Queering the Museum

LGBT History month is coming up in February, and, in need of a bit of inspiration, I decided to see this exhibition at Birmingham Museum. I’m a bit of a museum geek and part of what interests me about them is who decides and how they decide what goes on display and how these objects are arranged. Some museums try to tell you a chronological story, leading you through different time periods and artistic movements. Some, notably Cairo museum, group similar objects together: sarcophagi there, canoptic jars here, animal mummies down the corridor there. However, curation is not a neutral act; it can support and/or create hetero- and gender normative interpretations of history, art and artefacts. In this exhibition, artist Matt Smith aims to disrupt these readings.

The museum’s description of the event states:

What happens when we stop thinking the world is straight? Through omission and careful arrangement of facts it is easy to assume that the objects held in museums have nothing to do with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

In a bold new project, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, in conjunction with ShOUT! Festival, has allowed artist and curator Matt Smith access to their collections and galleries to tell the stories that museums usually omit.

Museums are expected to reflect society and culture. They make active choices about what is kept for posterity and how it is described and displayed. Turning the traditional on its head, a queer eye has been cast over the museum.

Objects have been rearranged and brought out of store and new artworks have been specifically commissioned to uncover, draw out – and on occasion wilfully invent – the hidden stories in the Museum’s collections.

I think the idea is brilliant and I wanted to like it, but its implementation left me rather less dazzled. Queering the Museum isn’t a separate exhibition but is incorporated into the main displays. I approve of this idea in theory – after all, why should queer history be yanked out of context rather than embedded in more mainstream histories? – but in practice, this made it hard to actually find the queered displays. Unfamiliarity with the museum’s layout and a lack of maps didn’t help.

Some of the exhibits were striking. I liked Jacob Epstein’s ‘Statue of Lucifer’, a statue with the body of a man and the face of a woman, queered by holding a cape of green carnations. The green carnation was used as an underground signifier of sexuality by gay men, and indeed lends its name to a book used in the prosecution of Oscar Wilde. Using it was a play on history and hidden histories, of the tension between overt and covert signs; the visitor, if zie understood the significance of the green carnation, is allowed an insight, the thrill of knowing something other people don’t, the pleasure of being able to interpret an artwork in a way not afforded to others. It makes the viewer complicit in the art, and in doing so, reminds zir of the danger possessing such knowledge could have posed. Of course, I then noticed the information placard by the piece explaining the significance of the green carnation.

Other pieces seemed more humorous – figurines of men cruising, or two women with affectionately linked arms (wasn’t totally sure about the butch-femme dynamic in this though). There was an element of playfulness there that I appreciated, and which also served to challenge the perceived seriousness of the museum. I also liked Smith’s technique of creating stylistically similar objects and juxtaposing them with the “real” artefacts – a creative way of not only drawing attention to his pieces, but also inviting the viewer to question the artefacts around them and wonder about their history.

However, other things didn’t really do it for me. One of the things that disappointed me was the lack of bi and trans visibility. These are identities that struggle to be represented in general – a museum exhibition purporting to make the lesbian, gay, bi and trans community visible shouldn’t contribute to this invisibility. However, as noted, it was difficult to locate all the pieces so they may well have been present. This presented another issue: the difficulty in simply finding the pieces seemed to underline how invisible queer history can be in museums – completely the opposite of the artist and museum’s intentions.

I also wasn’t sure about the static understanding of (homo)sexuality that seemed to be presented. For me at least, part of the fascination of queer history is the different ways sexuality has been understood – I think we do an injustice to people if we try to force the way they understood their sexual identities into the way we might interpret their identities. To give an example or two: would an 18th century assigned-male-at-birth cross-dresser still identify as a cross-dresser if zie was born today and had the option of sexual reassignment surgery? Would James Barry have presented and lived as a man if medicine was a career open to women? Such examples can be described as queer – they challenge the mainstream – but are they LGBT?

Overall, it was something I very much liked the idea of, but was less convinced by the way it was enacted. I don’t think it’s an idea to give up on altogether, but perhaps queering the museum and giving voice to different, secret histories also needs a diversity of people behind it.