Lesbian, bisexual and gay objects in museums

Photo of Ray’s Badges 1980s, Museum of Croydon

Although I am a bisexual and an historian, I have never written the words ‘bisexual’ and ‘museum’ in the same sentence. Museums, many of them being temples of heteronormative patriarchy, never seemed to me like places where bisexuality is very relevant or even existing. The reason that I ended up mentioning them in the same sentence here, is that the article Representing lesbian and gay men in British social History museums by Angela Vanegas confronted me with some ideas I have never considered before.

The most interesting question in this article is how the lesbian and gay population can be represented by objects in museums. Vanegas describes how the few objects in museums that are labeled as gay are often enforcing stereotypes. Sex toys and objects related to AIDS  create an image in which gay and lesbian culture is reduced to something that is only about sex itself. When she asked curators why they didn’t show objects of a different nature they answered that other objects used by lesbians and gays in their everyday lives might just as easily have belonged to heterosexual people. Vanegas agrees that ‘Certainly, objects are not alive – they have no intrinsic sexuality’ but points out that ‘users will generally be assumed to have been heterosexual, unless the objects are explicitly connected with lesbian and gay life’.

I agree that it is a problem when the creators or former users of objects are assumed to be heterosexual when they are not because, this way, the existence of people that are not heterosexual is not acknowledged. This is what gives me, and probably many other people, the feeling that museums are places where their life is not relevant or even existing and one of the reasons I discarded most museums as temples of heteronormative patriarchy earlier in this blog. But is does not have to be that way.

Photo of Gary’s Panda 1980s, Museum of Croydon

Vanegas worked on the Lifetimes exhibition in the Museum of Croydon in 1995 and tells how they managed to make this exhibition about the lives of Croydon people more inclusive. The people working on the exhibition interviewed many locals from Croydon including ethnic minorities, disabled people and non-heterosexuals and asked these people to provide objects for the exhibition. The way these interviews were held, adds to the inclusive character of the exhibition in three ways. Vangeas describes how they ‘ felt that it was important to use researchers who belonged to the groups they were investigating; people who talked about “us” rather than “them” when referring to their interviewees’. This is a good way to make sure that lesbians, bisexuals and gay men that are interviewed don’t censor themselves to much when giving answers because they might think that the interviewer won’t understand or approve of the things they say. Secondly the people giving objects for the exhibitions can choose which objects to provide themselves, although the museum still decides if they end up in the exhibition or not. And finally the interviewees had to approve and could change the texts  with personal stories that would describe the objects in the museum.

Photo of Sara’s Maternity Dress 1975, Museum of Croydon

I was curious if these 1995 ideas are still alive in the Museum of Croydon and tried ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘bisexual’ and ‘queer’ in the search engine of their website. The website showed seven objects donated by lesbians and gay men: a plush panda (1980s), a maternity dress (1975), a 1957 report stating that homosexuality should become legal, a 1993 Croydon pride brochure and T-shirt, one of the first psychology of sex studies that didn’t treat homosexuality as a crime (1897-1928) and a collection of lesbian/gay activist buttons (1980s). The museum even wishes people a nice Croydon gay pride on twitter and invite them to come and make banners at the museum.

The Museum of Croydon has definitely proofed that it is possible to make museums into more inclusive spaces where the existence of people of different sexualities is acknowledged. It contains a divers set of objects donated by non-heterosexuals that are also explicitly labeled as lesbian or gay. It makes me fantasize about what I would contribute if a museum would start collecting objects from local bisexuals. Maybe my first MMA gloves, that made me feel empowered, or perhaps the movie that inspired me to be more open about my sexuality. There are many possibilities.