Queering the Museum at the Museum of History & Industry

Exterior south view - Spike Mafford Exterior south view - Spike Mafford

For museums, access involves acknowledging the diverse histories and cultures of the communities they serve. Access in museums also serves as a pathway to social justice, as museums acknowledge that there are differences that could either unite us or separate us and participate in the ever-changing dialogues of social justice and equity. Given their roles in their communities, museums have a particular responsibility to recognize a diversity of stories and use these stories to initiate change. The Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) is not only recognizing the last 40 years of LGBTQ histories in Seattle’s Puget Sound region, it is celebrating them with its landmark exhibition Revealing Queer. LGBTQ is a term that points to different identities that are outside of heteronormity, and the five letters that compose the term are simultaneously liberating and oppressive as each comes with a set of societal expectations. MOHAI’s Revealing Queer illustrates how the Puget Sound LGBTQ community has gained visibility, and it encourages the community to continue to work towards equality through legal reform and activism.

The blossoming of Puget Sound’s LGBTQ community, from before the Stonewall Riots of 1969 to the politically active community that supported marriage equality law in Washington State in 2012, is remarkably portrayed in Revealing Queer. This exhibit was led by curator Erin Bailey, co-founder of Queering the Museum, along with the collaboration of a Community Advisory Committee composed of a range of LGBTQ groups remarkable in scope: API Chaya, Entre Hermanos, Gay City Health Project, Ingersoll Gender Center, Gender Alliance of the South Sound, Lily Divine Productions, Northwest Lesbian and Gay History Museum Project, Oasis Youth Center, Puget Sound – Old Lesbians Organizing for Change, Queer Youth Space, Rainbow Center, Seattle Gay News and the University of Washington. The Community Advisory Community’s role was vital in the creation of the exhibition, as the group helped shape and direct the content in the exhibition based off of the experiences they lived as members of the Seattle LGBTQ community. Bailey believes that working alongside a Community Advisory Committee was beneficial, as “the authority of the museum is put into the hands of those who live the experiences represented in the exhibition. It moves us away from an expert approach to a community driven approach. LGBTQ histories are often times left out of the archive and by using the community advisory committee model [we] were able to supplement the lack of archive while developing exhibitions related to LGBTQ people.”

Historic photograph - via MOHAI Historic photograph - via MOHAI

Revealing Queer is also a project of Queering the Museum (QTM), an evolving project concerned with representations of LGBT/Q people in museums across the country. The LGBT/Q acronym stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transgender identified individuals. The letter Q, referencing Queer and Questioning, represents those who reject a specific or static sexual and/or gender identity and embrace queer as a broad identifier. The goal of QTM is “to facilitate critical dialogues between community members and museum practitioners [to address] the role that museums play in forming social norms around gender and sexuality.” QTM especially collaborates with museums to educate and help construct normalized ideas of race, gender, and sexuality, and to connect community members with museum professionals in their communities through a variety of activities. MOHAI’s mission to highlight innovation and education and to enrich lives by sharing the individual and collective stories of our communities has become an ideal platform for QTM’s projects.

MOHAI’s vision of innovation through historical exploration and inspiring people to create a better future for themselves and their communities is clearly reflected in Revealing Queer’s documentation of LGBTQ’s changing communities, cultures, and art. A predominant feature in this exhibition, as Bailey notes, is the theme of language. In the exhibition, there is a compilation of “commonly used terms within the LGBTQ community as a way to provide visitors with an understanding of these letters, [as well as] pejorative words, words that [she thinks] should no longer be used to create an opportunity for people to reflect on the language that they use to describe the LGBTQ community.” Bailey understands that most people do not know what the acronym means and wanted to clearly define it in the exhibition to avoid biases or confusion.

So far Revealing Queer has been well received in the community. It is important that museums and scholars continue to not only document the history of LGBTQ communities, but to also celebrate those stories. Bailey highlights the need to build a concise archive about the LGBTQ experience so that museums can dig deeper into this community. Revealing Queer serves as a model of how museums can serve as sites of social justice. MOHAI and Queering the Museum understand that social justice takes more than a few groups of individuals to question conditions and seek justice, or even to recognize the collective impact of differences. It is up to us as professionals and human beings to question or reject injustices and find ways to promote equality. MOHAI is finally queering the museum by identifying LGBTQ as a relevant and valuable topic through a thought-provoking exhibition that challenges, educates, and spreads awareness. As a result, Revealing Queer has become a dynamic classroom about people, politics, culture, sexuality, individuality, and art.

Revealing Queer will run through July 6th, 2014.