After attending Australia’s Homosexual Histories Conference, right here in Adelaide, last year I have since been thinking about how the GLAM sector (Galleries Libraries Archives and Museums) works with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex & Queer (LGBTIQ) communities in Australia.
The Museums Association in the United Kingdom has a strong vision that museums around the world are increasingly adopting. That is that museums change lives. But what exactly does this mean? For me this means that museums are spaces that can foster and facilitate social justice. They can promote well-being and change. To me changing lives isn’t always about big, trailblazing, events in history; it is just as much about smaller scale impact on individuals, groups and communities.
One group of communities whose experiences, stories, histories and voices are largely absent in Australian museums are the LGBTIQ communities. The lack of presence these communities have in museums, through interpretation and participation can have adverse effects on the well-being, not only to individuals but also to families and friends.
The most common way of documenting LGBTIQ histories is through oral history recordings, biographies and autobiographies.[i] This is a fabulous means to capture stories otherwise untold. However, to be truly inclusive institutions in the GLAM sector need to make LGBTIQ experiences visible in the broader narrative of Australian history, art and culture and actively work with communities to develop and deliver exhibitions, programs and events. Fantastic exhibitions about the 1975 decriminalisation of homosexuality are examples of the social and political importance of LGBTIQ history, but these experiences are often only shared in the context of a single historical event or occurrence.
LGBTIQ inclusion raises many questions including: how LGBTIQ experiences can be told in the broader narrative of Australian history, art and culture. What might constitute an LGBTIQ experience? What defines an LGBTIQ object? And how can a museum, art gallery, library or archive work with somewhat disjointed communities in an inclusive way? I don’t have any simple answers, but I believe that it is important for GLAM institutions large and small to ask, and attempt to actively address, these questions.
The British Museum in London has set up a section of their current website that provides a great example of how museums can look at their collections from a different, more inclusive, perspective.[ii] Same Sex Desire & Gender uses examples from the museum’s collections to reflect on how ‘queer’ history might have been. Perception is a common problem when thinking about the lack of visibility of LGBTIQ experiences in museum collections. Sometimes history and art can seem black and white, with no grey-scale, when we make hetero-normative assumptions. If we change how we look at an object, painting or story we can understand something different. The British Museum has done this without placing a contemporary lens on an historical narrative, but dissecting the historical narrative in a way that maybe has not been so commonly done before. Here the Museum challenges the assumptions of hetero-normativity to allow for an alternative viewing. An example of this, from the British Museum, is the statue of The Hindu deity Lakshminarayan who is represented often as both male and female. Hindu deities are known to transcend boundaries of human gender. Here, androgyny is important to the story of the object. Not all objects or stories have a queer element, but more that the queer element in objects and stories is missed, often unintentionally due to preconceived ideas of the world around us.
The British Museum’s focus on reinterpreting objects and the Museum Association’s vision of changing lives are just some examples of good social justice practices that are progressively being embraced around the world and are great steps towards more inclusive museum practice. I believe that the LGBTIQ experiences and stories that remain untold in an Australian context are screaming to come out of the closet and with increased visibility could promote changing perceptions in GLAM sector practice.
What do you think?
[i] Gorman-Murray, A., Gay and Lesbian Public History in Australia, Public History Review, 11 8-38, 2004, p 20.
[ii] British Museum, Same Sex Desire and Gender, http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/themes/same-sex_desire_and_gender.aspx