The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

30 March 2011

The Final Spring! - Keynotes of Magic and Reinterpretation

Matt Smith and Andy Horn Queering the Museum: Representing LGBT Lives Using Museum Collections

Birmingham is one of the largest council run museum services in the UK, in the hugely diverse Second City. An exhibition, two years ago, in the Central Libaray pointed to a lack of LGBT representation in the city. From this developed Gay Birmingham Remembered and the Shout! Festival, now strong elements in the city's life.

The collection of BMAG is broad, and has a stong collection of applied arts - unsurprising in a city once called the 'Toyshop of Europe.' It emphasizes diversity in its programmes and operations, but you might argue that there is a significant lack of representation of LGBT culture. So Matt approached the museum through Shout's co-ordinator, and they began to plan how the museum could work to produce 'Queering the Museum.'
They had to have a rationale, a justification for doing this, to make sure that it integrated with their existing work, helped the museum moved forward, and didn't appear tokenistic. What, too, is the value between blurring the boundaries between the museum itself, and the way it is interpreted?

There is certainly a value in looking at collections with new eyes, particularly when they haven't, like the BMAG ceramics collection, been redisplayed for a number of years. Matt proposed a number of possibilities for this interaction of art and museum space, and certain of these had to be treated with a distinct amount of sensitivity. As a Council Museum, they have to balance a number of competing desires and agendas. A display relating to the sexuality of Cardinal Newman, particularly around the time of the Papel visit, was particularly sensitive and had to be dropped.

However, trying to push the creative agenda in museums is often more difficult than you might think. For museums, traditionally, are not spaces which are often all that creative, though creative activities might occur within their walls. But by engaging with Shout, and other arts organizations, and acting as a mediator between these groups and the museum, Matt managed to create nineteen interventions within the museum space. As a museological person himself, it was really important that he engaged fully with the collection. He was able, as a new gaze, to act as a 'Queer eye' on the museum's collections, and rather than develop a queer exhibition, they decided to queer the whole museum.

Queer can be used as an inclusive term, a term currently reappropriated by the LGBT community. It also overlaps with the uncanny, associated with anything outside the norm, slightly sidelined or odd. It has in the past been used pejoratively, but the idea of queering the museum was to engage with both negative and positive elements of representing lgbt culture, and to extend the existing representation that was (or was not) already there.

When we 'queer' something, we make it strange, odd, peculiar. By queering the Round Room, a space hung in a classic academy style, the space becomes uncanny and strange. But in a way it already was, for in the transgressive figure of Lucifer, modelled with the face of a woman and a body of a man is situated directly at the centre. Perhaps the least subtle part of this whole intervention was the draping of the figure in green carnations, which appeared throughout the museum signifying the 'queer trail.'

The stories which the intervention was able to tell were both comical, lighthearted and tragic. The figure of Simeon Solomon, the museum's only expression of homosexual culture prior to the project, is a very sad tale indeed. By juxtaposing him with the figure of Lord Leighton, who perhaps had very similar lives, the different appropriations of stories related to gender and sexuality become apparent.

Coupling and balance also played a role, for the placing of objects in direct relation to each other reflects a particular kind of narrative within museum space. What happens when the physical relationships between objects are changed, and removed, and what are the meanings (re)created in the space inbetween. Comment upon art history also makes itself apparent in Jakes Progress, which relates to Birmingham's huge collection of tiles, but which also comments upon Hogarth's Rake's Progress.

Galley 33, a gallery of diversity of which the museum was incredibly proud, actually engaged very little with LGBT representation. By placing a civil partnership card within the space, it manifests an acknowledgement of this culture from another element of the institution. Thus the display activity of the museum itself becomes legitimated by its relationship to changing legality and authority.

Polari, a secret language of the LGBT community, is an interesting expression of subversion which the project uses in the museum space through figures representing various expressions within it. In placing these figures here, the polyvocality of the museum space and its ability to subvert standard conventions from within authoritarian structures themselves.

What was the purpose of this intervention? You wouldn't 'Straighten' the museum or mention if an artist is straight. But there's a certain politics which need to be recognised, for there are implict dialogues in museum texts which express heterosexual relationships - children and marriages - whilst homosexual relationships are whitewashed. Homophobic bullying is on the rise, negative portrayal in the media still continues, and LGBT individuals are taxpayers too, and have a right to be represented in the institutions to which they contribute.

In cutting across subjects, object groupings and collections, it became apparent that there was a freedom possible for interacting with museum institutions and interpretation. During collection, the polyvocality of objects should be retained as much as possible, in order that in the future, their meanings are able to mutate and change.

38% of the visitors to the installations identified themselves as gay, and 74% overall considered it an appropriate, and positive use of BMAG, its collections and its space. A large proportion of the through the door visitors engaged with the intervention, largely because the significant figure of Lucifer. Out of a hundred and fourty thousand visitors, there were only four negative comments. There is, it seems, a contract of authority and trust which museums sign with the visitor, and when these are perceived to be violated, that is where the problem arises. Homosexuality is a subject which still presents difficulties of social acceptance in a way that racial and feminist issues are not.

This intervention has changed the museum, providing a model for the museum's activities in the future and opening up the staff to discussions around difficult or underrepresented subjects. It became clear that the staff of BMAG are very open, very liberal, very inclusive people. It created a space in which same sex couples could hold hands - a charming, but little seen expression of love embedded in the heart of Birmingham's cultural life.

Such interventions are risky ventures, particularly in a climate which is economically unstable. There is a tendancy to conform in such environments - but this conformity is, itself, a risk. One of the things which this conference aimed to do was to create a space in which those risks can be taken, to make it plain that taking the risk, whether it results in success or spectacular failure, is always worth it. For everyone feels non-normative at times, and if you don't accept that, don't jump, you don't progress. If you don't fall down the Rabbit Hole once in a while, if you don't allow yourselves to see the world through other, queerer, more curious eyes, you don't allow yourselves to grow.

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