LGBT+ Public History: ‘Queering’ Museums and Archives
As explored in Jack’s introductory article, the history of sexuality is a problematic endeavour. The historical contingency of sexual identities renders quests to ‘reclaim’ an LGBT+ past problematic. In an attempt to avoid imposing the categories of gender and sexuality of our contemporary world onto the past, historians have focused on a ‘history of the changes in sexual categories themselves’. Writing a history of sexuality from our current perspective, therefore, requires a degree of compromise, for it is hard to completely avoid the imposition of our own understandings of sexual identity. In recent years, there have been some pioneering public history and archiving projects which have attempted to ‘reclaim’ the LGBT+ past.
LGBT+ history remains a relatively underdeveloped area of historiography, a situation exacerbated by the lack of available primary source material. Public history projects have sought to ‘reclaim’ the LGBT+ past of the last century or so through fostering greater access to relevant source material.
One prominent example can be found in the ‘Your Archives’ project of the National Archives. Put together by ‘Archus’, the voluntary LGBT+ group at the National Archives, this wiki provides a comprehensive list of the most relevant documents held in the National Archives in Kew relating to LGBT+ history. The wiki therefore renders LGBT+ history in modern Britain more accessible by cataloguing relevant government documents. Alongside national archive documents, there exist collections dedicated to LGBT+ histories in Britain. The most notable example is the Hall-Carpenter archives, housed by LSE, which predominantly includes the records and published materials of key LGBT+ organizations since the publication of the Wolfenden Report in 1957.
Whilst there is a wealth of legislative and governmental material to access, there is often minimal coverage of LGBT+ voices themselves within the official documents which form the basis of ‘political’ historical narratives. Oral histories are therefore common in LGBT+ historiography, for they allow for a reclaiming of the ‘personal’ narratives. ‘Unheard Voices’, a collaboration between the Anti-Defamation League, GLSEN and Story Corps, is an oral history project which aims to insert the history of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgender people into the curriculum. The project provides resources to be used in classrooms which are based on the stories of a variety of LGBT+ Americans, allowing teachers to move away from the politically-centered LGBT+ narratives in favour of more personal narratives.
Further ‘invisibility’ is often afforded to ageing LGBT+ ‘voices’. Dr. Jane Traies of the University Of Sussex has employed the oral history method in her new book, ‘The Lives of Older Lesbians’, about which she recently gave an ‘Oral History Workshop’ on as part of LGBT+ history month at Pembroke College, Cambridge. Oral history projects therefore present a powerful tool for ‘queering’ narratives, moving away from the bleak narrative of repression which can characterise histories based solely on official and legislative documents.
LGBT+ public history has not only been about ‘reclaiming’ personal stories, but about ‘reclaiming’ space. The importance of space to the history of LGBT+ communities is best exemplified through the ‘Queering the Museum’ project. The project aims to ‘intervene’ in the representation of LGBT+ in a collaborative manner. For example, the 2014 ‘Revealing Queer’ exhibit at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle was led by the co-founders of the Queering the Museum project, working in co-operation with representatives from LGBT+ organizations in the local area. The project therefore not only reclaimed museum space as a site for LGBT+ histories to be memorialized, but actively engaged the living LGBT+ community in the endeavour.
The importance of space is literally symbolised by ‘The Pop-Up Museum of Queer History’, which runs a number of projects in which ‘pop up museums’ are created in sites of particular ‘queer’ interest. For example, in 2013, the project transformed the archway beneath the Manhattan Bridge and the surrounding neighborhood into a celebration of Brooklyn’s waterfront queer history. The Pop-up Museum therefore explicitly acknowledges that LGBT+ histories are often spatially rooted, linked to a localized sense of community. With 2017 being the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexuality in England and Wales in 1967, mainstream national museums have also been ‘queered’, with the British museum, for example, holding an exhibition entitled: ‘Desire Love Identity: Exploring LGBTQ Histories’, which intends to shine a light on the objects in the museum with ‘queer’ histories.
However, the manner in which LGBT+ history is memorialized can still be a great point of contention, for the acronym encompasses broad swathes of individuals, within which under-representation can be an issue. For example, there was a dispute over the portrayal of the LGBT+ victims of the Holocaust in the Holocaust memorial. In 2006, Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset’s memorial of a cuboid containing a black and white film of two men kissing was criticised by lesbians, who saw this as ignorant of their shared history of repression with gay men, thus perpetuating the contemporary isolation of the lesbian community. Eventually the dispute was settled by agreeing that the video will be alternated between two men and two women kissing every two years.
The representation of LGBT+ history in archives, museums and memorials therefore remains a contentious issue, made problematic both by the historical contingency of sex and gender identities and criticisms of ‘under representation’ within the LGBT+ community. However, some of the projects, archives and museums mentioned above are ensuring that the field of LGBT+ history is becoming progressively more accessible to both researching academics and the general public.