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.

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.


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.

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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