Revealing Queer: A Model for Inclusion in Museums

Revealing Queer, a landmark exhibition produced by Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) and curated by Queering the Museum, explored the last 40 years of LGBTQ history in the Puget Sound region.  The exhibition, which opened in February 2014 and ended in July of the same year, was the brainchild of Queering

Queering the Museum founders Erin Bailey and Nicole Robert
Queering the Museum founders Erin Bailey and Nicole Robert

the Museum (QTM), a project founded by museum professionals Erin Bailey and Nicole Roberts in 2011 to explore issues of representation of marginalized groups, particularly LGBTQ communities, in museums.  The goal of QTM is, “…to facilitate critical dialogues between community members and museum practitioners, addressing the role that museums play in forming social norms around gender and sexuality.” [1] QTM investigates these issues by doing actual projects in museums including exhibitions, workshops, or symposiums.  The two founders proposed Revealing Queer to MOHAI because they wanted a more regional history based exhibition that could fully connect with the community as well as engage with LGBTQ history in a way that was different than an art museum.

The exhibition itself explores how the Greater Puget Sound LGBTQ community has changed and grown overtime, from its underground origins before the Stonewall Riots in 1969 to the 2012 legalization of gay marriage in Washington

Entrance to the exhibition Revealing Queer
Entrance to the exhibition Revealing Queer

State.  The exhibit’s narrative uses the history of legal reform, activism, community organizations, and individual stories as the basis of its content. [2]  Since the museum itself did not have extensive collections that told this history, the museum and QTM underwent a massive community search to seek out objects, documents, and photographs to tell the story.  According to curator Erin Bailey, the overall goals of the exhibition other than educating visitors about the history of this community were to, “…develop relationships between community organizations and MOHAI, between staff members and community members. We wanted people to learn about how to talk about LGBTQ people, how to understand the experiences that they lived, and to make connections between queer experiences and non-queer experiences.” [3]

What stood out to me about this exhibition that differed from other museums that have sought to tell of the history of a particular LGBTQ community is their use of the Community Advisory Committee (CAC) model. Based off of the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience’s model, the exhibition team formed a Community Advisory Committee that involved members of a variety of local LGBTQ organizations including API Chaya, Entre Hermanos, Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Museum Project, and many more.   Members of these organizations were invited to weekly exhibit meetings to help drive and develop the

Community Advisory Committee members
Community Advisory Committee members

content, edit text, locate objects, and also engage the local community with the exhibit.  This model is so compelling because museums have long grappled with how to represent cultures and communities, especially those who have been historically marginalized.  Representation and inclusion in cultural institutions such as museum is extremely important because it validates a community’s history, struggles, and accomplishments, but can be problematic when members of a community are not asked to represent themselves.  Although “inclusion” is a word that gets brought up a lot in the museum world, what does it really mean?  As curator Erin Bailey points out, “Words like inclusion, are really becoming buzzwords. Like “innovative”, “progressive”, “diversity”, and “multiculturalism”. These words are used a lot, and they can become meaningless. They have power, and they have meaning, but then after being used so much and so irreverently they lose that meaning. Using community curators allows us to take inclusion and make it mean something to people…” [4] The CAC model is a great way to gain a multitude of experiences, opinions, and perspectives.  However, what are the drawbacks to using this type of model?

Although public response to the exhibition seemed mostly positive as evidence from the sold out opening, to the increase in social media activity, to the use of new LGBTQ themed public programing, there were a few criticisms.  One of these criticisms struck at the very heart of what Revealing Queer tried to represent. Some claimed that the gay, lesbian, and bi-sexual stories were represented, but the transgender story was not.  Another major criticism was that the narrative, “basically consists of a disjointed collection of posters and poorly produced storyboards that are meaningless in conveying the depth of gay “history.” [5] Though the CAC has so many great elements, there is a danger of too many voices within an exhibition.  Although curator voice can be problematic, there is something to be said about a coherent and narratively strong exhibition. Some major questions that I came out of this thinking about are, “How can museums balance narrative and representative voices?” and “Can museums be too inclusive?”

[1] “About QTM,” Queering the Museum (blog). http://queeringthemuseum.org/about/

[2] “Revealing Queer opens February 14!” Queering the Museum, January 16th, 2014. http://queeringthemuseum.org/2014/01/16/revealing-queer-opens-february-14th/

[3] “The Road to Revealing Queer: An Interview with Curator Erin Bailey Part II,” The Incluseum, March 14th, 2014. http://incluseum.com/2014/03/14/the-road-to-revealing-queer-an-interview-with-curator-erin-bailey-part-ii/

[4] “The Road to Revealing Queer: An Interview with Curator Erin Bailey Part I,” The Incluseum, March 5th, 2014. http://incluseum.com/2014/03/05/the-road-to-revealing-queer-an-interview-with-curator-erin-bailey-part-i/

[5] Linda Norris, “Revealing Queer, Revealing Our Work,” Museums, Politics, and Power, May 9th, 2014. http://museumspoliticsandpower.org/2014/05/09/revealing-queer-revealing-our-work/

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