Queering the Museum Project

Exhibit Critique – Speaking Out and Legendary

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 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.

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 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 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 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.