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Trans Stories in Museums


Learn about an exceptional exhibition and programming that involved bringing the stories of transgender and nonbinary individuals into a museum and ultimately transforming aspects of the institution, as well as building continuing relationships between and among museum workers at all levels and local transgender communities. Based on exciting and moving oral histories, this presentation will include practical strategies as well as theoretical perspectives.


Amy Levin
Northern Illinois University

Mirjam Sneeuwloper

Filmed at MuseumNext NYC – Autumn 2019

Amy Levin: Hi everybody, I’m Amy. Can you hear me? Very hard act to follow. It was wonderful. In 2015, 2016, the Amsterdam Museum, formerly the Amsterdam Historical Museum embarked on a collaboration with local transgender communities to create an exhibition titled Transmission, together with related programming. My colleague Miriam Sneeuwloper was the exhibit curator. The use of personal narratives and the engagement of community members was extraordinary, so I set out to record how this happened by conducting oral history interviews with Miriam and some of her trans collaborators. This presentation, therefore, contains two levels of storytelling. The stories that were on display in the exhibit, as well as the stories about creating the exhibit, its contents, visitor reactions, and the ways in which the collaborations continued to benefit both the communities and the museum.

When Transmission opened, the Amsterdam Museum used an approach that’s common with museum exhibits on LGBTQ topics, by focusing on a story of an exceptional individual. With increased community engagement and a willingness to change the exhibit’s emphasis after it open, the focus shifted toward the everyday experiences of individuals who identify as transgender. This allowed for a broad definition of the subject, including not only those who’ve transitioned, but also people who identify as a non-binary gender or who present as being of cis-gender on a regular basis. Over time, the cultural diversity of the group involved grew too. Community members developed remarkable trust and sharing their stories with the museum in a time when some transgender individuals fear that publicity will only provoke violence against them. Heightened visibility as a result of the exhibit and programming strengthened the transgender communities and educated the mainstream public about a group that has been in the city for centuries. I’m going to turn it over to Miriam now, and then I’m going to read you a little from the oral history narratives by some of the collaborators. Thank you.

Mirjam Sneeuwloper :  Thank you, Amy. I’m all right like this? Yes, thank you so much. Actually, normally when I’m on this stage talking about the project Transmission, and I have to press the green button. Yes, there we go. I’m not on my own. I’m with a person from the community we work with, but in this case, actually, Amy asked me to join her. So I’m really grateful that I’m here. My name is indeed Miriam, I’m from the Netherlands, so my native tongue is Dutch. I’m so sorry for that. I’m really great in Dutch. Bear with me on my English if I say something which is… Because it’s a sensitive topic, so if I say something which you think, “Oh, right,” it could be that. So since I’m from Europe, I will offer you, just like Alice and Kirsten, and maybe because, well, they’re from the welcome collection, they really inspired me yesterday. I hope they inspired you as well. And I will offer some toilet stories and as well we going to have a look at phallus.

So perhaps that’s a European thing. That’s what I thought. But luckily we had this morning, I thought it was Charles, yes, and he even brought it a little bit further. So I think we are fine. Actually, I’m so sorry Amy, I’m going off script, but you knew it already. Amy is going to round up at the end, going really back to the topic. So that’s going to be fine. Because I really would like to reflect on some things of yesterday, and I will talk a little bit faster at the moment. Somebody asked me yesterday during a coffee break, “So what do you do in the museum?” And I must say I said something which was a little bit… Well, I must say the unsettling truth. I said, “I don’t know.”

I don’t know what I’m doing in the museum. I’m not sure. I’m trying to make changes. I’ve got a little card of the museum and there’s nothing on it, what I really am except of my name. I’m doing things differently, and it’s got something to do with connecting with each other. I saw when Karen was here, starting yesterday, this conference, Karen from the future, and she said there were three kinds of people working in the cultural institutions in the future. Colonialists, perceptionists, and fantasists. And sometimes I must say, I’m brave enough to say I’m a museum activist. But perhaps perceptionist is a better word. And most of the times, to be very honest, I’m scared. I’m scared because I’m powerless, caught in the middle, on the fence. On the fence divided by two very different visions of where are we’re going with our storytelling.

Though I do have quite a strong vision of storytelling in the future myself, and it’s about making place for stories which we haven’t heard yet, like a story so strongly we’ve just heard. I can’t stop this. It’s so powerful. It’s painful as well. People are willing to educate. We need to educate ourselves. It’s about making place for those stories. And the thing is, I find it’s very complicated to do, because we say, “Well, we need to have a layered storytelling,” which is layered, and then I think it’s a little bit of a hierarchy, which story is going to be first and how are we going to do that? So do we need to have layers like this? Well, that doesn’t work either because you have to choose something.

So I don’t have the concept… I can’t share it with you. It’s something bigger than… It’s something about recognition. It’s something about acknowledgement. It’s the stories who are not yet part of the dominant narrative. And as we all know, the one who’s telling the story has got the power to shape the way we think, the way we act, and the way we feel. And as we are working in a museum, we’ve got so much power. We’re not neutral. And you know this already, of course. I mean, I’m just driving the message home. It’s nearly the end of day two. We had to get it in our minds. In Dutch we say it’s a little bit of an open door. Perhaps you say it as well in English. But you would probably say with everything, what I’ve just said, “Oh yeah, I knew this already.” It’s not really rocket science, but you really need to know it when you’re working with communities, when you’re creating more space in the space we’ve got.

So now I’m going to roughly really quickly talk to you about this exhibition in, I think seven minutes, five minutes. Well, whatever. She’s from the Netherlands as well, so we’re friends. We’ve got something going on. The project started in 2014 and it was about change, and actually it’s still ongoing. It’s like an undercurrent which is still noticeable within our museum. The exhibition was called Transmission, which was not even by title chosen by us at the museum staff, and what was really important that we had this exhibition going on, but we had three different versions of it. And we knew that already from the beginning. Well, actually we knew already from not getting we’re going to do two versions, and then it was really quite a success, so we had a third version as well.

And we needed to do that because we need people to join us and then need people to trust us. And sometimes people have to see it first to know where they are going to be in the exhibition. How are you going to tell the story together with them, or actually we stepped back and we let them tell them all the story themselves on the audio tour, which was way too long, which was very different, like everything you should be, and it was the most effective audio tour there was ever. There were something different about it. It was authentic. And people listened there for like three, four, five minutes, and it was actually the only exhibition where I ever saw people crying, being touched.

So people would suggest changes. They could react, they could join. We had three versions, like I told you, which was particularly very good for a group of younger persons who are connected towards different trans communities and as well for people of people of the more marginalised groups within the trans communities as well. And then of course, I’m talking as well about sex workers who are connected towards this group within Amsterdam. So we really had to trust them and to trust us and to trust each other. As well we did some other changes very practically, like you can see it over here we’ve got a little board because some of the people said, “It’s not only my identity to be transgender or a trans person. I’ve got lots more identity. I’m actually a dad or a mom. Or actually no, I’m a teacher.” So we did those things as well.

It’s also about accessibility. Here you go. So talking about accessibility, people were able to tell us that we needed to change the way we were doing our openings and the way we were addressing our public. So we just say they are guests, and there we go. I think, yeah. There are the toilets. Museums are extremely good tools in putting topics of the agenda of, I think you say it in English, the social discourse. And I must say, I’m not sure if the woman from the Whitney Museum that talked yesterday’s still here, but actually you must know something in the Whitney Museum happened so we could do this in the Amsterdam Museum.

Because people were telling us about it, our communities, “Well, you have to change the toilets.” And the management was like, “Yeah, but it’s really complicated. What will other people say?” And then on the internet, there was the Whitney Museum, 2014, they’ve just done it, they made a picture. And I could go to the management and say, “they’re doing it over there, So apparently it’s not such a big problem.” So really be aware that what you do within the museum, it goes somewhere, because it was actually the first museum in the Netherlands. We did this as an action. I mean, as a statement. Of course, there were lots of other toilets where everybody, you can just go in, but it was a statement. And then actually universities in the Netherlands start doing it as well. So something happened, and that’s what we can do. We can rethink the rules in our society.

Lots of people. We tried trying to build ongoing relationships with a very intense public programming and the public programme during the exhibition was all connected with people from the trans community, like the Friday conversations with coffee and tea within the exhibition. Ooh, changing the rules. And we now have a queering programme, queering the collection programme with interventions, sharing stories to us, and for example, we work with an editorial board for the monthly queer history talks. Though I think it’s as important to have specific archives regarding the history of trans community or regarding LGBTQI+ communities in general. I think it’s very important to as well have the topic in other museums as well, especially city museums.

So we talk as well with our public, and this is just open public programming about which collection we have to put in. And I suppose you can’t read it because it’s Dutch, but it’s actually talking about the pro and the cons of getting some of the collection connecting with LGBTQI communities in the collection of the Amsterdam Museum, because it’s not always positive. Sometimes you lose as well access towards the specific object. So people have to know about it. Though I must say, and I really have to stress this out because we just had the demonstration a couple of hours ago at the Amsterdam Museum. It’s not all glitter that is gold. We do make mistakes about representations. We do make mistakes about the way we co-create.

And we tend to think sometimes in a traditional way, since as a working force we’re sometimes stressed. We’re stressed with deadlines. We’re stressed with time. We’re stress with budgets. And then what we tend to do well, at least what we tend to do is going back in the traditional way because it feels safe and we can’t do that anymore, because it’s not safe for people. So I can have a completely different talk about it. We’ve got an installation regarding sex work, which is really one perspective. We should have done it in a different way, but we are talking with all the community members.

And though, on the other end, I will finish this off, and you can go back on topic, so wonderful that you’re here. On the other end, we had a takeover last summer, and this is mini-zines which were just all over the museum for one week during Pride Week, and they were made by sex positive trans men. And the mini-zines are really, really mini-zines. They’re only this. And not everybody felt safe within the museum because this was a different approach about how you can look at the museum. So we have to look all the time, who’s feeling safe, whose story’s getting told, where to be and how to… And how to actually not be on the fence. So Amy, I’m going to hand it over for you. Thank you ever so much.

Amy Levin: Thank you. Before I advance the next slide, could I please ask you not to photograph it or video it? Thank you. As you can see. I’m just going to read you quickly parts of the interviews so you can understand the ways in which having an opportunity to tell their stories through objects and recordings made these community members feel valued. So Colline Horstink is a technician who goes by Nico much of the time. However, increasingly Coleen comes out and is prominent in trans organisations in Amsterdam. For her, this project was critically important. And here I’m going to start reading. In 2015, I heard about the Amsterdam museum project and asked to participate. I wanted to contribute further to develop my female identity and to meet others in the field. I want to be somebody who does something, who means something. Broadening the female part of my identity is very satisfying. Learning by living.

Sneeuwloper pulled us in, asking for input and sharing information. We were involved in the Friday conversations with the public coming through. I participated several times and met interesting people. In that setting, I could open the eyes of others. I also assisted at the opening and participated in other activities. A colleague from my Amsterdam transgender association organised a lecture for 180 students from the University of Applied Sciences in Utrecht. The exhibition gave me an opportunity to raise my voice. The exhibition was unusual, not only in its subject, but also in the way it was dynamic. Two small exhibition spaces were available, and Miriam asked for advice on what could be done there. I propose changing one room each month. The exhibition that was not in the lead one month could move into the lead the next, along with a different display. The exhibitions would create a different story that grew deeper and more complex. People could come back and see new things and different relations among objects. You can see they were really involved.

For this second part, beginning in January, 2016, I proposed including a painting by Dorien Plaat, who strongly shows the combination of vulnerability and power in men transitioning to women. I chose the painting because Plaat captured the individual self-consciousness in a private space, the person he is making of himself. The museum’s willingness to consider my opinion demonstrates the extent to which community members were involved. Our collaboration continues. Partly I miss Miriam. He still visits you, right? Who has become a friend. I see her on some of my trips into the city. I told her about my family. I also value the continuing collaboration. In August, 2018, our organisation, Transgenders Amsterdam, met in the museum as part of the Pride activities. The museum exhibits a panel depicting the location of our first meetings. The nameplate on the meeting room’s door is in the museum’s collection, although initially it was not tagged as being related to transgender. And if I recall her correctly, when they tagged it, it also tagged as pornography or something? Yes. Okay. So strange things happen.

Miriam also shares job postings with the participants because many transgender people have difficulty finding appropriate employment. For me, the best part of the experience was the cooperation with the museum and other transgender communities. There were genuine requests for our contributions and the exhibition took shape from our ideas. Miriam facilitated events for us during the exhibition, ensuring that rooms were available. The way we became involved in the exhibition is the best way for a museum to connect with society. The staff received instant feedback, they can obtain loans of objects from the participants, and participants bring spectators to the museum. The personnel of the museum have the opportunity to grow close with the collaborators. We also connected with others in the project. Koos Breukel, the photographer of the picture of Colline has become a friend. The world is drawn into the museum even as it expands outwards, and that’s a good thing.

So that’s Colline. Do I have a minute to do a bit of Yvo? Two minute. Good. So this is Yvo Manuel Vas Dias, and this is some of what Yvo said. Founder of TransAmsterdam and Amsterdam Trans Pride, I work full time for the transgender community. The museum sought partners. Our team decided to work with the museum as an organisation, rather than as individuals. We felt honoured to work with such a large institution, but the process of exhibition creation also expanded the museum’s boundaries. From my perspective, the museum’s representatives wanted to engage with trans communities on a different level than previously, truly work with and listen to our communities. Before, it was very difficult for them. This time they opened the doors and welcomed engagement on multiple levels.

Working on the exhibition made us proud that we became an important part of the institution in such a short time. We all contributed in various ways. I lent my razor, recording a story about it, and my relationship with my father who gave it to me. Another person loaned a hormone injection and gel together with bindings and a shirt. We recorded our stories in the studio, explaining how we are treated, and the staff placed everything in small cases so people could hear the stories accompanying the objects. The first Amsterdam Trans Pride flag is special, but after the exhibition closed, we offered it to the museum on long-term loan, both to confirm our relationship and to make the item more visible. Later, the museum asked TransAmsterdam to donate the flag to the permanent collection. We agreed, with the provision that the flag would be returned to us for special occasions.

At the transfer ceremony, there was a forum discussion, and then we handed the flag to the director of the museum and the deputy mayor of Amsterdam. The museum possesses other items related to our group, which you can see on the website. Their openness to contributions furthered our alliance and offered an opportunity to preserve our story. So quick conclusion, but not the last word. The museum’s heightened and more visible inclusion of transgender communities, together with its commitment to telling their stories was beneficial, bringing networking opportunities and municipal services to transgender individuals. Participants did not regard the museum’s efforts as token or temporary, nor did they perceive themselves to be patronised. In fact, the museum’s commitment to one form of diversity was seen as a broader dedication to human rights.

Spillover of this kind was also apparent when people who collaborated on Transmission continued to work with Imara Limon, a curator specialising in stories related to race and decolonization. So it will be important, excuse me, to learn from institutions elsewhere, whether such successful collaborations with one marginalised group also affect their ability to engage with other minorities. For now, it’s important to recognise that at a time when the discourse on museums frequently turns to the importance of empathy and the necessity for activism, the Amsterdam Museum has provided both by creating an atmosphere in which learning is mutual and valued, communication is heard, and individuals and their stories are respected. Thank you.


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