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.
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?
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.