Queer Lives & Representation in the Museum

A lot has been going on these past few months and particularly I wanted to share some of the work that the History Trust has been doing in the area of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex & Queer (LGBTIQ) inclusion as well as sharing my thoughts on this year’s Homosexual Histories Conference that took place in Melbourne a few weeks ago.

Queering The Museum

The Migration Museum, on Saturday 5 and Sunday 6 of November, as part of Feast Festival 2016, was host to a pop-up exhibition called Queering The Museum.

The History Trust of South Australia led the project with an aim to engage local LGBTIQ community members to re-imagine and re-interpret our state’s historical collections.

But why?

If a certain percentage of our population in SA is queer identified, then shouldn’t our historical collections represent that percentage? Currently it does not represent these individuals, groups and communities in the way it could.

But first, what is a queer object? How do we define objects in this way? Is it a physical appearance? A use? A story? Or a combination of any one of these things? We don’t have all the answers but are endeavouring to discover and explore this area of museum practice to be as inclusive as possible in what we do.

Queering The Museum invited ten LGBTIQ community members into our workplace, our spaces and our State’s collections to explore what it means to be queer identified and how objects play a role in sharing stories, educating and being inclusive. Each individual or group team selected objects that spoke to them about queerness and their identity. Each participant’s personal experiences played a role in how they approached the task. The Migration Museum, National Motor Museum, SA Maritime Museum and History Trust of South Australia collections teams relinquished authority to allow these community members to visit our stores, select objects and re-interpret them in imaginative way. The outcome was absolutely fabulous!

False beard, part of a fancy dress costume, 1936 Donated by Mr Frank Winstanley Migration Museum collection, HT95.59 Wedding dress and hat worn by Hilda Pile, 1942 Donated by Beth Catford History Trust of South Australia collection, HT2014.1479

False beard, part of a fancy dress costume, 1936 Donated by Mr Frank Winstanley, Migration Museum collection, HT95.59 Wedding dress and hat worn by Hilda Pile, 1942 Donated by Beth Catford, History Trust of South Australia collection, HT2014.1479

One of the displays included a 1940s wedding dress, and hat, in a deep lavender colour. The participant also found a dress-up beard from the 1930s that they wanted displayed on the mannequin wearing the dress. The display was exploring the idea of a ‘lavender marriage’, which is the term used to describe a male-female marriage in which one or both of the partners are homosexual–or possibly bisexual. Another colloquial term for a person in this type of marriage is a ‘beard’. The display was presenting a story of social conduct within the LGBTIQ community that many of our visitors were unaware of. This was just one way in which the State’s historical collections were re-interpreted with a rainbow coloured filter. The project was very successful and we hope to present many more vibrant programs in collaboration with the LGBTIQ community in SA in the future.

Australia’s Homosexual Histories Conference 2016

This year the sixteenth edition of the conference was held in Melbourne, where its founders, the Australian Lesbian & Gay Archives, are located. I was lucky enough, thanks to the AHHC committee that organised the Adelaide conference, to receive a bursary to attend the event in Melbourne. We all know when you attend conferences with many parallel sessions that you could essentially attend a completely different conference to someone else. I have decided to share just a little of one overarching theme that occurred throughout the sessions I attended, which was about documenting and collecting queer stories through oral history.

It is understandable that because we have not answered and cannot answer the question ‘what is a queer object?’ that queer history is documented primarily though oral histories. Gareth Watkins of PrideNZ.com spoke about his work documenting the voices of queer people in New Zealand. PrideNZ.com is a story sharing site that features the voices of consenting queer adults and in concept is as simple as sharing the stories that queer people want to share in a public forum. What stuck with me from this presentation was a statement of how amazing it would be to hear queer voices from 100 years ago, something we can unfortunately only imagine. Gareth is not only providing a platform for queer voices to be heard and documented, but also thinking about the future. The future generations that will have access to these recordings and understand the language we use, the political climate of our time and the nuances of individuals. He envisions the recordings be absorbed into an archive for long term preservation, because we all know websites and digital technology don’t last forever.

Professor Melissa Wilcox, keynote, discussed her project about the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the worldwide network of politically active queer nuns. An entertaining and enlightening talk, but what stood out to me was her ideas about myth and sacred stories as part of the identities of living communities. What is the role of an historian exploring and documenting truths of living communities when stories that can’t be proved nor disproved act as important parts of community identity? I will just leave that question unanswered so you can have a think about it …

Homosexuality. Be in it. A photo posted by Craig Middleton (@museum_guy) on

This year’s Conference had many more themes including spaces, families, film and cinema, liberation and more. What is the most valuable thing about these conferences is the public opportunity to discuss debate and deliberate these histories and contemporary issues with peers and colleagues. Without events like this queer histories could inevitably be lost in time, and we don’t want that!

If you want more of my insights into the conference head to my personal blog here.

The next 12 months

Events like Queering the Museum and the Homosexual Histories Conference really inspire you to keep moving forward in new, innovative and creative ways.

So, for now … watch this space.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *