Queer/ing Objects? – by – Nikki Sullivan & Craig Middleton

Recent research has shown that the stories and experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and queer (LGBTIQ+) people are largely absent in museums internationally, and that this negatively impacts LGBTIQ+ people, their families and allies in a wide range of ways. At the same time, there is a growing awareness in the GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums) sector that publically funded cultural institutions have a duty to reflect diversity in all its forms, to take an active approach to inclusion, and to promote understanding between different groups, communities and cultures.

Objects, as Oliver Winchester notes, ‘are the lifeblood of a museum’ (2012, p.145). As social history museum curators, we collect, document, preserve, display, and interpret ‘historical’ objects in order to tell stories about the pasts that contribute to the present in which we now find ourselves. But like the vast majority of other museum collections, ours includes very few objects that are catalogued using terms such as lesbian, gay, transgender, homosexual, queer, and so on. We have consequently struggled with the question of how to tell LGBTIQ+ inclusive his/stories without such objects (or at least, without objects that are identified as such, and are therefore ‘at hand’). One of the aims of our organisation’s LGBTIQ+ Inclusion Action Plan is to actively collect LGBTIQ+ objects. Our LGBTIQ+ Inclusion Action Plan draws on the vision and values of our parent organisation – The History Trust of South Australia – and implements its strategic plan as it pertains to LBGTIQ+ visitors, staff, programs, engagement, and collections. However, as we’ve discovered, this raises questions of what a ‘queer’ object is. We have chosen to use the term ‘queer’ for two reasons. First, it can, and often is, used as an umbrella term for LGBTI+, and second, it can also be used as a verb, to queer. In our practice we aim both to collect objects through which the stories of marginalised groups might be explored, and, at the same time, to challenge the taxonomies, processes, and powers of privilege employed by large collecting institutions.

Questions about what a ‘queer object’ might be include:

  • Should an object be considered queer because the person who made it identifies as such or is presumed to have been gay or lesbian: for example, Michelangelo’s ‘David’?
  • Should an object be considered queer because the donor or lender of the object is queer-identified?
  • Should an object be considered queer because a well-known transgender person purchased, commissioned, or used it?
  • Should an object be considered queer if it depicts what we understand as same-sex intimacy: for example, the Warren Cup (British Museum) which could be read as depicting males in mutual sex acts?
  • Should an object be considered queer because it was used in the management of queer issues or lives for better or worse: for example, the postal survey mailed to our letter-boxes, or the pink triangle used in Auschwitz?

Rather than regarding these as questions with definitive answers, we view them as an opportunity to explore the nature of meaning: is meaning inherent in an object, or is it an effect of meaning-making practices that are situated in a particular historical and cultural context? Drawing on the work of poststructuralist and queer theorists, we are convinced that the latter is the case. After all, if you think about it, ‘objects displayed with only minimal interpretation can rarely speak for themselves’ (Winchester, 2012, p.145): this is particularly true of unusual objects. On the other hand, extremely familiar objects often bring with them connotations or associations that might be at odds with the interpretation that the curator intends the viewer to take away. This is why, in social history museums, objects tend to be accompanied by detailed labels that ‘tell a story’ of what the curator and/or the museum believe to be the object’s significance, and sometimes, its provenance. This is contrary to art museums that often take a different approach to object labels. Art museums will often include details of maker, manufacturer, medium, and so on, but don’t necessarily ‘tell a story’ or explain meaning in ways that social history museums attempt to do. Traditionally, the aim of labels has been to present what were assumed to be objective facts to the viewer, however, the meaning-making function of labels is increasingly being recognised by museum professionals, as is the political nature of display. There is also an awareness of the fact that the framing of objects – the context in which they are displayed, their placement in relation to other objects, etc. – contributes to the interpretations made by viewers.

Meaning-making has also come to be understood as an ongoing, generative process that involves viewers as much as it does those who create displays. Despite curators’ best efforts to classify and interpret objects – perhaps even to determine their meaning – visitors bring to museum visits past experiences, dispositions, idea(l)s, and opinions that colour their interpretation of objects on display, their significance, and the stories they might tell. Recognition of this heterogeneous process ‘queers’ the colonialist view of the museum as a place of education that provides access to truths that visitors may otherwise never encounter. It also replaces the figure of the passive viewer who simply consumes what is presented to them, with a notion of ‘publics’ – diverse individuals and groups who are engaged, intelligent, co-creators in the processes of world-making both within and outside the museum. At the same time, engaged and engaging museums have come to see themselves as sites of discussion and debate, as forums for ideas rather than repositories for ‘static’ objects. In this changing vision objects become vehicles for exploring ideas, discussing issues, situating debate, rather than things of significance in themselves.

If meaning is made through an interactive relationship between curators, objects, viewers, and contexts (both within and beyond the museum), rather than residing in an object, then it is impossible to define – at least in any absolute sense – what is, and what is not, a queer object. At the same time though, it is possible to track connections between particular objects and specific individuals, events, and so on. For example, we can know that a ‘yes’ badge in our collection was one of many that were produced and distributed by The Equality Campaign, a joint initiative of Australian Marriage Equality and Australians for Equality, during the postal vote that recently took place. And we may well use this badge in future exhibitions that track the changing legal status of same-sex acts, relationships, rights, and so on, or that tell stories of grassroots political movements. In short, it is possible, and sometimes useful, to name an object as ‘queer’, just as it is possible, and sometimes useful, to use an object to ‘queer’, that is, to trouble what we might understand as normative curatorial practices. These different, but not necessarily incompatible, approaches are being used with increasing frequency in museums internationally.

For example, in recent years large international museums including the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum have identified objects such as letters, sculptures, prints, pottery, silverware, and so on, as ‘evidence’ of same-sex desire and gender diversity in other times and places. This revealing of ‘hidden’, ‘repressed’ or ‘marginalised’ histories undoubtedly has an important role to play in challenging heteronormative historical narratives and assumptions about the ahistorical, universal, and thus ‘natural’ status of heterosexuality, however, but tends not to challenge, in any fundamental way, the taxonomies, curatorial practices and processes, and powers of privilege that underpin large collecting institutions.

Rather than simply representing objects as queer, UK-based artist and curator Matt Smith has used objects and object labels to queer practices of display. Smith questions and critiques decisions made by curators by ‘re-appropriating objects to tell revised stories, removing objects from the stores and placing them centre stage and placing newly created ‘historic’ objects within the collection to fill LGBT gaps’ (2005, p.103). The three main techniques Smith employs in projects such as Queering the Museum (featured at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, 2011) are relabeling; juxtaposition (placing an object next to another to cast it in a new/alternative light); and the creation of new art/works that reconfigure the meaning of the existing objects with which they are displayed. For example, Smith displayed a taxidermied otter from Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s natural history collection in close proximity with three small ceramic bears which he created. The juxtaposition of these creatures troubles conventional taxonomies (the idea that, for example, scientific collections are different to natural history collections, and to decorative arts collections, all of which are conventionally displayed and stored separately), and, at the same time, resignifies the otter. This is achieved in part by the accompanying labels which read:

Stereotypes: Bears are larger, hairy gay men who often have beards. Otters are slimmer hairy gay men. They are sometimes seen playing together in the wild.

In conclusion, then, we suggest that while it is important for curators to take an active role in the classification and reclassification of objects relating to LGBTIQ+ lives. Where possible, we might also work to queer museological practice and the material effects it produces. 

References

Smith Matt, 2015, Making Things Perfectly Queer, Doctor of Philosophy, University of Brighton, UK (unpublished PhD thesis). Accessed: 16/11/17. Retrieved from: http://eprints.brighton.ac.uk/15556/1/Complete%20E%20Dissertation%20Jan%202016.pdf

Winchester, O. (2012) ‘A book with its pages always open?’, in Museums, Equality and Social Justice, R. Sandell & E. Nightingale (eds.), London: Routledge, pp.142-55.

 

Nikki Sullivan (Migration Museum) and Craig Middleton (Centre of Democracy) are curators working in social history museums part of the History Trust of South Australia – a statutory authority responsible for South Australia’s state history collections and interpretation. Nikki is also Honorary Associate Professor of Critical and Cultural Studies in the Department of Media, Music, Communication and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University.

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