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.

Results

            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.

Bibliography

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.

 

3 thoughts on “Rocking the Boat: Exhibition Methods of Storytelling the Experience of Gender & Sexuality in Museums

  1. Pingback: Queering the Museum Piece On “Storytelling the Experiences of Gender and Sexuality in Museums” | the incluseum

  2. I am interested in the next logical step of moving beyond the heteronormativity of a “separate but equal” approach to LGBTQ museum exhibits to one where gender inclusivity is embraced throughout all museum exhibits. For example, the Smithsonian traveling exhibit The Way We Worked did not have the way whites worked and the way blacks worked – although, quite clearly black and white employment is historically quite different. Yet because the exhibit was not simply about white or black workers, the oppression and discrimination against blacks in the work force was brought forward.

    This of course does not negate the need for institutions that primarily tell a story of black or white – although these are often instances that are quite artificially exclusive as well.

    The National Civil Rights Museum here in Memphis has grappled with this issue of whether to tell the Civil Rights story as it relates to the African-American community of the US South, or the broader world perspective. The latter is the approach adopted.

    In sum, whereas I look forward to someday visiting the LGBT History Museum in SF I am even more looking forward to visiting the generic city history museum that also tells the story of the LGBT folks/history incorporated as a part of the broader city story.

  3. I couldn’t agree more. At the beginning stages of my thesis research I struggled asking myself what kind of institution I wanted to focus on, the identity-based or encyclopedic? In the end, I chose to magnify the work of LGBTQ identity based projects for the sake of understanding and thoroughly mapping the ways in which these stories are told by those who have had these or similar experiences in spaces that illuminate, celebrate, and prioritize that perspective. This decision was made in hopes that one day, like you said, we go into the generic history, art, cultural museum and see these voices shared authentically with care, consideration, and inclusion.

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