Sean Curran, London, UK: The Museum Through Queer Eyes: Bringing the "Outsider" Narratives Inside

"Museum collections and exhibitions should perhaps be interpreted under the assumption that everyone is, or has the potential to identify as queer, in that individuality and disparate identities should be celebrated as something we hold in common."

"Hello Sailor! Gay Life on the ocean wave" exhibition at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool
Sean Curran is a PhD student and library assistant at the University of London. In this paper, he asks "whether interpretation in museums and archives should be weighted towards a celebration of a shared queer identity in order to more successfully promote a sense of community amongst a diverse audience." He suggests that this "would make broader steps towards inclusion than the current trend of focusing on difference." 

What do you think? Is ‘threshold fear’ a device to place the blame of those excluded from museum interpretation onto the audience themselves, rather than the institutions? Would ‘queering’ our museums promote a celebration of shared diversity, as opposed to emphasising difference? Can queer interpretation integrate marginal narratives into the flow of museums whilst avoiding tokenism?

Click on read more, to read Sean Curran's full paper!

I was recently awarded an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) studentship to pursue a PhD. In this research project I will investigate whether interpretation in museums should be weighted towards a celebration of a shared queer identity in order to more successfully promote a sense of belonging and community amongst a diverse and varied audience, and argue that this would make broader steps towards inclusion than the current trend of tokenistic interpretations focusing on difference.

There is a growing, but still relatively small body of literature in this area. While theory about inclusion in museums is progressive and challenging, practice is still rooted in conservatism and patriarchy.  

This proposed research addresses the need for further work in this area, though moving focus away from specifically LGBTI audiences, and instead looking at the broader definition of ‘queer’, which, thanks to Foucault and Butler, has evolved from being a pejorative term and has instead become an encapsulating umbrella term that covers anyone who relates or identifies outside of heteronormativity and the enforced gender-binary. Queer is essentially a rejection of, or a challenge to the “normal” or dominant and, as Suzana Milevska says, ‘becoming community without having in common’. Museum collections and exhibitions should be interpreted under the assumption that everyone is, or has the potential to identify as queer, in that individuality and disparate identities should be celebrated as something we hold in common. Identity is performance, so museums should be the stage that highlights a unity between performers. Museums should strive, when thinking about inclusion as a central focus of all interpretation, towards the depoliticisation of people. As Butler states, identity categories are often merely ‘instruments of regulatory regimes, whether as the normalizing categories of oppressive structures or as the rallying points for a liberatory contestation of that very oppression’ (1991: 13-14). The overuse of the word ‘diversity’ in museums emphasises these constrictive social categories rather than acknowledging the ranging stories and voices within a shared humanity.

It is an interesting year to be beginning this research in the UK, following the shambolic World Pride event last month in London that was grossly overlooked by our coalition government who proved once again that their affection and respect for the LGBTI community is purely for show, in a year where London has staged events on a grand scale that further alienate the queer population, the first being the Queen’s Jubilee, which celebrated the archaic, heteronormative and empirical un-earned wealth of our unelected royal family, and presently the 2012 Olympics, which, while the opening ceremony gave a brief nod to the rich British LGBTI community, is a timely reminder of the inherent homophobia in sport, with only 0.16% of the near 14,000 athletes competing outwardly identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, although one must assume that this number would rise considerably if men were allowed to compete in the synchronised swimming events.

I will challenge Heumann Gurian’s notion of ‘threshold fear’ (2005), and aim to demonstrate that rather than the ‘uninitiated’(2005: 203) being intimidated by, or wary of the ‘physical and programmatic barriers’(2005: 203) that museums present, it is in fact the institutions themselves that fear their audiences and are hesitant to completely engage with more marginal or “difficult” narratives.

Often, attempts to involve and entice minority or alternative communities are tokenistic, and following stand-alone exhibitions or events, little is done to weave these narratives into the general flow of the museum. For me, this presents one of the greatest challenges. In order to create a transparent and collaborative working relationship with varying communities, museums must actively recruit alternative voices from outside the confinements of heteronormative society and ‘listen, share authority and work at sustaining’ (Reeve, 2006: 54) those relationships when interpreting its collections, this will result in ‘increased ownership’ (Blackwell, 2009: 32) of the museum by the communities it reflects. A positive example of this is at the Victoria & Albert museum in London, where seven faith advisory groups have been recruited to help inform on all aspects of interpretation relating to their religions.

Hopefully the research gathered throughout my PhD will help to inform a potential framework by which museums could become queered institutions that encompass a livelier, more honest and truly diverse reflection of its audience. The research might also persuade LGBTI museum directors and professionals to
embrace and take ownership of their own diversity more.

Positive work in the UK has taken place, some of which we have been hearing about at this conference, I shan’t labour over the examples, but to name just two:

In August 2006 the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool launched an exhibition called Hello Sailor! Gay life on the ocean wave to accompany the new book by Jo Stanley and Paul Baker. Since then the exhibition has been woven into a permanent exhibition called Life at Sea, and while scholarly indulgences have perhaps created a surreal and inconsistent result, it is, nevertheless, a brave move to introduce a splash of pink to the otherwise machismo-drenched brutalism of a maritime museum.

The British Museum purchased the Warren Cup in 1999 after initially refusing it. Dated between AD 14-37 (2007: 46), it depicts two scenes of penetrative homosexual intercourse and the ages of the figures suggest that both of these are pederastic encounters. In 2006, the Museum held a free experimental exhibition centring on the Warren Cup, called Warren Cup: Sex and Society in Ancient Greece and Rome. The small exhibition ‘took an “object in focus” approach, using a single exhibit [...] as a way in to help visitors engage with larger themes and narratives’ (Hargreaves McIntyre, 2006: 6). It contextualised items such as the Warren Cup within Ancient Greek and Roman societies and delved into the theme of attitudes to sexuality in other cultures as well, allowing visitors to ‘draw parallels with the present day’ (2006: 6). The response was largely positive, with visitors calling it an ‘about-time’ display and hoping for more of the same. The cup now sits within a permanent display, and forms part of an LGBTI trail around the museum.

To see the museum through queer eyes is not about draping our institutions in rainbow flags, but requires the removal of the heteronormative-tinted spectacles that we’ve become so conditioned to wearing that we have forgotten we’ve got them on.

Archives and museums are inherently masculinised places, whose narratives present ‘others’ from the view of the white, heterosexual male. The absence of a female narrative or a queer narrative is not a new development, but is instead rooted in the patriarchy that has informed our society, our education and our institutions[1].

The very nature of archiving and collecting could be viewed as a feminine act, in Western culture traits such as ‘care, creativity, nurture and preservation’ (Belk and Wallendorf, 1999: 242) are seen as stereotypically feminine, which makes our cultural institutions’ enforcement of a male-centric history even more perplexing.

Perhaps the troubles lie with our institutions, both cultural and educational, as often attempts to include alternative narratives include an expansion of the stories we already know, as opposed to the ‘radical reconceptualization’ (Hein, 2010: 57) of our past that a feminist approach demands.

To say that museums and archives are the driving force behind the masculinisation of our past is unfair, but they certainly ‘collude in this practice’ (Levin, 2010: 93) of enforcing a patriarchal viewpoint. They are ‘burdened by a centuries-old commitment to maintaining a master narrative that privileges white men’ (Levin, 2010: 102) and see any attempts to reassess and disrupt this narrative as a troubling and political act, perhaps these institutions believe in their own myths as neutral and unpoliticised places.

A queer and feminist approach to interpretation would reject the idea of hierarchy and canonicity, any attempt to enlarge existing canons or include women and queers in a dominant narrative by simply inserting them into a male-built hierarchy would ‘tacitly reinforce its negative implications’ (Nochlin, 1989: 148), a feminist approach would instead consider alternatives to the old order ‘without assuming that either synthesis or compromise must follow’ (Hein, 2010, pp. 59-60). Instead of claiming that queers deserve to be inserted into existing historical structures, we should challenge and disrupt these structures entirely. The canon is an act of active remembering (Assmann, 2008: 99), which suggests a selectiveness, and the term itself ‘belongs to the history of religion’ (Assmann, 2008: 100), thus to be part of the canon suggest saintliness, and enforces a hierarchy of worth that feminist theories oppose.

While some might argue that canons and hierarchical structures are ‘open to changes and exchanges’ (Assmann, 2008: 101), the voices who have been forgotten deserve a more rigorous rewriting of history than a simple cut-and-paste job.

Clearly in recent years large strides have been made towards the inclusion of LGBTI materials and exhibitions in museums. Whether or not this is enough to help the continuing demand for the development of the LGBTI audience is a question worth asking, but either way, it is certainly a necessary step in the right direction. It is promising that the AHRC considers this research worthy and necessary to support and the LGBTI ALMS 2012 conference is a perfect place to further the dialogue.

I’ll end with some questions for discussion:
  • How do we collect and record intangible queer heritage such as events, festivals and Pride parades?
  • Are we in danger of appropriating the past with contemporary vocabulary by “outing” people posthumously?
  • How do we deal with conflicts within a queer community? Eg: how do we stop LGBT becoming a byword for ‘gay men’ and how do we give voice to the often silent ‘T’?
  • How do we create a balance between portraying queers as victims and as “trivialities” – eg: camp, partying, sex etc? How do we ensure that queer voices are heard consistently through every aspect of life, as Angela Vanegas (2002) said ‘gay men are more likely to use a steam iron than a cock ring’...
I will be documenting my research journey on my blog: http://towardsqueer.blogspot.co.uk/


[1] This part of the paper is taken from my unpublished MA dissertation (Curran, 2012)

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