Beyond disabilities: widening the inclusivity scope in Museums and cultural institutions (2/3)

Dec. 21, 2021, 4:06 p.m.
Benaki Museum, inside, exhibition room

Last week’s post in this series about a wider meaning of inclusivity approached the issue of how museums and cultural institutions hold a stake in fostering the representation of a more diverse society focusing primarily on migration.

This time we change our subject to LGBTQIA+ community and how it has been included and represented in art museums, aside the fact of having museums and centres exclusively dedicated to their history and perspectives –as it happens with migrants and migration museums. That being said, it does not mean that initiatives and projects of this kind were not necessary. On the contrary. These places created and curated side by side with specialist, social workers and governmental institutions are an arrowhead in the incursion of discourses linked to gender diversity and its experience in social and cultural itineraries. The Schwules Museum (Berlin, Germany) – as a museum itself- or the Centre LGBTI de Barcelona (Spain) – as a social platform- are very good examples of good practice creating a safe space for learning, debating, representing and supporting the LGBTQIA+ community. Being each one of them very different from the other they share the way they function, not only hosting exhibitions but also organizing workshops and conferences about topics related with gender, identity, and diversity approached transversally by other aspects as class and race. The Centre LGTBI de Barcelona and also serves as a meeting point for different people in one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in the city.

Creating new spaces where different people can express themselves and feel safe while doing so is very important but, what happen with other existent cultural institutions? How museums of bigger and smaller cities can take a step forward on presenting themselves also as diverse and inclusive spaces? Historically, the approach to LGTBQIA+ issues that museums have followed is very similar to that addressing migration and its realities. It basically considers two safe ways of engaging the topic: whether organizing exhibitions that covers –partially or generally- the history of the LGTBQIA+ movement and its claims, starting with Stonewall Riots in 1969 and the huge imaginary and heritage that was left behind alongside feminist and antiracist movements, or whether offering itineraries reading the existent objects of museums’ collections with a queer perspective.

These two perspectives collide in one thing in particular: the concept of identity. Both migrants and LGBTQIA+ people have been regarded from the outside –being this ‘outside’ the western, white, masculine, heterosexual, and bourgeois point of view- as ‘the other’. In this sense, any consideration of identity outside a cohesive, social and normative structure has been conjured as a symbolic space of difference (Addison, 2007:11) in which some people find their truth. Most of what we call ‘identity’ has not been self-generated but designated by others, and when it moves outside this designation it becomes the trigger of a mechanism of oppression. This oppression has to be contested, individually and collectively, being Art and History a great tool for exploring this complicated relationship of self-affirmation and acceptation – concepts and actions that not always come together.

Coming back again to Maria Vlachou’s words, museums are about heritage, identity, and collective memory. LGBTQIA+ memory has been silent most of the time and has not been addressed by mainstream and canonical cultural itineraries until the very last decades. Museums have been a wasteland when it comes to collecting LGBTQIA+ objects and materials, making the needs of a culturally diverse community drastically silent –if not chased and repressed (McIntyre, 2007:49). Hopefully, museums and other cultural institutions are, again, learning from their mistakes and revising this repression in order to accept the cultural and also historical diversity when it comes to represent and perform gender and sexual tendencies and behaviours.

Starting with an example of a good curated exhibition about the LGBTQIA+ history, Erin Bailey-Sun and Nicole Robert –who also co-founded the platform Queering the Museum- organized in 2014 at the Museum of History and Industry (Seattle, USA) called Revealing Queer. This exhibition showed the complex history of the collective through a large variety of themes, such as language, significant cultural spaces, celebrations, laws, and artistic artefacts coming from the museum’s collection as well as from private donors across the country, being most of these objects the first time to be showed to the public. The most important thing of Revealing Queer was not only the enhancement of LGBTQIA+ history and memory but the fact that this exhibition counted with a Community Advisory Committee composed of representatives from local LGBTQIA+ organizations together with gender activists. This active participation created a more representative and close discourse to with LGBTQIA+ visitors could stick and also a more direct and honest approach to the topic for people who whether didn’t know the history of the community they belong to whether they were completely profane to the thing. The similarity between this curatorial proposal and the one run by the Världkulturmuseet in Gothenburg is quite outstanding, and so we can assure that active participation and recognition are two of the many keys of success in this area.

Other examples of this historical approach to a more diverse museum drawing from the objects already present towards participation and engagement with their communities come from the National Museum of African American History and Culture (Washington, USA) with the project LGBTQ+ Objects in the NMAAHC Collection and the ZEITZ Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Cape Town, South Africa) and its Curatorial Lab LGBTQI+, which took place along November 2017 in the form of workshops and forums bringing together representatives from civil society organizations and people from LGBTQIA+ collectives in order to give shape in a curatorial way to the fight for equal rights in a country where gender dissidences are still relegated to a marginalized place.

Major art museums are echoing these initiatives by shaping their collections into trails and tours focusing on LGBTQIA+ representations in their collections, insisting in the artists sexuality and empowering different views of the body. Some of the best trails are gathered here, including proposals coming from the Louvre (Paris, France) or the British Museum (London, United Kingdom) among others. The British Museum’s proposal has one particular aspect to highlight –especially during these strange Covid-19 times- which is the possibility of following the different trails completely online.

In these terms of accessibility, the initiative of Museari (Museu de l’imaginari) is also something to be considered. Museari is an online museum projected and curated by two art professors from two different Spanish universities, offering free access to its contents and aiming to educate and inform the visitors about human rights, especially defending those related with sexual diversity and the LGBTQIA+ community. Museari is a good example about how more accessible museums play an important role on social education, bringing out the question of how relevant is the educational program in museums, being some times more useful and more engaging than a mere visit to the building itself. Museari combines a permanent collection and temporary exhibitions, thus interacting with the public and offering different activities in which schools, universities and other educational centres can also get involved.

There are two proposals coming from the United Kingdom that must be gathered in this post as main examples of good practices when it comes to engage, give voice and represent the LGBTQIA+ community. The first one took place in 2017 at the TATE Modern (London), called Queer British Art about which there is already a post in this blog. The second one is more recent and it is run by the Croydon Museum (Croydon). This initiative by Croydon Museum called Queer+ Croydon is based on a queer and multidisciplinary artist’s research. Mark Goblin’s research aims to address the gaps in the museum’s collection in LGBTQIA+ terms. The artists himself is asking for direct and active participation, gathering personal stories and histories of LGBTQIA+ Croydians, activism groups and objects produced by and for other events and venues. The museum, as it happened with the MOHAI’s exhibition explained before, is open for donations from people alien to the artistic circuits as well as it considers re-designing its collection by changing some patrons that have historically excluded LGBTQIA+ artists and pieces.

Regardless of curatorial practices, design in museums also plays a big role in making more accessible spaces for LGBTQIA+ community, starting with avoiding gender segregation in facilities such as restrooms, using inclusive language in their information signs and guides and also addressing unequal policies when it comes to management and curatorial tasks.

Design and educational projects show up as an important area to strengthen and yet to be improved in some museums – if not at least incorporated. Active participation and visibilization are two strategies whose effectiveness has been proven and confirmed when it comes to boost and revitalize museums’ collections making them more inclusive and accessible.

Next week, we will feature the last post of this series, where we will approach one last front in this discussion: Ageing. People with different economical, cultural and sexual backgrounds also get older and in a society with a higher life expectancy this must be well considered and, most importantly, towards a transversal, multidisciplinary and accessible scope. Ageing will close this overview of other aspects beyond disabilities that come into play when discussing accessibility in museums, galleries and other cultural centres.