexuality, sexual violence also?

LB: Absolutely. One of the things we’ve done is looked at this question of sexual violence, looked at what are the relationships you build across gender, within gender. I’ve pulled some people together to help me think about what I can tell. Not what I can tell, but what’s the best thing I can tell, right? Because sexual violence is one of the things that’s really important to me throughout the museum. I’m really interested in how that plays out, what does that mean. How do people survive that. What are the ways communities come together to do that. So that’s one of the things that I want to talk about through slavery. Obviously I want to talk about sexual violence as one of the, I would argue, most important engines for the civil rights movement. The kind of battle of black and white women against sexual violence in the South in the late forties, early fifties. I think that is the organizing strategy that really paves the way for the rest of the civil rights movement. Things like that, that ninety-nine percent of our visitors don’t know, I’m always trying to find the right balance between giving people what they want and giving them what they need.

AR: In your mission, you talk about telling an international story, not just a national story. I’m interested to hear how you do that, why that is important.

LB: Why it’s important is first of all, for many people outside the United States, especially in the twentieth century, their first way into America was through African American culture. I want to take advantage of that. And then to trying to understand how international issues have shaped the American experience. I want to be able to talk about what happens when West Indians move to New York in the early twentieth century. Looking at Marcus Garvey as a West Indian and why some of the anti-Garveyism was also anti-Immigrant. I want to raise this issue of why do we look at the United States only through an English prism rather than through the African descent people who were present among the founders of L.A., or in Mexico. So it’s both looking at what do global issues do to shape this, and what does African American culture do. The notion of African American culture as a beacon of possibility globally. Whether it’s Lech Walesa singing “We shall overcome,” or Mandela talking about the power of Frederick Douglass inspiring him to move forward. And I’ve got to be honest. I get a lot of criticism for that. I get it from some board members, I get it from some community groups, some educators, saying that “You’re doing too much. This ought to be within the boundaries of the United States.” And I just think, I can’t tell the story that way.

I have been so struck in my work with women of color in Germany. That’s one of the groups I work a lot with. Some are obviously kids of G.I.s. What does that mean to Germany to have that presence? And what does it mean to these kids that they’ve never been to America, but they have that presence. Trying to wrestle with those kinds of things interests me. Now, the real challenge for me is, how much of that is exhibits, and how much of that is programmatic. I haven’t figured all that out. I want to do that.

Dr. Lonnie Bunch is the director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. I had a chance to talk to him on March 19, 2015, when he visited the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The interview has been slightly edited for length.

Andrea Rottmann is a PhD candidate in German Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Her work focuses on the transnational histories of sexuality and the LGBTQ movements in German-speaking Europe and the United States in the 20th century. She thinks about questions of representation, identity, and recognition, particularly as they are negotiated in museums and exhibitions. She is continuously intrigued by the relationship of the past and the present and by the ways in which history is being told in- and outside of academia. Andrea has interned with museums in the U.S. and Germany. Most recently, she helped write the nomination for Chicago’s Henry Gerber House to become a National Historic Landmark.

Museum Pride: Follow Up Questions

After the AAM “Museum Pride” session in Atlanta our fearless moderator, Kate, received a slew of questions we simply didn’t have not time answer. In an effort to answer these questions all of the panelists attempted to answer the questions that related the best to their work, lives, and comfort level. We hope this will spark a new dialogue with the readers and carry this conversation to the next level. None of us are perfect or know what should be the preferred practice but these are our experiences.

  1. “Any tips on how to conduct outreach to LGBT audiences without appearing to pander or sensationalize the subject matter? e.g. if promoting an exhibition of graphic gay imagery intended for a general audience.”

​Kate: It’s smart to be concerned about pandering or being tokenistic, but more often than not I have seen that fear freeze museums and prevent them from taking any action. Beware the ‘advisory board’ model– too often a temporary way to engage communities which often leads to later abandonment, frustration, and mistrust. A commitment to LGBTQ audiences every day, not just when you’re working on an exhibition or program, matters. Have LGBTQ voices and faces on your staff, in your senior leadership, in your volunteer corps, on your board. Put up inclusive signage that clearly welcomes LGBTQ individuals and families. Participate in your local Pride and LGBTQ events. Serve on LGBTQ community organization boards. Include LGBTQ folks in your marketing. Being an ally needs to be an ongoing, every-day activity– not something a museum only does when it served their internal needs.

Erin: In all honestly, I struggled with this during my work on Revealing Queer at the Museum of History & Industry. I didn’t come to a resolution that I was 100% comfortable with; however; I approached the exhibition from the perspective of the human experience, prioritizing what it means to holistically identify as LGBTQ instead of exploring sexual practices. I did this for two reasons; we needed to keep the content just radical enough to be authentic but not so radical that MOHAI would face controversy. Secondly, I did this because sexual practice experienced with LGBTQ communities cross many other identities, so that narrative was less interesting to me. I am not saying this was the best approach or that I would always redirect questions about sex in the exhibition, but it worked with the community members and myself to ensure that we telling a human narrative.

  1. “When internal and staff efforts are consistently ignored because museum leadership insists that this audience does not exist for their institution, is it a good idea to rally outside support to place pressure on the institution? What resources would you suggest?”

​Kate: As Joe mentioned during our panel, and Danielle reiterates, data is your best friend and biggest ally in these situations. A good baseline demographic study will help you establish where your visitorship is, and isn’t. Also, I’d argue saying an audience doesn’t exist for an institution is already a great call to action! What a missed opportunity! Show research on and stories of other museums who have taken this approach and seen it pay off in dividends. (Just ask anyone on the panel!) Talk to your local LGBTQ organizations about how they’d like to participate and see themselves at your museum. As far as outside ‘pressure’ goes, I do think external voices matter. Ask your senior leadership or director to have one lunch (just an hour or her or his time!) with you and an influential leader in your local LGBTQ circles. Make the case. Also, feel free to contact us! Many of us would, I am sure, be happy to help you along this path.

Danielle: While I did not have the experience of trying to persuade reluctant leaders to take action on this issue, I would argue that a mix of internal and external support is always the best way to effect change in any institution. External stakeholders can pressure the institution in a way that staff can’t.  Also, I think it is Joe who pointed out that data can really support these efforts– bolster your case using evidence.

  1. “Working at a medium size museum, in Memphis….very conservative, traditional, and religious board. What are some suggestions on how to introduce LGBTQ inclusion to board, staff and member?”

Danielle: Allies come in all shapes and sizes– you never know who has a personal experience with LGBTQ identity and culture (or just the experience of being different) that will make them open to thinking about inclusion initiatives at the institutional level, particularly as these perspectives are becoming more mainstream in popular culture.

Kate: As Danielle wrote, emphasizing the overlapping ways that marginalization and segregation occur in ALL communities and museums may help to broaden the scope as you begin these conversations. If it feels too bold to discuss your own museum’s culture at the get-go, start with using other museums as an example– especially those of similar size in similar geographies. Bringing in a panel of community folks to talk candidly about your museum’s accessibility (or lack thereof) is one suggestion I’d recommend. Invite them to explore the space, take note, photos, and/or videos, and then talk through their observations. You could have someone talk about having different physical or cognitive abilities, another talk from a Latina perspective, and another from a LGBTQ perspective, etc. This is incredible professional development for boards and staff, as we all get so used to only seeing our spaces through our own eyes and experiences. Of course, this should be a two-way street. What can you or your museum provide to assist them or their organizations as well? Offer before you are asked. This is about building supportive, collaborative communities that learn and grow stronger together.

Joe: In a study reported in Museums & Social Issues, we found that highly educated, financially secure gay and lesbian couples visited museums, but did not financially support them.  The most common reasons for both:  they believe in the institutions, but did not see themselves there, feel especially welcomed in these spaces…all those things we all know and talk about as barriers.  Some people respond to the money angle…

  1. “Have any of the panelists had a chance to work with Native peoples regarding indigenous views of gender identity? (Two-spirit people?)”

Erin: No, I have not had that opportunity and in talking with others our experience interpreting this identity is very limited. We all wish we had more to say but there is always more work to be done.

  1. “Love to hear about how deal with or not deal with backlash and/or censorship outside the institution if they have examples.”

Megan: I don’t know if I can answer this question properly but I’ll try. We initially dealt with internal censorship but we’re only had positive responses from outside the Museum. Perhaps there was a Facebook remark when we first began outreach to LGBTQ communities. We have been preparing for an upcoming exhibit that is not dealing with LGBTQ issues but is expecting some backlash and to deal with that we are doing due diligence to ensure we have a broad, accurate perspective and support from a variety of community stakeholders. We are trying to be transparent- sharing the mission, language, and perspective with all levels of staff and community before there is a possibility for negativity.

Joe: There is a whole realm of discussion and research around the social role of museums. For me, this question brings to the fore the very important role museums can play across social issues. I believe each museum must define for itself its role in society, but the decision must be explicit and intentional. I push a few institutions I work with from the perspective that we cannot choose to be a social change agent at some points in time, and not at others. If the museum identity includes having a role in social change in the community, or leadership around various social issues, then that identity is weakened if the museum opts in and out of engaging in the community depending on the particular issue if it is as relevant to their role as another issue. Some of the work others have done in this area that most resonates with me is around the need for museums to be necessary in their communities, and that means doing some of the uncomfortable work of being engaged in society by taking a stand.

  1. In regard to Danielle’s conversation about her work at the Whitney “What specific strategies were effective in the effort to establish all-gender bathrooms? What were some of the challenges? Do they exist alongside men/women bathrooms or are all the bathrooms integrated?”

Danielle: The Whitney’s new building downtown features All Gender Restrooms throughout the building, as well as traditional men’s and women’s rooms.  Check out this blog post documenting some of our early experiments with introducing all gender restrooms during the 2014 Whitney Biennial.

  1. “Great panel– interested in what you’re all doing. Seriously, though, Joe et al, you have to acknowledge that your aversion to normalization ironically marginalizes a whole lot of people in our community who very much want more than anything to ‘fit in’ and ‘be respected’ rather than be treated as ‘other.’ Do you say to hell with them? Isn’t that also a way of erasing difference and itself offensive?” 

Joe: Being “other” is not the same as ‘sticking out’ or ‘making a point of being different.’  It is about owning the uniqueness of self and context and not being swallowed up and placed into a box that makes the dominant culture comfortable in assuming that a heteronormed world is all that exists.  It is about challenging beliefs about gender identity, sexual orientation, sexual preference, etc.  It is about not allowing misconceptions, false assumptions, generalizations, and hurtful thoughts to be propagated by minimizing the person through forcing them into a box that fits within tradition heterosexuality which means comfort for the dominant culture.  Most of us want to fit in and all of us want to be respected, but I believe at the heart of this question is a confusion about being other and assuming that means one cannot fit in, pass, get by, slide under the radar, or be invisible—that is something most of us want and need at different times. And as humans, we should have the right to fit in and fitting in should not mean pretending we are not the wonderful people we are in all our diverse complex lives.

Erin: Following Joe’s thoughts I don’t think it’s expected that every person that may identify within or around LGBTQ needs to advocate beyond their comfort. As a cis-gendered white woman there are things I am comfortable talking about and other things I am not, but I try and respect the preferences of individual’s identities in all of my work. If passing is your truth than live it, as I will ensure that I am pushed in to the dichotomy of a straight white female based on my appearance. I think we are speaking the same language but from different perspectives.

  1. “How do you address diversity within the LBGTQ community?”

Erin: In my work with Queering the Museum project I am continually thinking and refining this topic, how to not lump all the experiences within LGBTQ into one. For me the use of and meaning behind the reclamation of the word queer is my current advocacy tool. The word queer was (and sometimes still is) a pejorative but has since been used to move the conversation around gender and sexuality out of the male/female (heternormative) binary. This binary is both limiting and oppressive to the human condition, and by thinking about identities outside of this binary I have been able to come some deep understandings of the world and the work of museums. Its understanding that feminine and masculine are constructs that many people do not fit within; working with that understanding may help deep or broaden your understanding of identities and they engage or work with people (inside and outside of the LGBTQ communities) in a more authentic way. It’s not always perfect, but its where I root my work.

9. “Which office, staff member, unit in the museum spearheads LGBTQ inclusion? Who carries the burden; how are they resourced?”

Megan: At the Children’s Museum, audience development for LGBTQ inclusion happens within our Community Outreach department as part of the larger education umbrella. However, outreach and audience diversity is a Museum-wide value that all departments work toward, through membership, board relations, exhibit development, etc.  Because it is a shared goal toward inclusion, everyone is looking at stewarding relationships, which makes life easier for everyone! However, the events and programs that attract different audiences are developed by the Community Outreach team, which consists mainly of educators who program and staff each engagement.  We rely on advisory boards, partners and external funding to run the programs. Resources are developed through grants and corporate gifts primarily.

Danielle: At the Whitney, the Access and Community Programs Department, which is housed within Education, has a mission of increasing access and relevance for audiences that have traditionally been underserved by cultural institutions, and who experience barriers to participation.  LGBTQ inclusion was an outgrowth of our community outreach and engagement work downtown, but also fit in with our other departmental activities.  Also, over time the efforts have grown and multiple program areas have taken on this question, including public programs and family programs.

Joe: No one officially, but it falls within the work of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

Erin: In smaller museums it seems that it comes from staff members who are interested or invested in these communities. Similar to what everyone stated it depends on the makeup of the museum and the executive leadership. It may be bottom up and in some cases its top down, but as you conduct outreach it’s important to ensure that you’re not essentializing or tokenizing these communities. There is a long history of mistrust between institutions (not just museums) and LGBTQ individuals (archives, health care, the prison complex, etc.), so keep in mind that long term engagement is more important than one really diverse panel or exhibition. How will you engage these communities after the exhibition closes or the panel is over? What will you learn from these communities in the process that will deep your understanding of their experiences?

  1. “What kind of education or consciousness-raising have you had to undertake in your institution to overcome barriers?”

Danielle: Education can really ease transitions like this– ensuring that your staff and stakeholders are comfortable and have appropriate language to discuss topics related to LGBTQ cultural inclusion can go a long way.  This can be done both formally and informally. Lots of organizations offer sensitivity training and can recommend resources or provide a trainer or educator, or you can also model bringing the topic up in conversation in a natural and respectful way.

Megan: I would echo what Danielle has said, education through training, reading journals and participation in these activities really foster a stronger Museum community. At CMOM we have done different sensitivity trainings and visitor services trainings but the most effective way for overcoming barriers that I’ve seen work is through experiencing the program, meeting with these audiences and respectfully working to change perspectives.

Joe: I believe in the concept of dis-settling.  I cannot make someone else uncomfortable, but I can dis-settle the situation.  I’ve been in many meetings where I am able, as a male, to react strongly to a comment that is sexist and dis-settle the discussion, especially when a woman (often the only one) cannot.  I’ve often ‘outed’ myself (ok, so once it’s done, it’s just reminding people) during discussions and brainstorms to point out assumptions and omissions as it relates to gender identity, sexual identity, etc.  For me, it is about making others aware of and feel the tensions of the barriers that they often don’t realize are barriers.

​Kate:​ One thing that’s important to my practice now that I’m consulting is making it clear to museums and culturals that I want to be an active part of these projects– that working on inclusion and social justice are central to my work. Perhaps that isn’t the ‘unbiased’ and ‘objective’ approach most assume evaluators should take, but to me it’s essential and I don’t hide it. I prioritize conversations with my clients, no matter the project or subject matter that address access and equity. These conversations can be hard for people, and rightly so, so I make sure to acknowledge that and explore why.  Keeping the conversations going, beyond one-off training or projects, is essential. It’s also essential to create a climate where people feel safe to make mistakes, be called out, and move forward toward a common goal. I believe every interaction we have, and every decision we make (alone or together), can help us become better allies, more informed citizens in our communities, and simply more gentle and empathetic with one another. We’re in this together and it’s better to be kind than to be right. Let’s help each other.

Erin: With most of the institutions I have worked with it started with language, not using “gay” to refer to everyone within LGBTQ communities, and “policing” the q. These are the first and most public way your audiences read your internal opinions or understanding of gender, sex, and sexuality. In Seattle if you don’t use the Q the younger generation will write you off as behind the times or excluding to identities beyond lesbian and gay. In addition to what Joe said about unsettling the conversation I often use my own identity to police the Q, as someone who is cis-gendered but identifying as Queer I speak my truth to help people understand where I am coming from in which I hope they gain the language skills to continue these conversations both with themselves and others. There are many who don’t feel comfortable doing this, and I understand that; however, once you’re out, you’re out and at that point you need to find ways to heal yourself after continually coming out to everyone, over and over again.

Thank you for the thoughtful and thought provoking questions. If you would answer them differently, please do so in the comment section below.

Mapping Q: Queer Youth and Art Museums

Image of the University of Arizona Museum of Art.

Image of the University of Arizona Museum of Art.

By: Chelsea Farrar

An exhibition opening on a Tuesday night at the University of Arizona Museum of Art saw over 100 people attend. Many of those visitors had never been to our museum before, but they came to see work made by local LGBTQ youth. “What I take away from this exhibition is pride in my identity”; “What I take away from this exhibition is the freedom to ‘show off’ my expression of self”; and “What I take away from this exhibition is that LGBTQ youth are creative, strong, and appreciated”. These are the voices of visitors to the exhibition Mapping Q at the University of Arizona Museum of Art in December of 2014. These responses speak to the power of community collaborations and museum programs that can engage marginalized youth through relevant and meaningful activities.


Originally envisioned as a way to partner with an existing youth program at the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation, called Allied Life Links for Youth (ALLY), a suicide prevention program for youth, Mapping Q has grown into its own program where youth are invited to explore identities through language, symbols, and works of art at the museum. It is difficult for me to speak about the value of this program without briefly explaining each of these elements, so let me quickly explain.

  • Youth were invited to “Map indicators of sex, gender and sexual orientation” on a map of the UAMA’s galleries. Some of the youth noted where they saw female and male gender displays in the artwork, some mapped where they were unsure of a figure’s sex or gender. Significantly, some created counter-narratives to works when they mapped a worked as “Gay”, counter to the traditional heterosexual interpretation of the work.
  • Youth created artwork responding to the prompt, “Map your ideal space”. Their art directly addressed issues of gender, sexuality, body positivity, identity, and place.
  • The youth participated in a label-writing workshop led by graduate Art and Visual Culture Education students from The University of Arizona. The labels were written by the youth with the assistance of the graduate students.
  • An exhibition of their artwork was displayed at the UAMA with an opening reception including the youth speaking about their work to the audience, a live DJ, and a dance performance from FLUXX, a local LGBTQ performance group.


Maping Q evolved out of my personal experience as a high school teacher and a sponsor for the school’s Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) club. Working with this high school I was witness to the institutional homophobia that perpetuated the harassment of students who either identify as LGBTQ or whose gender does not confirm to the traditional roles of what it means to be male or female. The hidden curriculum at my school, and society at large, acts to normalize not only heterosexuality but also the degradation of those who do not comply with these traditional sexual and gender roles. This is often referred to as ‘heteronormativity’. To reveal this hidden curriculum the students and I created a large map of the school campus where we invited those in the GSA and other students to map where they experienced any form of harassment or bullying. If we could reveal the institutional heteronormative practices of the school site, I wondered, as a museum educator, could I also create a program that asked youth to reveal the same hidden curriculum at the Museum?


The youth’s artwork made during the Mapping Q program at the UAMA revealed the lived, personal and complicated nature of gender identity through visually intelligent means. For example, two participants, a cis-gender female (identifies with the sex she was labeled with at birth) and the other who identified as transgender decided to collaborate on a piece where their bodies became the subject of the work, titled Where do we begin, the rubble of our sins (Bastille, Pompeii). Lines and dashes drawn in bold colors map the figure’s body, and bold red letters state “censored” across her chest. On the other body, construction tape is wrapped around the figure’s torso. In the museum label the two young artists wrote together, “What does body positivity look like to you? Where are your rivers, mountains, and valleys? What part of your body is still under construction?” As a female, the body can be a site to be critiqued and judged by others. As a person in transition or one who identifies as neither “man” nor “woman”, the body is being metaphorically constructed by the individual. For some the body might be physically re-constructed to match one’s gender. In this collaborative piece, the artists’ personal bodies stand in for the idea of place. Just as spaces can be oppressive or unsafe for LGBTQ identified youth, the body itself is a contested site where one’s presentation of their body often does not match societal expectations. Through Mapping Q, these two young artists were empowered to reclaim the aesthetic norm of what a “male” or “female” should like and communicated that concept through their artwork.

Photo: University of Arizona Museum of Art

Photo: University of Arizona Museum of Art

Another element of this exhibition that sought to give agency to the voice of these LGBTQ youth was the display on the museum walls of LGBTQ terms defined by the youth. These terms were chosen by the youth from a list culled from the University’s LGBT Pride Alliance student organization’s Safe Space training guide. Each youth that completed a work of art for the exhibition was asked to choose a term that they identified with and in their own words describe what this term meant for them. This element of the exhibition served as part of the educational programming while also revealing to visitors how knowledgeable these young artists were about their selves and their community. The definitions also revealed the fact that words, especially words that act as labels, are never stable and can have multiple meanings. For example, one participant defined “Queer” as “Non-conforming to traditional societal expectations”. And another defined the same term as “When the things you do don’t fall into the qualities associated with your sex and sexual identity.” Relinquishing our role as the sole provider of information, the Museum’s program Mapping Q provided the space for LGBTQ youth to define their own identities and to speak for themselves.


Photo: University of Arizona Museum of Art

Photo: University of Arizona Museum of Art

I feel it is also important to note that the value of this type of programming goes beyond the youth that participated. Through this exhibition we sought to engage our museum visitors in order to spark thinking and conversation about dominant institutional narratives. One way we did this was creating ways for the visitors to engage with the artwork and the museum. One activity included two large glass bowls. One labeled “I feel my identity is regularly represented in museums.” The second with the label, “I find that my identity is not represented enough in museums.” Visitors could place a pom-pom into which glass bowl they identified with. Over the course of the one month exhibition, we had a great deal of participation and it also became visibly and publically clear that our visitors were not seeing themselves represented in museums.

Photo: University of Arizona Museum of Art

Photo: University of Arizona Museum of Art

The exhibition content acted as a pedagogical hinge where it provided an opportunity for visitors to engage with unfamiliar subject matter in a safe environment and opened doors to new understandings of the community and of people. Visitor feedback on comment cards directly reflected this. Responses to the question, In what ways does the museum and the museum’s community benefit from exhibitions like this?, included, “[It] Opens minds by presenting a different perspective on gender.”; “Awesomeness! Love! Connection!”; “Integrating LGBTQ youth into exhibitions and projects opens doors for all of us”; and “ [It] opens doorways to ask questions and learn as a whole”. These comments should remind us that programs like Mapping Q can have a significant, positive impact for our communities.

Before museums can reach out to under-served communities like LGBTQ youth, we have to acknowledge that we work in cultural institutions that are part of a system of oppression. Museum exhibitions can naturalize “hetero” coupling and gender expression and thus perform as sites of mass education. The Mapping Q program is incredibly important in that it made the museum become a site for social justice to bloom as the youth were able to challenge dominate hegemonic narratives in the museum as well as institutional heteronormative practices of display, curation, and collection. Through gallery mapping activities, a studio project, and an exhibition of the youth’s artwork, the dominant heteronormative narrative of the art museum was disrupted and new possibilities were created.


Chelsea holds an M.A. in Art Education from the University of Arizona. Chelsea began her career in education as a high school art teacher, teaching studio art, AP Art History and technical theater for seven years. After receiving her masters in museum education, she began at the UAMA first as a graduate assistant, implementing her research in arts integration. Chelsea is currently pursuing a Ph.D. from the University of Arizona with an emphasis on museum education and social justice issues.

Museum Pride: The Social Role of Museum in LGBTQ Advocacy

aamBy: Erin Bailey

As many museum professionals already know the Alliance of American Museum (AAM) Annual Meeting is well underway and museum professionals from around the globe are nerding out about museums as you read this entry. This years’ theme, The Social Value of Museums; Inspiring Change, seeks to address the recent “technological, social, political, environmental and economic” changes that continue to move museums from being object-centered to visitor-centered. This theme has started and continued many conversations about how museums can improve the quality of visitors’ lives, social change, and the wellbeing of communities centering conversations at AAM around intersection of race, gender, class, sex, and sexuality. Traversing these topics through case studies, theory driven discussion, and interactive workshops, these conversations are happening in sessions, hallways, near charging stations, and even in the bathrooms. The atmosphere is charged with asking the hard questions, exploring new ideas, and advancing the dialogue.

This entry is highlighting Museum Pride: The Social Role of Museum in LGBTQ Advocacy, ONE of the MANY sessions that engage these intersections and earnestly seek to advance the conversation forward. According to AAM Museum Pride focuses on “achieving legal and social equity for LGBTQ persons extends beyond the work of activists and allies; immense, public, bipartisan support is growing worldwide. Several museums have readily partnered with LGBTQ organizations, becoming active participants in social change. Many museums, however, remain reluctant. Join us as four museums reflect on how and why they joined the LGBTQ dialogue, their stumbles and victories, and the self-discovery and organizational change along the way,” featuring the work of Joe E. Heimlich, Ph.D., Principal Researcher with the Lifelong Learning Group at COSI, Danielle Linzer, Director of Access and Community Programs, Whitney Museum of American Art, Megan Swanby Manager of Community Outreach and Access, the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, and Kate Tinworth, founder and Principal of ExposeYourMuseum, LLC, and me to talk about how difference museums are engaging LGBTQ communities. During this session we are determined to answer these questions to the fullest possibility but the conversation will never really be over.

  1. How did the LGBTQ outreach/engagement efforts start at your institution? What was the catalyst?
  2. What has been transformative and wonderful for your museum’s choice to engage in LGBTQ-focused partnerships, programs, and/or exhibits?
  3. What’s been hard, or what are the lessons learned you might share with museums considering LGBTQ-focused partnerships, programs, and/or exhibits?
  4. What are the commonalities in and across museums who choose to actively engaging with LGBT audiences/communities? What have heard from each other that’s interesting and how we learn from and build off of each other’s efforts?
  5. What work is yet to be done? As we look ahead, what do museums need to be thinking about and prioritizing as they engage in LGBTQ-focused partnerships, programs, and/or exhibits in the future?

In an effort to keep this conversation going and offer a take away we combed our libraries and hard drives to find all the resources available for professionals seeking to engage with these audiences. Below are the current resources and we hope you will use the comments section to share any that we missed. No really comment and help us start the conversation #queerAAM.

Books and Publications:

Queers Online: LGBT Digital Practices in Libraries, Archives, and Museums by Rachel Wexelbaum (2015)

Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites by Susan Ferentinos (2014) and read this entry from QTM.

Gender, Sexuality and Museums: A Routledge Reader by Amy K. Levin (2010)

Where is Queer?” Museums & Social Issues Vol. 3, N. 1, editors: John Fraser & Joe E. Heimlich (Spring 2008)

 Getting Intersectional in Museums by Nicole Robert, Volume 9, Issue 1 (April, 2014)

Displaying the Queer Past: Purpose, Publics, and Possibilities of the GLBT History by Gerard Koskovich, QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Summer 2014)

Affiliate Groups/Projects:

Social Justice Alliance from MuseumMuseum Association (UK) Tweet them at: @MuseumsAssoc and join the #SJAM conversation.

Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Alliance (LGBTQ Alliance) of the American Alliance of Museums Tweet them at: @AAM_LGBTQ

American Evaluation Association’s LGBT topic interest group (TIG)

the Incluseum Tweet them at @incluseum

Pop-up Museum of Queer History Tweet them at @queermuseum

And obviously Queering the Museum project, with more specific regional resources here, and most of QTM’s tweets come from @ebai206

SOME museum people who have presented on LGBT museum topics over past 3 years: (again fill the comment section with anyone not listed here. Lets give credit where credit us due)

Adrian Zongrone, EdVenture @boatkult
Timothy Hecox, OMSI
Kevin Seymour, COSI @ohiokms76
Adrienne Barnett, Expoloratorium
Ian Kerrigan, The National September 11 Memorial & Museum
Elissa Frankle, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum @museums365
Susan Ferentinos, public history consultant  @HistorySue
Ken Turino, Historic New England

We offer this as a start, please help us complete this list by emailing, comment below or tweet anyone of us. Here are our handles:
Megan: @nycArtSeen
Danielle: @bigdlinz
Kate: @exposyourmuseum
Me: @EBai206

If you’re considering putting in a session for next year, please do! The more discourse the more progress.


The Expanding Conversation

 Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites, by Susan Ferentinos (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).

Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites, by Susan Ferentinos (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).

By: Susan Ferentinos


I first became aware of Queering the Museum in the course of doing research for a book I was writing, Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). I emailed Erin and Nicole and, though we live about two thousand miles apart, we met by phone to get to know each other a bit and share news of interesting work taking place at the intersection of queer history, museums, and community building.

I am based in Bloomington, Indiana, but was lucky enough to make it out to Seattle in May 2014 for the annual meeting of the American Alliance of Museums. In conjunction with that conference, the organizers of the Revealing Queer exhibit held a workshop at MOHAI, which enabled me both to tour the exhibit and learn a bit more about its development.

My trip to Seattle occurred at a critical point in organizing my thoughts for my manuscript. The Revealing Queer exhibit, the permanent exhibit at MOHAI, and the larger Queering the Museum endeavor all influenced my thinking on the topic of interpreting LGBT history, and all receive mention in the final version of my book. They join many other examples—from the Alice Austen House on Staten Island to the Stonewall National Museum and Archives in Ft. Lauderdale, from the Nebraska State Historical Society to the Library of Congress—as well as in-depth case studies of the Chicago History Museum’s Out in Chicago exhibit, the historic house museums of Historic New England, and a queer history summer immersion program for high school students in Minneapolis-St. Paul, co-sponsored by the Minnesota Historical Society and the Tretter Collection of GLBT Studies. Taken together, the work of these various institutions provide an overview of the opportunities and challenges connected to interpreting LGBT history for a wide audience.

Interpretation of Seattle's queer community is included in the Museum of History and Industry's permanent exhibit. Photo by Susan Ferentinos.

Interpretation of Seattle’s queer community is included in the Museum of History and Industry’s permanent exhibit. Photo by Susan Ferentinos.

One issue organizations must confront when planning programming on the history of same-sex love and desire is whether this topic deserves a specific focus—as in a special exhibit—or should instead be integrated into a larger narrative—as part of the general history of a city or town, for example. MOHAI offers an interesting circumstance, in that it has opted to pursue both approaches. When I visited the museum last spring, I was able both to see LGBT history represented as part of the larger story of the city of Seattle and to delve more deeply into this topic in the special exhibit Revealing Queer.

 That special exhibit was also noteworthy for the method by which it came into existence. With any LGBT programming, it is essential for museums to reach out to the various queer communities whose histories will be explored. It’s quite common for museums to engage citizen advisory panels. But the Revealing Queer exhibit took the concept of community input a good deal further, incorporating a cooperative model, where representatives of various LGBT organizations were actively engaged in making curatorial decisions about the exhibit. This consensus-based approach challenged some professional assumptions about museums’ authority and expanded the implications of “visitor participation.”

Finally, beyond the innovative work being done specifically in Seattle, Queering the Museum is tapping into a larger, international conversation about how our understandings of the world change when we “queer” our assumptions, adopt different perspectives, and step outside of the confines of what is—and is not—considered “normal.” These are questions with implications for many, many aspects of our lives, but they also have particular relevance for the museum field.

In the last two decades, museums have become sites of public dialogue—the “New Town Square,” in the words of Robert Archibald. When at their best, museums (and I am including historic sites in this term as well) provide a place of exploration and reflection, where visitors can engage with new ideas and participate in the making of cultural meaning. The re-conceptualization of museums in this way has been quite a big deal; it stands in opposition to a long tradition of museums primarily serving the interests of the elite, transmitting cultural values along with education. Although museum missions have changed significantly (generally speaking), these older ideas still linger.

To take but one example, many cultural organizations still rely on the tacit assumption that visitors are heterosexual, monogamous, and live within a traditional nuclear family model. Artifacts and interpretation reinforce the idea that these conditions are the societal norm, which implicitly suggests that alternative ways of relating are not normal, are somehow inferior. We see this when museums describe the (heterosexual) marriage and procreation of one historic figure, but opt to ignore another’s same-sex attachments, deeming such information irrelevant, libelous, or confrontational. We see it too in the tendency to find any artifact of queer life (a tee-shirt from the lesbian softball team, the obituary of a gay person who died of AIDS, a wig worn by a transgender woman) as sexual, controversial, or inappropriate to display in an all-ages venue.

Queering the Museum is part of the professional effort to challenge this heteronormativity. To ask instead, what happens when we readjust the lens? What can we learn by interrogating societal assumptions of normality? What can cultural outsiders teach us about struggle, privilege, and belonging?


The John Q idea and art collective performs “discursive memorials” outside of museum boundaries. Here, members dress in police uniforms and handcuffs for the 2011 event, Policing Ourselves, which referenced an unlawful 2009 police raid on the Eagle, an Atlanta leather bar. Photo courtesy of the John Q Collective.


This conversation to which QTM is contributing is gaining momentum. Museums around the country are beginning to explore these questions. The American Association for State and Local History, a major professional organization for history museums, included Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites in its book series on innovative approaches to interpreting the past. And as this conversation becomes increasingly sophisticated, some are challenging the very structure of the museum and the presumed need for authentic historical artifacts, as witnessed by projects such as the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History and the John Q Idea Collective.

This is an exciting adventure to be on. In the United States, cultural acceptance and legal protection of LGBT people is expanding at a mind-boggling rate. Within the museum field, new initiatives are pushing at the boundaries of what we have traditionally thought was possible. I am so grateful to be living and working during these changing times, and I am glad that organizations such as QTM are asking questions that don’t always have easy answers but do have the potential to expand the ways museums relate to the communities they serve.

Susan Ferentinos is a public history researcher, writer, and consultant, who specializes in historical project management and using the past to build community. She is the author of Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites (2014). To learn more about her work, visit her website or follow her on Twitter at @HistorySue.

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