Spotlight on Research–Subverting the Hetero-Normative Museum

One of our early goals with the Incluseum, was to provide a space where research and practice-based examples of social inclusion in museums could co-exist and, hopefully, inform each other. While most of our recent blog posts have been practice-oriented, we haven’t lost sight of our desire to link in research. Today, Maria Anna Tseliou, doctoral candidate at the University of Leicester, UK, shares with us her research into inclusive curatorial practices and their potential for addressing the hetero-normative museum.

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Museums in the United Kingdom are constantly striving to become more socially inclusive of the diverse communities of contemporary society. Increasing the representation of sexual minorities is part of their struggle to remain relevant especially after the appeal of Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988. This specific section banned any promotion or reference to homosexuality within any local government agencies, including among others schools, museums and galleries. Since its repeal in 2003, there has been a number of curatorial approaches to display sexual differences within museums which are categorised, but not limited to, the following:

  1. Oral history projects aimed at uncovering the usually silenced stories and voices of local people who identify as LGBTQ, like Queer is Here at the Museum of London (2006) and the recent Pride in Our Past at Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery (2012).
  2. Blockbuster exhibitions in well-established national museums drawing high visitor numbers, such as Hello Sailor! Gay Life on the Ocean Wave at Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool (2006) and Gay Icons at National Portrait Gallery (2009).
  3. Permanent exhibits, like at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool, which since 2009 has included the temporary exhibition Hello Sailor, looking at the life of homosexual men on board passenger and merchant ships from 1950s to 1980s, in their permanent displays. Another example can be found at the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery where the gallery titled  ‘Lesbian and Gay Brighton’ offers an overview of local lesbian and gay history.
Ladies of Llangollen, Queering the Museum, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, 2010. Photographer: David Rowan.

Ladies of Llangollen, Queering the Museum, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, 2010. Photographer: David Rowan.

Findings from my research and from other scholars’ studies continuously expose museum practices aimed at increasing the cultural inclusion of sexual minorities as limited. Specifically, some recurring limiting features are:

  1. Temporariness, as the vast majority of content pertaining to LGBTQ life tends to be on display for a limited period of time
  2. Spatial detachment from the rest of the collections, which could be linked to the fact that short-term projects usually take place in a contained gallery space dedicated to temporary exhibitions
  3. Narrow target, as these exhibitions are primarily designed for a LGBTQ audience.

However, an emerging “trend” for the inclusion of sexual minorities’ voices in museum interpretation has been identified. A very good example is the exhibition sh[OUT]; Contemporary Art and Human Rights  at Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow (2009) which was part of the Gallery of Modern Art’s social justice program. The novelty of this project lied in its use of the universally accepted notion of human rights as an interpretive framework to unveil LGBTQ histories and art (for further information about its effectiveness and impact read the evaluation report of Research Centre for Museums & Galleries). The sh[OUT] project was the fourth in a series of social justice exhibitions, which were all publicized in the same way: Sanctuary; Contemporary Art and Human Rights (on asylum-seekers and refugees in 2003), Rule of Thumb; Contemporary Art and Human Rights (on violence against women in 2005), and Blind Faith; Contemporary Art and Human Rights (on sectarianism in 2007). According to the authors of the evaluation, the significance (and perhaps the greatest lesson for future museum programming) of the use of human rights values and language was that:

“the strapline – contemporary art and human rights – … performs as an important ‘framing’ function, closely associating these biennial events with a concept – human rights – which, at least in the abstract, has been found to enjoy almost universal acceptance across different culture, political constituencies and publics.” (Sandell, Dodd & Jones, 2010: 4)

Otters and Bears, Queering the Museum, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, 2010. Photographer: David Rowan.

Otters and Bears, Queering the Museum, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, 2010. Photographer: David Rowan.

But, adopting a human rights lens is not the only suggestion for museum practitioners who seek to actively promote social justice and anti-discriminatory values. Innovative ways to move towards more inclusive interpretive practices may include:

  • Artistic interventions in the form of institutional critique, like Queering the Museum (2010) by  Matt Smith at the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery (see images above). This project consisted of 19 interventions across 10 gallery spaces with the principal objective being to disrupt museum heteronormative narratives and create spaces for LGBTQ stories among permanent collections through the removal and re-interpretation of objects or the addition of newly created ones.

  • The insertion of LGBTQ topics under “umbrella themes”, like Family Album (2009) at Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens (on ‘family’) or Hitched, Wedding Clothes and Customs (2010) at Sudley House in Liverpool (on ‘marriage’).

    Civil Partnership Suits from Hitched, Wedding Clothes and Customs at  Sudley House in Liverpool.

    Civil Partnership Suits from Hitched, Wedding Clothes and Customs at Sudley House in Liverpool. Copyright Jim Varney, 2008.

These approaches allow for more unified narratives to occur and integrate sexual differences with the rest of the collections.

The above examples informed my research provisionally entitled ‘Museums and Heteronormativity; Exploring the Effect of Inclusive Curatorial Practices’, which considers alternative curatorial approaches targeted more broadly at the general audience. Creative approaches allowing for the integration of sexual difference -either thematically or spatially with the rest of a museum collection- were regarded as under-utilized strategies holding great potential. My research is informed by my strong belief in the potential for museums to shape and promote social values with reference to equality, respect for difference, and tackling racism. Due to their high level of trustworthiness, I believe museums are ideally situated to engage their visitors with content they are not yet familiar with.

Producing one-off ‘big gay shows’ like Gay Icons is great. But the real power of museums lies in acting as a forum for debate, a safe place where minority voices can be  heard and where prevailing social norms around, for example, gender and sexuality can be broadened and stretched. Recognising the danger of perhaps diminishing the subtleties of minority groups’ voices, I argue that contextualizing differences of any kind (race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, class, etc.) either under a thematic umbrella or scattered among the permanent exhibitions could be more effective at challenging prejudices than  single-themed projects confined in a temporary gallery space.

Maria-Anna Tseliou is a doctoral candidate in the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, United Kingdom. The provisional title of her thesis is “Museums and heteronormativity; Exploring the effect of inclusive curatorial practices.” Her general research interests are minorities’ and human rights’ representation in museums. She has presented papers at several conferences and symposiums in Oxford, Paris, Leicester, Cambridge, Liverpool and Taipei; delivered Think Tank sessions to Postgraduates; co-edited the volume of Museological Review (Conference Edition 2012, Issue 16) and the e-book Gender and Love: Interdisciplinary Perspectives; and worked as a Research Assistant on a variety of projects for the Research Centre for Museums & Galleries, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery and London Science Museum. Currently she is working as a Research Assistant for the project iSay: Visitor-Generated Content in Heritage Institutions at the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester.

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Do you know of other examples of inclusive curatorial practices that can be used to subvert museums’ hetero-normative discourses (or any normative discourses for that matter)?

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  1. Reblogged this on Muse-ology and commented:
    Very interesting!

  2. That’s very interesting.Well done!! My thesis is similar, as I focused on the Museum of London and its approach regarding the LGBT communities. I would like to add that the Museum of London organised the exhibition ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in 1999, a year when the Section 28 was still in place.

    1. Hi Anna, what curatorial strategies were used for Pride and Prejudice?

      1. The exhibition was a historical overview of homosexual activity and culture as part of the social and economic life in London.The exhibition arranged according to two basic directions; a section
        dedicated to oral history records and an electronic questionnaire. Also there was an information table. I could email you the whole chapter of my thesis with reference to Pride and Prejudice.Thanks, Anna

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