That was the question that drove me to graduate school. I wanted to know how museums have historically engaged socially oppressed communities within their exhibitions, collections, and educational initiatives so we can better understand how to continue this work into the future. The power dynamics and politicking that are associated with community or socially engaged work in museums, specifically the power dynamics between communities and curators, fear of critique when engaging contemporary politics, and the saddening reality that archives don’t reflect socially oppressed communities, are some of the barriers museums face when working with communities that are not socially accepted.
To better understand how history museums can use exhibitions to write these communities into the archive, Queering the Museum project (QTM) partnered with the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) to explore Queer representation and collecting practices in their institution. MOHAI is the largest private heritage organization in the State of Washington with a collection of over 4 million objects, documents, and photographs from the Puget Sound region’s past. Their mission is to “collect and preserve the diverse history of Seattle, the Puget Sound region and beyond. Highlighting innovation and education, MOHAI enriches lives by sharing the individual and collective stories of our communities.” MOHAI is a growing institution that moved into a large state of the art building in 2012 and as a result has the space and resources to engage with diverse communities. With every new initiative institutions have to navigate processes in their practices. Most notably during our partnership we opened Revealing Queer, an exhibition that highlights the last 40 years of LGBTQ history in the Puget Sound region of Washington State, USA as told by the communities who lived these experiences. When thinking about how to open an exhibition that equitably tells the stories of a diverse subgroup of peoples we knew that Revealing Queer would benefit from using the community advisory committee model coined by the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. This model allowed us authentically tell these stories to visitors and to help build the archive of regional LGBTQ history. This committee shaped the content of the exhibition, identified objects held in community collections, and ensured that the vast corners of Queer communities knew about our work at MOHAI. This process literally questioned the power of museums in telling stories of marginalized communities and continues to explore how museums mediate an exhibition that engages contemporary politics.
Revealing Queer opened on February 14, 2014 to a sold out opening party, quantitatively showing that engaging with marginalized communities will build new bridges between the museum and the communities they serve or in this case want to serve. Over the course of the exhibition we have seen a diversity of people in the exhibition space, including families, youth, aging communities and school groups. As visitors continue to trickle into the exhibition the comment book shines a light on the value of this exhibition at MOHAI. One visitor left this note in the comment book, “wonderful exhibit – strikes a chord with this young (25 year old) heart of mine. I love this city and I love its history. Having a very smooth life since coming out in 2005, this exhibit gives me new energy to help others.” This comment embodies the goals of the exhibition, to teach about LGBTQ history in the Puget Sound, show the diversity of experiences within LGBTQ communities, and use the museum as a space to inspire visitors to continue fighting inequality in their lives and communities. We live in a time when where human rights are advancing and society is rapidly incorporating social values that reflect a diversity of identities, as embodied in the current fight for and in some states passing of marriage equality. While these changes are among us it does not mean that society has achieved equality. It has been argued that society will never be truly equal given that accepting one community or idea is often at the expense of another. Much the same within the curation of an exhibition, when one element of an identity is represented it is physically taking up the space where another element could be represented. While the politics around equality are being explored and understood, we do know that within LGBTQ experiences oppression still exists. Since 2010 we have seen a surge in youth bullying and suicide, as well as an even longer problem of the continued oppression of Trans identified peoples in schools, gyms, hospitals, prisons, and the workforce – society is simply not equal. Revealing Queer and the work of Queering the Museum Project questions the power of museums and the power of politics in the media to influence society, using the museum as a safe space to have dialogue about oppression and inequality. The ability of the museum to act as a facilitator of dialogue exposes the power of museums to change society.
Working with MOHAI to open this exhibition was a rare opportunity for recent grad and I am well aware of how fortunate I was to be in that position. However, I also learned so much about community work in museums, institutional vs. community expectations, and how to do professional work so personal to my life. Navigating these paths was an exercise of faith, faith that I work ethically within the context and ensuring that I am listening to the community as they share the darkest parts of their identities. At the end of months of meetings and discussions, we put ourselves on the walls of the museums for the general public to view. Open for criticism and hopefully celebrations. One visitor to the exhibition shared these thoughts of Facebook,
As a gay man, I was truly embarrassed by this exhibit. There is little substance to it. It has the appearance, and effect, of something created as a homework assignment by a less than average high school class. It’s just bad! It basically consists of a disjointed collection of posters and poorly produced storyboards that are meaningless in conveying the depth of gay “history.” Significant chapters are ignored and insignificant “stories” are included. Worse, there is one shameful advertisement after another from local gay organizations that must have contributed to this disaster in some way or another. There is nothing moving or powerful about it. Moreover, shame on my gay brethren; the aesthetics of the presentation were amateur, sophomoric.
This particular critique was not just on the topic of the exhibition, but on the quality of the design and depth of the content. While this feedback is a sharp stab to the heart of any institution trying to do good work, it also speaks to expectations. We live in a society where LGBTQ identities are becoming more visible and with visibility come the assumption that queer history is as rich as any other communities’ history, and I completely agree. What is missing from this critique is an understanding that in museums we tell stories, stories of people, places, and thing. These stories give the museum power and are usually object driven. At the end of the day an exhibition is only as good as the archive is comes from and the queer archive is seriously lacking in depth. The lack of deep and rich queer objects forced us to take an experimental path for interpretation, such as using digital stories created by community members that allow them to tell their stories in their own voices, while developing the technical skills to create these videos. Moreover, we worked exceptionally hard to move away from the gay, white, cis-gendered narrative that populates media. There are more narratives that should be included in this exhibition; however, we only had 1,000 square feet of space to make magic happen. His message was really hard for me to read; however, the ten positive comments to the 1 negative must mean were doing something right. Success is not written on social media nor is it left in a comment book it comes from the experiences of people in the galleries. Seeing people crying because their history is validated or seeing teaching moments between adults and children in the galleries, to tweets such as this one, “At the Revealing Queer exhibition @MOHAI & honestly having a hard time not bursting into tears. Amazing work” “Wishing a project like this existed in my home city/every city,” make you forget naysayers and fosters inspiration to keep on trying.
As we come closer to the closing of Revealing Queer on July 6, 2014, we are still navigating how to maintain relationships between MOHAI and LGBTQ communities. This power dynamic will continue to play out over time; however, MOHAI is dedicated to telling these stories in their collections, exhibitions and programs. This exhibition moves MOHAI away from the stereotypes of traditional history museum and into a dialogue of power, politics and oppression.
Erin Bailey is the curator of Revealing Queer and co-founder of Queering the Museum project. A a recent graduate from the Museology Graduate Program at the University of Washington her career is dedicated to finding new access points for museums to engage with contemporary politics and culture.
Images, top to bottom: Installation image of Reveling Queer, Feb 2014; Members of the Community Advisory Committee at the opening of Reveling Queer, Feb 2014; Installation image of Reveling Queer, Feb 2014. All photos by Barbie Hull.