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How Museums Can Expand Narratives With LGBT Interpretation

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Susan Ferentinos, Public history researcher, writer and consultant spoke at MuseumNext Indianapolis in September 2015 about ways that museums might begin thinking about expanding their interpretation to include Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) stories.

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Susan: Things are happening in Indiana, particularly with regard to LGBT interpretation. For example, four Indiana based heritage organisations are currently collaborating on a phone app that allows users to engage with significant places in Indianapolis history.

In just a few weeks, the Indiana Historical Society will be opening an LGBT exhibit, and a little later today, you’ll hear about another local museum, the Eiteljorg, and their experiences interpreting LGBT lives.

So, clearly, something monumental is afoot, because Indiana is more often associated in the public imagination with conservative politics, and a traditional world view, rather than being known for our efforts at inclusion.

But, discussion of LGBT issues is happening all over the place, at this point, even in Indiana, and so in this presentation, I’m going to discuss some of the preliminary considerations that go into interpreting LGBT experiences.

So, basically I’m going to tell you a lot of what you already know about interpretive planning, but I’m going to do it through a queer lens, by highlighting some specific considerations for this type of interpretation with regard to stakeholders, interpretive methods, and staffing.

So, to begin with stakeholders, when you’re seeking buy-in from your stakeholders, particularly museum leadership, your board, funders, I urge you to make sure they know what they’re getting into, because generally speaking, at least in the United States these days, when you say LGBT experiences, chances are, many people are going to picture in their head something like this, because this is the portrayal of LGBT lives that most often appear in the news and on the media. It is a portrayal of same sex love and desire that mirrors heterosexual experiences pretty closely.

So, that might be what stakeholders think they’re buying into, when in fact, when you get into LGBT interpretation, you’re likely to encounter a far more varied experience, and to hit on some stuff that might be challenging for people. Chances are, you might hit some shocking interrogations or portrayals of violence and prejudice, particularly from the past, but certainly not irrelevant for today.

You’re also likely to come into some pretty strong critiques on the part of LGBT communities, of societal norms, particularly with regard to gender and sexual expression.

I would argue that that’s actually one of the advantages of LGBT interpretation, and why I encourage you all, in all of your museums, to be getting into this just as soon as you can, if you haven’t already. That is because LGBT people, generally speaking, operate as gender and sexual outsiders, and from that status, they have a different lens of the dominant culture, and of societal norms that, within the dominant culture, people take for granted.

So, you might not even realise that certain things need to be interpreted, some things that are assumptions that folks haven’t even considered why they think that way, by presenting a different lens in the past, or through art, or through a variety of things. People can engage in a conversation, and have a better perspective on their own lives.

So, in addition, when putting together advisory panels of stakeholders for your LGBT interpretation, do keep in mind – it’s stating the obvious, but there’s a lot of variation and differences within LGBT communities. There is, in fact, no monolithic community. So, you want to make sure you have good representation in all manner of categories, certainly race and class, generational variation, different neighbourhoods in your city, or different regions of your country, depending on the focus of your museum, and the audience for your museum.

Also creating a variety of religious perspectives, I would recommend, because particularly in the United States, conversations about religion and same sex desire and gender variance often dovetail, and become involved in the same conversation. So, within LGBT communities, of course, there’s people with different experiences of religion, and that representation is a valid range of point of views to consider.

In addition to all of these aspects, within LGBT communities, even, there’s far more identities than simply those four, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. Here are many other self-identifications that you might want to consider having represented on any kind of advisory panel, and that is not even all of them, but just to give you a little flavour.

Now, moving on to considering interpretive choices, obviously your interpretive choices are infinite, and you can go in any variety of directions, but I want to hit on just three considerations that have particular relevance to LGBT interpretation.

One is terminology. The words you use in an exhibit or programming are important, and carry a lot of political weight. For better or worse, there is not currently any universally agreed upon terminology, or lexicon that everybody is comfortable with an embraces, and there’s particularly a lot of generational differences within LGBT communities over this.

So, I guess the good news of that is, there’s no single right answer, but whatever words you do decide to use, do make that choice conscientiously, and you might want to consider explaining your choice of words to visitors. The example on the screen is from the Out in Chicago exhibit at the Chicago History Museum, and the pink part is a photograph of a label that was in the exhibit, part of what they called a Sexicon, that defined various words that were used in the exhibit, showed their change over time, and defined them for people who might not have been familiar with the words, and also described some political disagreements where applicable, about particular words.

Another consideration, particularly in dealing with traditional exhibits is, if you’re going to assimilate LGBT stories within your larger narrative, say in a permanent exhibit at your museum, or if you’re going to highlight and showcase LGBT stories by special programming or special exhibits, and both obviously have advantages and disadvantages, and I have seen both approaches done extremely well.

The good news is that you don’t actually have to choose, because hopefully, as you move into LGBT interpretation, you will have multiple avenues through which to interpret that, and it will be an ongoing process.

So, the example here is from the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle, and the slide on the left is part of the museum’s permanent exhibit, interpreting the history of the city of Seattle. It is talking about LGBT communities in that city, particularly the history of gay bars.

The slide on the right is from a special temporary exhibit at the museum that was community curated focussed specifically on the queer communities of Puget Sound, which is the region that Seattle is in.

When I visited the museum in 2014, these two … I took these on the same visit, these photographs, and they were happening simultaneously at the museum, just to give you an example of it not being an either/or situation.

The next consideration with regard to interpretive choices is how much of the interpretive experience you’re going to describe with your visitors, and of course, that’s an ongoing conversation within museums. But, in addition to all the relevance of that larger conversation, there’s some specific issues, I would say, particularly with regard to talking about specific individuals, specific historical agents, such as artists from the past, or at historic house museums, the owner of the house.

Chances are, for people that lived in the early 20th century or earlier, you’re not going to have … They’re not going to be using the words we use now; they’re not going to be seeing the world, and seeing sexual attraction and experience in the same way that we do in this era. So, chances are, you’re not going to have a letter that’s saying very explicitly what’s going on with a specific person, and even if you know that they were very strongly emotionally attached to somebody.

So, the reason I called this Pulling Back the Curtain is, within the field of public history, that’s the term that is currently in use to sort of describe, like, the Wizard of Oz, pulling back the curtain and sharing with the visitor the process, the process of historical practice, where we don’t always have the answers, and there’s some analysis involved. So, providing context, providing specific historical facts, and then allowing visitors to engage in meaning making.

A nice example of this is the Jane Addams Hull House Museum in Chicago. Jane Addams had a long time partnership with another woman, Mary Rozet Smith. It lasted over 30 years. We know that they would phone or telegraph ahead to request single bedrooms when they were travelling together. Jane Addams had a picture of Mary Rozet Smith hung over her bed, at her bedroom at Hull House, and we know all these things from the historical record. But, we don’t know if they had sex; we don’t know how they understood their relationship, in part because Jane Addams’s letters to Mary Smith were destroyed upon Addams’s death, by her request, which tends to be an indication of potentially controversial content within the letters, but we don’t know that for sure.

So, anyway, the Hull House Museum presents these facts to the visitors. They present a context of late 19th century, early 20th century women’s history, that many professional women partnered with other women because it was very difficult to maintain a traditional heterosexual marriage and also have a career.

Then, they leave it open to the visitors to draw conclusions from that, rather than specifically providing analysis that may or may not hold up to general historical practice, by using concepts that weren’t in play at the time.

So, moving on to issues of staffing and sustainability, with regard to staffing, again to state the obvious, do remember that queer experience doesn’t necessarily mean that a staff person has the professional and scholarly expertise to lead up your LGBT interpretation. There’s a number of considerations when you’re putting together your planning team, if you’re in a museum that’s large enough that actually not all your staff is involved in every specific effort.

In addition, beware of getting into LGBT interpretation because it is a particular staff person’s labour of love. It’s wonderful that your staff is engaged in projects that your organisation is involved with, but that’s not really a sustainable model in which to engage with LGBT history.

So, I have worked with a lot of different museums that have been involved in LGBT interpretation, and a very consistent piece of advice that they offer is to make outreach to these communities an official part of somebody’s job duties, that their performance in that area is evaluated, and it is tied to the position, not the person, because that is less likely to burn out, and it’s less vulnerable to staff turnover.

Also, a lot of times organisations think, okay, we’re going to interpret LGBT experiences – they do it, and they’re thinking of it as something they do and then complete and finish, whereas your visitors might have different expectations, like the bar may have been raised, particularly with LGBT visitors, and they are looking for an ongoing commitment to their stories from the organisation, so do be aware of that.

An example here is Ohio History Connection, formerly the Ohio Historical Society, partnered with the Gay Ohio History Initiative and launched, as Indiana Historical Society is actually doing now, launched a big collecting initiative of LGBT oral histories and artefacts and stories, and in the museums’ mind, it was a collecting initiative, and so there was no plans to, in the near future, to interpret or create an exhibit based on the new items in the collection.

But, the people that had donated their stuff were confused by that. Of course, a museum would be collecting things in order to display them, and so there was some pushback from people who had trusted the organisation, and shared their stories, and yet felt that they were being hidden and supressed, and so of course Ohio History Connection made some amends in that area. So do, as even from the very preliminary steps; do have a plan for sustaining momentum.

So, obviously, there’s a whole lot more to talk about, and I’m happy to do that over the course of the conference with you, but just some parting words about these very preliminary considerations. Be brave, seek input, and keep the LGBT interpretation coming. So, thank you very much. Here’s a few things I’ve published if you’re interested in knowing more, and as I say, I’m happy to talk with all of you. Thank you.

Male Voice: I think we’ve actually got time for a couple of questions. Has anyone got questions? I would imagine … Come on. [Just come] all the way out here now. Oh, there we go.

Female Voice:  You’ll forgive me for making a comment instead of having a question – I’m so proud, being from the Chicago History Museum, to see that you used our slide up there, from out in Chicago, and I just wanted to mention that a kind of unintentional genius that we happened to do was that we started a series of programmes called Out at CHM about LGBT history, and that those happened for at least eight years before we opened our exhibition. Doing those programmes got the community used to coming to our place, got our rather conservative members used to programmes related to LGBT history; it brought new scholarship, because people had these lectures that they were developing, and opened up all kinds of resources, so that we then had a really incredible pull to [pull from] from our exhibition, and now Out at CHM continues as a series of programmes every spring.

Susan: Great, yes, thank you. As you saw from that last slide, I’ve recently published a book on interpreting LGBT history, and some of the curators of the Out in Chicago exhibit provided a case study for that book. It was a really great programme. Any other questions?

Male Voice: Hey, there. Thank you for your presentation. I’m curious if you have any advice for institutions, depending on where they are in the country, that might experience pushback to the introduction of LGBT specific programmes and initiatives.

Susan: Well, first off, I want to very much acknowledge that there is a lot of regional variation in this huge country, and I’m sure internationally as well, although I work specifically in the United States. That is a valid consideration. I do think … I mean, it’s hard to really get a feel for the landscape, because things are changing so amazingly quickly with regard to this area and United States culture.

I’m going to argue that there’s, at this point, there’s not a huge amount of debate about the fact that queer people exist, and have been productive members of society, and really, ten years ago in the United States, that was not agreed upon by the culture at large.

So, we’re there, and so then the question is, is it a worthy topic for a museum to encounter? That is, I think, creating buy-in from your stakeholders, and making sure they understand, and you understand the range of LGBT experiences, rather than it just being a very happy story of how queer people are just like us, and now they have their civil rights. There’s a much more nuanced and rich interpretation that’s waiting to happen.

But, doing that interpretation respectfully of a range of point of views, being careful not to … Like, it’s much more inflammatory, and also not necessarily historically accurate to just waltz into Jane Addams’s Hull House Museum and say, ‘Jane Addams was a lesbian’ – there’s historical nuance there, as well as, you’re taking one of the patron saints of women’s history and slapping a label that might be challenging for people.

So, proceeding with respect and sensitivity, and in conversation with a variety of groups in your community, I think is very important, and I’m talking about a range of groups. Also, some of the people that might be challenged by it, it’s not that they get to dictate the content of your interpretation, but to try to understand more what some of their challenges are, or what specifically they feel defensive about.

Susan Ferentinos, Public history researcher, writer and consultant spoke at MuseumNext Indianapolis in September 2015 about ways that museums might begin thinking about expanding their interpretation to include Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) stories.

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