Queer Matters

Image courtsey of Xander Karkruf.

Image courtesy of Xander Karkruff.

By:  Xander Karkruff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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