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

6 November 2013

Transmutation #20 - Revealing Queer: an exhibition and symposium at the Museum of History and Industry

Erin Bailey is the founder of Queering the Museum, a project in Seattle, USA. Her work applies a lot of museological thought, queer theory and gender studies as a platform for the way in which we think about representation in museums.

Queer studies are controversial, and so so often eliminated from the national narrative - alongside other things such as death, asylum seekers, racism, indigenous issues, and more. The list of controversial topics in the US is, for me, quite disturbing, reflecting uneasy tensions between individual rights, the loyalty to the state and church, and the relationship between America and the wider world. For LGBT people, their already controversial situation is complicated by their multiplicity of other, sometimes conflicting, identities.

Changes in societal ideology, such as legalisation of same-sex marriage, allow museums to adapt to the times and tackle difficult subjects. Museums play an important role in creating national identity, and it is important that the government have a role in stating that.

Bailey's work applies Elee Wood's 7 Rules for Revolution, which use the power of museums to create transformative educational spaces whilst rewriting the national narrative. But museums must find ways of interpreting objects which do not give queer identities as given and monumental through all places and times.

Queering the Museum is a joint effort between two scholars, including Baily, with the purpose of researching topics including inclusion, representation, engagement and collecting/preserving history of relevance to the LGBTQ communities.

They made a proposal to the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle, which accepted it. This allowed them to host a symposium and a digital workshop, and an exhibition is being planned. MOHAI is a significant institution - the largest history collection in the area. At the time, they were themselves undergoing a significant process of change; in 2012, they moved to a larger and more prominant building.

The exhibition will be the first to address LGBTQ history over the last 40 years. They plan to work with a community advisory committee within the Puget Sound region. Unlike many such committees, the QtM group get to take part in every aspect of the development and marketing of the exhibition. The exhibition is designed for a general audience; MOHAI's audience is beleived to be predominantly middle aged and right wing. But Seattle has one of the largest LGBTQ populations in the US, and has historically been at the forefront of LGBTQ rights. They had their first Gay Pride festival in 1973, and were treating AIDS before the epidemic broke.

The committee is made up not just of individual members, but of members representing organisations. They have monthly meetings, and three subgroups worked on the exhibition, the digital storytelling project and the symposia (these groups are now merged and collaborate on the exhibition). Members were recruited through public events, coffee shop meetings, word of mouth.

What does such a process take; trust, which is made up of time, emotional investment, listening, patience, and, perhaps most importantly, committed follow through. LGBTQ communities in Seattle have historical reasons for not trusting institutions; so trust, talking and listening is absolutely crucial.

The Queering the History Museum symposia brought ideas and speakers to the museum, but institutional change didn't occur. There was, perhaps, a lack of trust here. I wonder how the project is supposed to have a future when 'the Man' isn't there? I hope that this changes soon.

So how, after the exhibition, are the project and the History Museum supposed to build relationships sustainably into the future? This is something I don't have an answer to. I can say, however, that this is an astonishing and brave project, and I hope the trust is built, and sustained, to allow it to continue.

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