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.

Museum Pride: Follow Up Questions

“Allies come in all shapes and sizes– you never know who has a personal experience with LGBTQ identity and culture (or just the experience of being different) that will make them open to thinking about inclusion initiatives at the institutional level, particularly as these perspectives are becoming more mainstream in popular culture.”

By: Erin Bailey-Sun

After the AAM “Museum Pride” session in Atlanta our fearless moderator, Kate, received a slew of questions we simply didn’t have not time answer. In an effort to answer these questions all of the panelists attempted to answer the questions that related the best to their work, lives, and comfort level. We hope this will spark a new dialogue with the readers and carry this conversation to the next level. None of us are perfect or know what should be the preferred practice but these are our experiences.

  1. “Any tips on how to conduct outreach to LGBT audiences without appearing to pander or sensationalize the subject matter? e.g. if promoting an exhibition of graphic gay imagery intended for a general audience.”

​Kate: It’s smart to be concerned about pandering or being tokenistic, but more often than not I have seen that fear freeze museums and prevent them from taking any action. Beware the ‘advisory board’ model– too often a temporary way to engage communities which often leads to later abandonment, frustration, and mistrust. A commitment to LGBTQ audiences every day, not just when you’re working on an exhibition or program, matters. Have LGBTQ voices and faces on your staff, in your senior leadership, in your volunteer corps, on your board. Put up inclusive signage that clearly welcomes LGBTQ individuals and families. Participate in your local Pride and LGBTQ events. Serve on LGBTQ community organization boards. Include LGBTQ folks in your marketing. Being an ally needs to be an ongoing, every-day activity– not something a museum only does when it served their internal needs.

Erin: In all honestly, I struggled with this during my work on Revealing Queer at the Museum of History & Industry. I didn’t come to a resolution that I was 100% comfortable with; however; I approached the exhibition from the perspective of the human experience, prioritizing what it means to holistically identify as LGBTQ instead of exploring sexual practices. I did this for two reasons; we needed to keep the content just radical enough to be authentic but not so radical that MOHAI would face controversy. Secondly, I did this because sexual practice experienced with LGBTQ communities cross many other identities, so that narrative was less interesting to me. I am not saying this was the best approach or that I would always redirect questions about sex in the exhibition, but it worked with the community members and myself to ensure that we telling a human narrative.

  1. “When internal and staff efforts are consistently ignored because museum leadership insists that this audience does not exist for their institution, is it a good idea to rally outside support to place pressure on the institution? What resources would you suggest?”

​Kate: As Joe mentioned during our panel, and Danielle reiterates, data is your best friend and biggest ally in these situations. A good baseline demographic study will help you establish where your visitorship is, and isn’t. Also, I’d argue saying an audience doesn’t exist for an institution is already a great call to action! What a missed opportunity! Show research on and stories of other museums who have taken this approach and seen it pay off in dividends. (Just ask anyone on the panel!) Talk to your local LGBTQ organizations about how they’d like to participate and see themselves at your museum. As far as outside ‘pressure’ goes, I do think external voices matter. Ask your senior leadership or director to have one lunch (just an hour or her or his time!) with you and an influential leader in your local LGBTQ circles. Make the case. Also, feel free to contact us! Many of us would, I am sure, be happy to help you along this path.

Danielle: While I did not have the experience of trying to persuade reluctant leaders to take action on this issue, I would argue that a mix of internal and external support is always the best way to effect change in any institution. External stakeholders can pressure the institution in a way that staff can’t.  Also, I think it is Joe who pointed out that data can really support these efforts– bolster your case using evidence.

  1. “Working at a medium size museum, in Memphis….very conservative, traditional, and religious board. What are some suggestions on how to introduce LGBTQ inclusion to board, staff and member?”

Danielle: Allies come in all shapes and sizes– you never know who has a personal experience with LGBTQ identity and culture (or just the experience of being different) that will make them open to thinking about inclusion initiatives at the institutional level, particularly as these perspectives are becoming more mainstream in popular culture.

Kate: As Danielle wrote, emphasizing the overlapping ways that marginalization and segregation occur in ALL communities and museums may help to broaden the scope as you begin these conversations. If it feels too bold to discuss your own museum’s culture at the get-go, start with using other museums as an example– especially those of similar size in similar geographies. Bringing in a panel of community folks to talk candidly about your museum’s accessibility (or lack thereof) is one suggestion I’d recommend. Invite them to explore the space, take note, photos, and/or videos, and then talk through their observations. You could have someone talk about having different physical or cognitive abilities, another talk from a Latina perspective, and another from a LGBTQ perspective, etc. This is incredible professional development for boards and staff, as we all get so used to only seeing our spaces through our own eyes and experiences. Of course, this should be a two-way street. What can you or your museum provide to assist them or their organizations as well? Offer before you are asked. This is about building supportive, collaborative communities that learn and grow stronger together.

Joe: In a study reported in Museums & Social Issues, we found that highly educated, financially secure gay and lesbian couples visited museums, but did not financially support them.  The most common reasons for both:  they believe in the institutions, but did not see themselves there, feel especially welcomed in these spaces…all those things we all know and talk about as barriers.  Some people respond to the money angle…

  1. “Have any of the panelists had a chance to work with Native peoples regarding indigenous views of gender identity? (Two-spirit people?)”

Erin: No, I have not had that opportunity and in talking with others our experience interpreting this identity is very limited. We all wish we had more to say but there is always more work to be done.

  1. “Love to hear about how deal with or not deal with backlash and/or censorship outside the institution if they have examples.”

Megan: I don’t know if I can answer this question properly but I’ll try. We initially dealt with internal censorship but we’re only had positive responses from outside the Museum. Perhaps there was a Facebook remark when we first began outreach to LGBTQ communities. We have been preparing for an upcoming exhibit that is not dealing with LGBTQ issues but is expecting some backlash and to deal with that we are doing due diligence to ensure we have a broad, accurate perspective and support from a variety of community stakeholders. We are trying to be transparent- sharing the mission, language, and perspective with all levels of staff and community before there is a possibility for negativity.

Joe: There is a whole realm of discussion and research around the social role of museums. For me, this question brings to the fore the very important role museums can play across social issues. I believe each museum must define for itself its role in society, but the decision must be explicit and intentional. I push a few institutions I work with from the perspective that we cannot choose to be a social change agent at some points in time, and not at others. If the museum identity includes having a role in social change in the community, or leadership around various social issues, then that identity is weakened if the museum opts in and out of engaging in the community depending on the particular issue if it is as relevant to their role as another issue. Some of the work others have done in this area that most resonates with me is around the need for museums to be necessary in their communities, and that means doing some of the uncomfortable work of being engaged in society by taking a stand.

  1. In regard to Danielle’s conversation about her work at the Whitney “What specific strategies were effective in the effort to establish all-gender bathrooms? What were some of the challenges? Do they exist alongside men/women bathrooms or are all the bathrooms integrated?”

Danielle: The Whitney’s new building downtown features All Gender Restrooms throughout the building, as well as traditional men’s and women’s rooms.  Check out this blog post documenting some of our early experiments with introducing all gender restrooms during the 2014 Whitney Biennial.

  1. “Great panel– interested in what you’re all doing. Seriously, though, Joe et al, you have to acknowledge that your aversion to normalization ironically marginalizes a whole lot of people in our community who very much want more than anything to ‘fit in’ and ‘be respected’ rather than be treated as ‘other.’ Do you say to hell with them? Isn’t that also a way of erasing difference and itself offensive?” 

Joe: Being “other” is not the same as ‘sticking out’ or ‘making a point of being different.’  It is about owning the uniqueness of self and context and not being swallowed up and placed into a box that makes the dominant culture comfortable in assuming that a heteronormed world is all that exists.  It is about challenging beliefs about gender identity, sexual orientation, sexual preference, etc.  It is about not allowing misconceptions, false assumptions, generalizations, and hurtful thoughts to be propagated by minimizing the person through forcing them into a box that fits within tradition heterosexuality which means comfort for the dominant culture.  Most of us want to fit in and all of us want to be respected, but I believe at the heart of this question is a confusion about being other and assuming that means one cannot fit in, pass, get by, slide under the radar, or be invisible—that is something most of us want and need at different times. And as humans, we should have the right to fit in and fitting in should not mean pretending we are not the wonderful people we are in all our diverse complex lives.

Erin: Following Joe’s thoughts I don’t think it’s expected that every person that may identify within or around LGBTQ needs to advocate beyond their comfort. As a cis-gendered white woman there are things I am comfortable talking about and other things I am not, but I try and respect the preferences of individual’s identities in all of my work. If passing is your truth than live it, as I will ensure that I am pushed in to the dichotomy of a straight white female based on my appearance. I think we are speaking the same language but from different perspectives.

  1. “How do you address diversity within the LBGTQ community?”

Erin: In my work with Queering the Museum project I am continually thinking and refining this topic, how to not lump all the experiences within LGBTQ into one. For me the use of and meaning behind the reclamation of the word queer is my current advocacy tool. The word queer was (and sometimes still is) a pejorative but has since been used to move the conversation around gender and sexuality out of the male/female (heternormative) binary. This binary is both limiting and oppressive to the human condition, and by thinking about identities outside of this binary I have been able to come some deep understandings of the world and the work of museums. Its understanding that feminine and masculine are constructs that many people do not fit within; working with that understanding may help deep or broaden your understanding of identities and they engage or work with people (inside and outside of the LGBTQ communities) in a more authentic way. It’s not always perfect, but its where I root my work.

9. “Which office, staff member, unit in the museum spearheads LGBTQ inclusion? Who carries the burden; how are they resourced?”

Megan: At the Children’s Museum, audience development for LGBTQ inclusion happens within our Community Outreach department as part of the larger education umbrella. However, outreach and audience diversity is a Museum-wide value that all departments work toward, through membership, board relations, exhibit development, etc.  Because it is a shared goal toward inclusion, everyone is looking at stewarding relationships, which makes life easier for everyone! However, the events and programs that attract different audiences are developed by the Community Outreach team, which consists mainly of educators who program and staff each engagement.  We rely on advisory boards, partners and external funding to run the programs. Resources are developed through grants and corporate gifts primarily.

Danielle: At the Whitney, the Access and Community Programs Department, which is housed within Education, has a mission of increasing access and relevance for audiences that have traditionally been underserved by cultural institutions, and who experience barriers to participation.  LGBTQ inclusion was an outgrowth of our community outreach and engagement work downtown, but also fit in with our other departmental activities.  Also, over time the efforts have grown and multiple program areas have taken on this question, including public programs and family programs.

Joe: No one officially, but it falls within the work of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

Erin: In smaller museums it seems that it comes from staff members who are interested or invested in these communities. Similar to what everyone stated it depends on the makeup of the museum and the executive leadership. It may be bottom up and in some cases its top down, but as you conduct outreach it’s important to ensure that you’re not essentializing or tokenizing these communities. There is a long history of mistrust between institutions (not just museums) and LGBTQ individuals (archives, health care, the prison complex, etc.), so keep in mind that long term engagement is more important than one really diverse panel or exhibition. How will you engage these communities after the exhibition closes or the panel is over? What will you learn from these communities in the process that will deep your understanding of their experiences?

  1. “What kind of education or consciousness-raising have you had to undertake in your institution to overcome barriers?”

Danielle: Education can really ease transitions like this– ensuring that your staff and stakeholders are comfortable and have appropriate language to discuss topics related to LGBTQ cultural inclusion can go a long way.  This can be done both formally and informally. Lots of organizations offer sensitivity training and can recommend resources or provide a trainer or educator, or you can also model bringing the topic up in conversation in a natural and respectful way.

Megan: I would echo what Danielle has said, education through training, reading journals and participation in these activities really foster a stronger Museum community. At CMOM we have done different sensitivity trainings and visitor services trainings but the most effective way for overcoming barriers that I’ve seen work is through experiencing the program, meeting with these audiences and respectfully working to change perspectives.

Joe: I believe in the concept of dis-settling.  I cannot make someone else uncomfortable, but I can dis-settle the situation.  I’ve been in many meetings where I am able, as a male, to react strongly to a comment that is sexist and dis-settle the discussion, especially when a woman (often the only one) cannot.  I’ve often ‘outed’ myself (ok, so once it’s done, it’s just reminding people) during discussions and brainstorms to point out assumptions and omissions as it relates to gender identity, sexual identity, etc.  For me, it is about making others aware of and feel the tensions of the barriers that they often don’t realize are barriers.

​Kate:​ One thing that’s important to my practice now that I’m consulting is making it clear to museums and culturals that I want to be an active part of these projects– that working on inclusion and social justice are central to my work. Perhaps that isn’t the ‘unbiased’ and ‘objective’ approach most assume evaluators should take, but to me it’s essential and I don’t hide it. I prioritize conversations with my clients, no matter the project or subject matter that address access and equity. These conversations can be hard for people, and rightly so, so I make sure to acknowledge that and explore why.  Keeping the conversations going, beyond one-off training or projects, is essential. It’s also essential to create a climate where people feel safe to make mistakes, be called out, and move forward toward a common goal. I believe every interaction we have, and every decision we make (alone or together), can help us become better allies, more informed citizens in our communities, and simply more gentle and empathetic with one another. We’re in this together and it’s better to be kind than to be right. Let’s help each other.

Erin: With most of the institutions I have worked with it started with language, not using “gay” to refer to everyone within LGBTQ communities, and “policing” the q. These are the first and most public way your audiences read your internal opinions or understanding of gender, sex, and sexuality. In Seattle if you don’t use the Q the younger generation will write you off as behind the times or excluding to identities beyond lesbian and gay. In addition to what Joe said about unsettling the conversation I often use my own identity to police the Q, as someone who is cis-gendered but identifying as Queer I speak my truth to help people understand where I am coming from in which I hope they gain the language skills to continue these conversations both with themselves and others. There are many who don’t feel comfortable doing this, and I understand that; however, once you’re out, you’re out and at that point you need to find ways to heal yourself after continually coming out to everyone, over and over again.

Thank you for the thoughtful and thought provoking questions. If you would answer them differently, please do so in the comment section below.

Mapping Q: Queer Youth and Art Museums

Image of the University of Arizona Museum of Art.

Image of the University of Arizona Museum of Art.

By: Chelsea Farrar

An exhibition opening on a Tuesday night at the University of Arizona Museum of Art saw over 100 people attend. Many of those visitors had never been to our museum before, but they came to see work made by local LGBTQ youth. “What I take away from this exhibition is pride in my identity”; “What I take away from this exhibition is the freedom to ‘show off’ my expression of self”; and “What I take away from this exhibition is that LGBTQ youth are creative, strong, and appreciated”. These are the voices of visitors to the exhibition Mapping Q at the University of Arizona Museum of Art in December of 2014. These responses speak to the power of community collaborations and museum programs that can engage marginalized youth through relevant and meaningful activities.


Originally envisioned as a way to partner with an existing youth program at the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation, called Allied Life Links for Youth (ALLY), a suicide prevention program for youth, Mapping Q has grown into its own program where youth are invited to explore identities through language, symbols, and works of art at the museum. It is difficult for me to speak about the value of this program without briefly explaining each of these elements, so let me quickly explain.

  • Youth were invited to “Map indicators of sex, gender and sexual orientation” on a map of the UAMA’s galleries. Some of the youth noted where they saw female and male gender displays in the artwork, some mapped where they were unsure of a figure’s sex or gender. Significantly, some created counter-narratives to works when they mapped a worked as “Gay”, counter to the traditional heterosexual interpretation of the work.
  • Youth created artwork responding to the prompt, “Map your ideal space”. Their art directly addressed issues of gender, sexuality, body positivity, identity, and place.
  • The youth participated in a label-writing workshop led by graduate Art and Visual Culture Education students from The University of Arizona. The labels were written by the youth with the assistance of the graduate students.
  • An exhibition of their artwork was displayed at the UAMA with an opening reception including the youth speaking about their work to the audience, a live DJ, and a dance performance from FLUXX, a local LGBTQ performance group.


Maping Q evolved out of my personal experience as a high school teacher and a sponsor for the school’s Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) club. Working with this high school I was witness to the institutional homophobia that perpetuated the harassment of students who either identify as LGBTQ or whose gender does not confirm to the traditional roles of what it means to be male or female. The hidden curriculum at my school, and society at large, acts to normalize not only heterosexuality but also the degradation of those who do not comply with these traditional sexual and gender roles. This is often referred to as ‘heteronormativity’. To reveal this hidden curriculum the students and I created a large map of the school campus where we invited those in the GSA and other students to map where they experienced any form of harassment or bullying. If we could reveal the institutional heteronormative practices of the school site, I wondered, as a museum educator, could I also create a program that asked youth to reveal the same hidden curriculum at the Museum?


The youth’s artwork made during the Mapping Q program at the UAMA revealed the lived, personal and complicated nature of gender identity through visually intelligent means. For example, two participants, a cis-gender female (identifies with the sex she was labeled with at birth) and the other who identified as transgender decided to collaborate on a piece where their bodies became the subject of the work, titled Where do we begin, the rubble of our sins (Bastille, Pompeii). Lines and dashes drawn in bold colors map the figure’s body, and bold red letters state “censored” across her chest. On the other body, construction tape is wrapped around the figure’s torso. In the museum label the two young artists wrote together, “What does body positivity look like to you? Where are your rivers, mountains, and valleys? What part of your body is still under construction?” As a female, the body can be a site to be critiqued and judged by others. As a person in transition or one who identifies as neither “man” nor “woman”, the body is being metaphorically constructed by the individual. For some the body might be physically re-constructed to match one’s gender. In this collaborative piece, the artists’ personal bodies stand in for the idea of place. Just as spaces can be oppressive or unsafe for LGBTQ identified youth, the body itself is a contested site where one’s presentation of their body often does not match societal expectations. Through Mapping Q, these two young artists were empowered to reclaim the aesthetic norm of what a “male” or “female” should like and communicated that concept through their artwork.

Photo: University of Arizona Museum of Art

Photo: University of Arizona Museum of Art

Another element of this exhibition that sought to give agency to the voice of these LGBTQ youth was the display on the museum walls of LGBTQ terms defined by the youth. These terms were chosen by the youth from a list culled from the University’s LGBT Pride Alliance student organization’s Safe Space training guide. Each youth that completed a work of art for the exhibition was asked to choose a term that they identified with and in their own words describe what this term meant for them. This element of the exhibition served as part of the educational programming while also revealing to visitors how knowledgeable these young artists were about their selves and their community. The definitions also revealed the fact that words, especially words that act as labels, are never stable and can have multiple meanings. For example, one participant defined “Queer” as “Non-conforming to traditional societal expectations”. And another defined the same term as “When the things you do don’t fall into the qualities associated with your sex and sexual identity.” Relinquishing our role as the sole provider of information, the Museum’s program Mapping Q provided the space for LGBTQ youth to define their own identities and to speak for themselves.


Photo: University of Arizona Museum of Art

Photo: University of Arizona Museum of Art

I feel it is also important to note that the value of this type of programming goes beyond the youth that participated. Through this exhibition we sought to engage our museum visitors in order to spark thinking and conversation about dominant institutional narratives. One way we did this was creating ways for the visitors to engage with the artwork and the museum. One activity included two large glass bowls. One labeled “I feel my identity is regularly represented in museums.” The second with the label, “I find that my identity is not represented enough in museums.” Visitors could place a pom-pom into which glass bowl they identified with. Over the course of the one month exhibition, we had a great deal of participation and it also became visibly and publically clear that our visitors were not seeing themselves represented in museums.

Photo: University of Arizona Museum of Art

Photo: University of Arizona Museum of Art

The exhibition content acted as a pedagogical hinge where it provided an opportunity for visitors to engage with unfamiliar subject matter in a safe environment and opened doors to new understandings of the community and of people. Visitor feedback on comment cards directly reflected this. Responses to the question, In what ways does the museum and the museum’s community benefit from exhibitions like this?, included, “[It] Opens minds by presenting a different perspective on gender.”; “Awesomeness! Love! Connection!”; “Integrating LGBTQ youth into exhibitions and projects opens doors for all of us”; and “ [It] opens doorways to ask questions and learn as a whole”. These comments should remind us that programs like Mapping Q can have a significant, positive impact for our communities.

Before museums can reach out to under-served communities like LGBTQ youth, we have to acknowledge that we work in cultural institutions that are part of a system of oppression. Museum exhibitions can naturalize “hetero” coupling and gender expression and thus perform as sites of mass education. The Mapping Q program is incredibly important in that it made the museum become a site for social justice to bloom as the youth were able to challenge dominate hegemonic narratives in the museum as well as institutional heteronormative practices of display, curation, and collection. Through gallery mapping activities, a studio project, and an exhibition of the youth’s artwork, the dominant heteronormative narrative of the art museum was disrupted and new possibilities were created.


Chelsea holds an M.A. in Art Education from the University of Arizona. Chelsea began her career in education as a high school art teacher, teaching studio art, AP Art History and technical theater for seven years. After receiving her masters in museum education, she began at the UAMA first as a graduate assistant, implementing her research in arts integration. Chelsea is currently pursuing a Ph.D. from the University of Arizona with an emphasis on museum education and social justice issues.

Museum Pride: The Social Role of Museum in LGBTQ Advocacy

aamBy: Erin Bailey

As many museum professionals already know the Alliance of American Museum (AAM) Annual Meeting is well underway and museum professionals from around the globe are nerding out about museums as you read this entry. This years’ theme, The Social Value of Museums; Inspiring Change, seeks to address the recent “technological, social, political, environmental and economic” changes that continue to move museums from being object-centered to visitor-centered. This theme has started and continued many conversations about how museums can improve the quality of visitors’ lives, social change, and the wellbeing of communities centering conversations at AAM around intersection of race, gender, class, sex, and sexuality. Traversing these topics through case studies, theory driven discussion, and interactive workshops, these conversations are happening in sessions, hallways, near charging stations, and even in the bathrooms. The atmosphere is charged with asking the hard questions, exploring new ideas, and advancing the dialogue.

This entry is highlighting Museum Pride: The Social Role of Museum in LGBTQ Advocacy, ONE of the MANY sessions that engage these intersections and earnestly seek to advance the conversation forward. According to AAM Museum Pride focuses on “achieving legal and social equity for LGBTQ persons extends beyond the work of activists and allies; immense, public, bipartisan support is growing worldwide. Several museums have readily partnered with LGBTQ organizations, becoming active participants in social change. Many museums, however, remain reluctant. Join us as four museums reflect on how and why they joined the LGBTQ dialogue, their stumbles and victories, and the self-discovery and organizational change along the way,” featuring the work of Joe E. Heimlich, Ph.D., Principal Researcher with the Lifelong Learning Group at COSI, Danielle Linzer, Director of Access and Community Programs, Whitney Museum of American Art, Megan Swanby Manager of Community Outreach and Access, the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, and Kate Tinworth, founder and Principal of ExposeYourMuseum, LLC, and me to talk about how difference museums are engaging LGBTQ communities. During this session we are determined to answer these questions to the fullest possibility but the conversation will never really be over.

  1. How did the LGBTQ outreach/engagement efforts start at your institution? What was the catalyst?
  2. What has been transformative and wonderful for your museum’s choice to engage in LGBTQ-focused partnerships, programs, and/or exhibits?
  3. What’s been hard, or what are the lessons learned you might share with museums considering LGBTQ-focused partnerships, programs, and/or exhibits?
  4. What are the commonalities in and across museums who choose to actively engaging with LGBT audiences/communities? What have heard from each other that’s interesting and how we learn from and build off of each other’s efforts?
  5. What work is yet to be done? As we look ahead, what do museums need to be thinking about and prioritizing as they engage in LGBTQ-focused partnerships, programs, and/or exhibits in the future?

In an effort to keep this conversation going and offer a take away we combed our libraries and hard drives to find all the resources available for professionals seeking to engage with these audiences. Below are the current resources and we hope you will use the comments section to share any that we missed. No really comment and help us start the conversation #queerAAM.

Books and Publications:

Queers Online: LGBT Digital Practices in Libraries, Archives, and Museums by Rachel Wexelbaum (2015)

Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites by Susan Ferentinos (2014) and read this entry from QTM.

Gender, Sexuality and Museums: A Routledge Reader by Amy K. Levin (2010)

Where is Queer?” Museums & Social Issues Vol. 3, N. 1, editors: John Fraser & Joe E. Heimlich (Spring 2008)

 Getting Intersectional in Museums by Nicole Robert, Volume 9, Issue 1 (April, 2014)

Displaying the Queer Past: Purpose, Publics, and Possibilities of the GLBT History by Gerard Koskovich, QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Summer 2014)

Affiliate Groups/Projects:

Social Justice Alliance from MuseumMuseum Association (UK) Tweet them at: @MuseumsAssoc and join the #SJAM conversation.

Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Alliance (LGBTQ Alliance) of the American Alliance of Museums Tweet them at: @AAM_LGBTQ

American Evaluation Association’s LGBT topic interest group (TIG)

the Incluseum Tweet them at @incluseum

Pop-up Museum of Queer History Tweet them at @queermuseum

And obviously Queering the Museum project, with more specific regional resources here, and most of QTM’s tweets come from @ebai206

SOME museum people who have presented on LGBT museum topics over past 3 years: (again fill the comment section with anyone not listed here. Lets give credit where credit us due)

Adrian Zongrone, EdVenture @boatkult
Timothy Hecox, OMSI
Kevin Seymour, COSI @ohiokms76
Adrienne Barnett, Expoloratorium
Ian Kerrigan, The National September 11 Memorial & Museum
Elissa Frankle, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum @museums365
Susan Ferentinos, public history consultant  @HistorySue
Ken Turino, Historic New England

We offer this as a start, please help us complete this list by emailing, comment below or tweet anyone of us. Here are our handles:
Megan: @nycArtSeen
Danielle: @bigdlinz
Kate: @exposyourmuseum
Me: @EBai206

If you’re considering putting in a session for next year, please do! The more discourse the more progress.


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