Subverting the Heteronormative frame in UK Public Museums

Text: Maria-Anna, UK

I’m Maria-Anna and I’m currently at the final year of my PhD research. My general interests in museums relate to minority and disadvantaged groups’ representation, not only in terms of visitation but also in terms of cultural inclusion of them in collections. However, my PhD thesis focuses on the cultural inclusion of LGBTQ culture and stories in UK public museums and galleries, particularly with reference to curatorial approaches that don’t fall into the mainstream.

National Museums and Galleries in The UK
have been contributing in the initiative of becoming more socially inclusive, especially during the last two decades. Scholars and practitioners are seeking to develop projects appealing to the diversity of society and to a variety of different communities. One of these communities is the LGBTQ, which formed part of their struggle to remain socially 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 authority, including local authority museums and galleries. While it was still in use there was an attempt to exhibit LGBTQ culture at the Museum of London called Pride and Prejudice, risking prosecution. Fortunately, Section 28 was repealed in 2000 in Scotland and in 2003 in the rest of Great Britain and since then there has been a significant number of such shows across the country.

The first major attempt in including LGBTQ culture was at the New Art Gallery Walsall in 2004. The exhibition consisted of a selection of gay artists from the 20th century and beyond to display their contribution to the history of art, contributing in what we could call “positive depiction” of non-heterosexual people to the public. A similar approach, but on solo exhibitions, was followed in other cases too, e.g. the exhibition for Frida Kahlo at Tate Modern in 2005 and the exhibition for David Hockney at Nottingham Contemporary in 2009. In both cases, the artist’s sexuality was being referred since its influence on each artist’s work was significant and could be seen in some of the artworks on display.

Another Technique of Creating LGBTQ Narratives
within museum and gallery spaces has been that of oral history projects, focusing mainly on intangible material and less on tangible ones to uncover the usually silenced stories and voices of local LGBTQ people. Such examples, were Queer is Here at the Museum of London in 2006 and the recent Pride in Our Past at Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery in 2012.

Moving on to another “group” of LGBTQ-related projects, there is the category of “blockbuster” ones. In other words, these are cases of exhibitions that took place in well-established national museums in big cities and drew high visitor numbers. Such examples are Hello Sailor at the National Maritime Museum in Liverpool in 2006, that was a travelling exhibition too and since 2009 it has formed part of the permanent museum collection, and, Gay Icons at National Portrait Gallery in 2009. Both exhibition teams chose to touch on the subject in a way that that has never been developed before. Hello Sailor reveals the little known story of gay men on board passenger and merchant ships from the 1950s to 1980s, when homosexuality was illegal and for gay men there were only few places to be safe. Gay Icons on the other hand was developed on the notion of what is a gay icon, including images and stories of famous people who either identified themselves as LGBTQ or they were somehow related to this community.

Finally, there are only rare cases where there is a significant amount of LGBTQ related objects on a permanent basis, and one example, apart from the National Maritime Museum in Liverpool, is the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery which aims to display the history of Brighton and its communities, an integral part of which is the LGBTQ community.

If we were to point out some repeated features, these would be that the vast majority is temporary, detached spatially from the permanent museum/gallery collections, touching on different aspects of LGBTQ life and culture, and, finally, targeting mainly at the LGBTQ audience.

Having noticed these commonalities among LGBTQ exhibitions so far, I searched for curatorial attempts that chose to experiment, follow a different path and target more broadly, that is, the general audience. In my view, this is the biggest potential that museums and galleries hold. As they are considered to be trustful institutions, they should take advantage of the public perception of them as such, and try to get them in touch with material that they are not familiar with.

New Interpretive Tools in Representing Sexual Minorities in Museums
So, more recently, there has been identified a “trend” – if we can call it as such – to search for new interpretive tools in representing sexual minorities in museums. A very good example is the exhibition sh[OUT] at Gallery of Modern Art in 2009 that used the human rights framework to display LGBTQ related rights through contemporary art.

But, this is not the only suggestion from museum practitioners. Innovative ways to move forward is either to use of artistic interventions, like the ones that Matt Smith did at Queering the museum exhibition in 2010 at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, or, using an “umbrella theme” including the LGBTQ aspect where possible, like Family Album in 2009 exhibition at Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens did with the umbrella theme of ‘family’ or Hitched, Wedding Clothes and Customs in 2010 exhibition did with the umbrella theme of ‘marriage’ at Sudley House in Liverpool.

To sum up, national museums only recently have begun to experiment with methods that would allow them to reach out for the general audience, raising awareness of LGBTQ issues among the public. Producing ‘big gay shows’ is great, but the real power of museums is to be a forum of debate, a safe place where minority voices can be heard and be presented to a diverse audience offering them another perspective, other than the one that the prevailing social norms around gender and sexuality promote.