Recently, Jana Greenslit, Incluseum contributor and intern (read more about Jana on our About page) sat down with Erin Bailey to discuss the Revealing Queer exhibit at the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) and the project the exhibit emerged out of, Queering the Museum. Because Revealing Queer has recently opened and is on view to the public we hope that this interview:
- gives readers an inside look at the process and intention behind the scenes of the exhibit and
- makes those who have not yet experienced it want to get over to MOHAI right away!
The Incluseum is particularly excited about the way the Community Advisory Committee structure was applied for the first time at MOHAI through this exhibit. Erin’s commitment to the CAC model and her desire to share leadership and agency over the exhibit with LGBTQ identifying community members invested in issues, work and advocacy for LGBTQ communities in Seattle is one of the defining aspects of the exhibit. When you attend Revealing Queer you know that the narrative is not the product of a sole, disembodied curatorial voice. Rather, what you experience is a narrative crafted from the exchange and discourse amongst directly involved stakeholders. As Erin has stated, it is important that the breadth and diversity of the lived experiences of LGBTQ identifying individuals were self-represented to add accountability and community ownership to the exhibit process. We will be sharing this interview in two installments.
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J: Can you describe your role in the Revealing Queer exhibition at MOHAI?
E: I am the curator of the Revealing Queer exhibition, and the co-founder of the Queering the Museum (QTM) project with Nicole Robert. We started that project in 2011 to explore a practice-based methodology for how museums engage with marginalized communities, specifically LGBTQ communities, from the perspective of representation, inclusion, exhibitions, collections, and educational programming. People talk about inclusion a lot, it’s become a buzz word kind of like diversity or multiculturalism. We started really thinking critically about how museums are carrying out inclusive work through our own practical application, which is something we felt was lacking in the academy, if you will.
J: Could you go a little bit more in-depth about what events led to this exhibit now? Why are you doing it here, now, in Seattle?
E: Before QTM, was QTM, I was working on a symposium called Queering the Art Museum which was in conjunction with the Hide/Seek exhibition at the Tacoma Art Museum. At that time, I met Nicole and we founded QTM as a result of that symposium. Building off that, I also curated a juried art show in Tacoma that was a local response to Hide/Seek, which was looking at themes of same sex desire in American portraiture. I invited artists to submit works that were looking at same sex desire in local regional portraiture to contrast what the pillars of the art world were saying [Hide/Seek] versus the people who were living these experiences on a daily-basis. This project aimed to be community focused. During that whole process Nicole and I drafted a proposal to MOHAI, which included the Queering the History Museum symposium and a curated exhibition that would address the last 40 years of LGBTQ regional history. After we submitted that proposal, we did a lot of networking, thinking, and risk taking, because the museums could have easily been like, “Yeah right, please child, go away,” and they didn’t!
J: Why did you and Nicole choose MOHAI? Did you consider sending proposals to more than one institution?
E: No, we didn’t. We picked MOHAI because I have a background in history. We especially wanted it to be a history museum because of the unique way in which sexuality could be addressed in this space over an art museums. MOHAI is the only regional history museum in Seattle and we thought it would have the biggest impact for the community, versus having it out in Tacoma, for example. I also knew people who worked here at MOHAI so I was able to pilot test the idea around the museum, saw how staff reacted to it, and got a better understanding of their vision for their new community gallery.
J: Have you seen any reactions from the community so far? What do you think the general response is to this exhibit?
E: We used the Community Advisory Committee model, or CAC, that the Wing Luke Museum coined and developed. We adapted it to meet the needs of both MOHAI and QTM. This means we took the public to be more of a creator versus a collaborator, which had a direct impact on, for example, securing objects. First, we specifically reached out to LGBTQ organizations and allowed anybody from those organizations to come as representatives at monthly meetings to allow for a broader depth of experiences and perspectives. Thanks to these meetings, we had built quite a bit of community support for the exhibition before it even opened! This allowed us to collect objects and craft a more diverse narrative that better reflects the communities we wanted to represent. So because of all this work, I think a lot of excitement had been building around the exhibition. I was told people were crying at the member’s preview…it’s really impactful! When people walk through the exhibition there seems to be feelings of: “Oh my gosh, I know the guy in the red dress in that photograph, and that was me chasing that guy off the parkway, or this is my best friend, and I slept with this guy and that guy.” This exhibition is a lot like a reunion of memories, which is very important for validating and authenticating people’s lived experiences…and the fact that this is all happening in a museum makes it a part of the greater narrative.
J: In what ways do you see this exhibition as achieving greater inclusion for the LGBTQ community?
E: This exhibition is helping build bridges between MOHAI and the LGBTQ community. A bridge is sometimes a bad metaphor because it’s just two way…we’re building a web of connections. MOHAI staff has reached out to the community and the Community Advisory Committee in a variety of ways, from community meetings to collections. Words like inclusion, are really becoming buzzwords. Like “innovative”, “progressive”, “diversity”, and “multiculturalism”. These words are used a lot, and they can become meaningless. They have power, and they have meaning, but then after being used so much and so irreverently they lose that meaning. Using community curators allows us to take inclusion and make it mean something to people. My role as a museum professional helped validate CAC participants’ stories and make them valuable for the greater narrative of queer communities. In the gallery, people deeply connected to the objects on view. The director of MOHAI even put his domestic partnership license in the exhibition. He was so excited when he brought it to the exhibition team! So the excitement of getting your story into the exhibition was top, down, left, right, incredibly inspiring for these people and allowed the museum to authenticate other ways of living, specifically authenticate non-normalized sexual lives and how they intersect with the rest of the history that’s told. I think this is an important way to help inclusion become more than just a buzzword.
J: How do you think this exhibit impacts people beyond the Seattle area?
E: I think it’s great. I think it shines a really nice light on Seattle because we have so many firsts. For example, the first mental health counseling services for LGBTQ people in the country, arguably the world as far as we know, was here in Seattle. We have the first youth drop-in center for LGBTQ youth not associated with a college campus, which is a big deal because of class issues and accessibility for people who do not attend university. We were fighting AIDS before AIDS was even identified as AIDS. We were fighting for several big issues before the national LGBTQ movement happened. It’s these things that Seattle was already doing that suddenly became progressive and interesting and innovative. All this contributes to making Seattle what it is today, and I think that’s something people will take away from this exhibition.
…Stay tuned for the second part of this interview which will be posted next week.