Heteronormativity in Museums: An Abominable Cycle

For twenty-two years, I thought I was straight. Looking back now, I know that this never felt “right,” but for over two decades, I never really examined why. I was born into a world that assumed I was straight. Everything and everyone around me operated under the assumption that everyone was heterosexual, at least until explicitly proven otherwise, so it never occurred to me to think that I would differ from this “norm.” It was not until I watched a television show that seemed to have positive queer representation and read fans’ brilliant analyses of the show and its characters that I began to see myself in one of the bisexual characters and began to question my own sexuality. My experience shows how harmful heteronormativity is and why this representation, which is still so lacking, is so important. It is not just in pop culture that this problem exists, either; museums and historic sites also have an important role to play in giving queer people something to relate to. Despite recent growth in this area, public history sites still largely ignore queer history. This erasure is in part a result of heteronormativity, and it also perpetuates this heteronormativity in a vicious cycle that shows how important it is to tell these stories.


Even same-sex couples are expected to fit the heteronormative mold. (Courtesy of Hippolytus Stack on Twitter)

Heteronormativity is “the belief or assumption that all people are heterosexual, or that heterosexuality is the default or ‘normal’ state of human being.” It is the reason why heterosexual, cisgender people never have to “come out.” It is the reason why audiences will unquestioningly accept fictional straight relationships with no chemistry or build up, while a fictional queer relationship can spend years building up, using every romantic trope in existence, and people will still insist they are “just good friends.” It is the reason why outside observers often expect same-sex relationships to conform to heterosexual relationship dynamics. It is also a part of the reason why queer history is so absent from public history sites.


Queer history is sadly lacking from museums and other public history sites, as Susan Ferentinos points out in Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites. For instance, a 2000 study found that only 4 percent of queer adolescents had learned about LGBT history in a museum; while the field has likely improved in the past seventeen years, this number is still startlingly low. In some cases, such as at the Chicago History Museum, museums will do an exhibit or program on queer history, but when that exhibit or program ends, they are back to where they began; they do not incorporate LGBT history into the stories they typically tell. Similarly, at the Codman Estate in Lincoln, Massachusetts they choose not to discuss one of the owners’ sexuality at all during the house tour, although they do at least offer programming around queer history.[1]


There are many reasons for this erasure, but one of those reasons is heteronormativity. By operating under the assumption that everyone is heterosexual, museums leave LGBT people out of the narrative. Even museums that want to tell these stories struggle because of heteronormative practices in the past. For instance, many museums struggle to find objects in their collection that they could use to represent queer history, not because those objects do not exist, but because when the museum accessioned them, they did not think to look for any relation to queer history or culture. As Ferentinos points out, unless an object is explicitly linked to LGBT history (she uses the example of Gay Pride badges), most people, and museums, will assume that its owner was heterosexual, thus erasing anything the object potentially could have said about the lives of queer people in the past. In other cases, museums do not have the objects they need to present this history, because their heteronormative practices in the past have made queer people less likely to trust them and therefore less likely to donate objects.[2]


Heterosexual people do not need to “come out” as straight because of heteronormativity. (Courtesy of Susie Glynn on Twitter)

In a vicious cycle, this lack of representation perpetuates the same heteronormativity that causes it. By not talking about queer history, museums are contributing to the idea that heterosexuality is the “default” way of being and that anyone who does not conform to that is outside the “norm.” Because the public puts a lot of faith in museums’ credibility, this is a very powerful message. Not only does it tell queer people that they are “abnormal,” but it also reinforces this idea among straight visitors, leading many of them to (probably unconsciously) perpetuate heteronormativity in their own lives. Furthermore, by depriving closeted visitors of a queer past and role models to compare themselves to, these people are less likely to question the heterosexual “norm” and discover their own sexual identity.[3]


Clearly, the inclusion of LGBT history at museums and historic sites is vitally important. Museums have come a long way in recent years, but there is still a long way to go. Museums must find a way to break the cycle of heteronormativity, because only then will they be able to fulfill their duty to serve the whole public.



[1] Susan Ferentinos, Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites, Interpreting History Series (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 3, 12, 129, 135-136.

[2] Ibid., 112-113.

[3] Ibid., 3, 12-13.

Featured Image: From Thomas Saraceno, “Why I Can’t Find Myself In The World,” The Odyssey Online, Image Credit: Berkeley Beacon

5 thoughts on “Heteronormativity in Museums: An Abominable Cycle

  1. I think your point about the lack of inclusion of LGBT history in museums being a cycle is well made. I agree that breaking the cycle is museums’ duty, particularly since they have more power than other types of institutions to change people’s minds. Museums need to rethink how they think about their collections, so that they can use them to interpret LGBT history and not just assume objects were owned by straight people.

  2. After reading this text I think the realization that I found myself coming back to was that there really has never been a real “normal” except the definition placed by society that seems to change frequently. Even those that may appear to be in the “norm” often find themselves on the outside. The evolution of the conception of LGBT overtime has shown this change, but it has come against immense odds with little to no support from the establishment and was the result of a dedicated community that knew they belonged in the narrative with the same respect shown to the “normal” histories of the world. It is too late to change the past, but the suggestions laid out by Ferentinos set a great framework for how we as museum professionals can right these wrongs to ensure that all groups are treated adequately and with the true respect they deserve.

  3. I completely agree with your point that by not fighting heteronormativity museums are only adding to it. This is a point that should be discussed more within these institutions. If no one ever talks about an issue, how do we expect it to cease?

  4. In the week since this was posted, I have asked about a dozen people the question you raised here: how do museums combat heteronormativity? No one has really had an answer, though some made the same excellent suggestions you made here. But the response is important too, because I think even posing that question has made these people recognize their heteronormativity, including myself, that we are a part of the problem. So that, in itself, is incredibly valuable and a step in the right direction. So thank you for asking it, and thank you for this post.

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