Out of the closet and into the museum

By Annabel de Ruijter – Cultural institutions often embody the public sphere, central sites where the display of sexual objects becomes a stage for debates over how and when the erotic is illicit. In “When the erotic becomes illicit. Struggles over displaying queer history at a mainstream museum”, Jill Austin et al. explore how the Chicago History Museum attempted to address these issues while creating an exhibition about LGBT history in Chicago. Discussions appeared over showing sexually explicit material in the museum, and whether the exhibit would encourage visitors, particularly youth, to become sexually nonnormative or immoral.1

Not surprisingly, conservative activists have been protesting over illicit material in the museum for al long time. Most famous is the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit in 1990 in the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinatti.The exhibit that showed Mapplethorpe’s lifework, resulted in the first time in history a museum and a director were charged criminally for obscenity because of a public exhibit. London’s Tate Modern had to remove naked Brooke Shields pictures after a police visit back in 2009, because the picture of the 10 year old could break obscenity laws. Furthermore, in the 2010 exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and desire in American Portraiture, displayed in the National Portrait Gallery, protesters claimed that AIDS activist and artist David Wojnarowicz’ piece “A fire in My Belly” did not belong in a federally funded institution, resulting in the removal of the object from the exhibition.2 Out of fear for similar protests, the curators of CHM decided to remove the lesbian-produced object, The Wheel of Debauchery from the exhibit. Only sexual in textuality and visually unobtrusive – depicting neither images of erotic practice nor significant profanity, The Wheel was replaced after struggle over what it would mean to depict lesbian sexual practices. Other choices in the materials for the exhibit reflected CHM’s hessitance in displaying the sexual illicit as well.

Supporters of the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit, 1990 Cincinatti. (Photo: Enquirer file/Jim Callaway)
Supporters of the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit, 1990 Cincinatti. (Photo: Enquirer file/Jim Callaway)

I would say it’s a shame that out of fear for backlash the Wheel of Debauchery eventually wasn’t displayed in the exhibit. Erotic practices in the museum are by no means a recent phenomena. Criticism of displaying illicit material in an LGBT exhibit is in fact very much hypocritical because traditional art museums do show sexual objects, with the difference that it’s looked upon as “culturally respectable”. And it’s not only heterosexual objects these museums show. As a matter of fact The British Museum purchased the Warren Cup, a silver drinking cup with two images of male same-sex acts, for 1.8 million pounds in 1990 – making it the most expensive single purchase by the museum at that time. You can look for yourself, but I would say it definitely checks the boxes of sexually explicit material. 

Additionally, showing alternative sexual practices can even be a great succes. The Leather Archives and Museum in Chicago, defining its goals as “the compilation, preservation and maintenance of leather lifestyle and related lifestyles [including but not limited to the Gay and Lesbian communities], history, archives and memorabilia for historical, educational and research purposes.”3 ,turned their main boiler room in in a dungeon exhibit. The artifacts displayed are done so in an erotic and sexually charged way. According to the museum this exhibit is one of their most succesfull and popular exhibits. 


Leather Archives and Museum (photo: Marina Makropoulos)
Leather Archives and Museum (Photo: Leather Archives and Museum/Marina Makropoulos)

Going back to the Wheel of Debauchery, instead of removing The Wheel and other ”illicit” objects altogether, there could have been the possibility to create an online space for the objects not seen as fit for the physical exhibit. Just as The GLBT Historical Society has online exhibitis, there could have been an online exhibit linked to the museum. Especially for the LGBT community this would have been a great way to have access to objects they think should be out there to tell their history. 

Another way of making the display of sexually illicit material possible, would be through raising the age limit. This was also done in Porn that way, an exhibit held last year in the Schwules Museum in Germany about the history of homosexual porn. By raising the age to 18 years and over, compromising in displaying the history of queer sexual practices wouldn’t have been necessary. Through the shared authority the museum embarked on for this exhibit, the objects could have truly depicted the history of LGBT sexuality and the queer community.

The most important case for displaying queer sexual practices is that there’s a need for museums to invest in LGBT history. By understanding the impetus for creating and maintaining queer community history in museums, curators can use this knowledge to foster more reflective practices to be more inclusive in their research practices through outreach and collaboration. Furthermore, debate about the normative heterosexual gaze in art should be stimulated in order to create a more inclusive spectrum of experiences. The examples in this article are just a few of many ways of displaying queer sexual acts, not just in the physical sphere but also digitally, that could contribute to a broader history. 

1Jill Austin et al, ”When the erotic becomes illicit. Struggles over displaying queer history at a mainstream museum., Radical History, 113 (2012) 187-197, 188.

2Austin, ”When the erotic becomes illicit.”, 190.

3Leather Archives and Museum, http://www.leatherarchives.org/about_.html., visited 13-10-2015.

4Austin, ”When the erotic becomes illicit.”, 196.

41 thoughts to “Out of the closet and into the museum”

  1. You make good points but sometimes it’s hard for the reader to keep track of them. You mention the Wheel of Debauchery, then talk about something else for a paragraph, then go on to mention “the object”. I had to scroll up to find out what you were talking about, and did not fully understand it until you explicitly mentioned the Wheel again. It’s also not entirely clear to me how conservative audiences should be appealed to, or what shared shared authority should look like.

    I totally agree that museums should (be able to) show explicit material, especially since it has been criminalized for so long and is still stigmatized. as proven by the controversy explicit exhibits still cause. And explicit nudity or sexual innuendo is not a problem as long as the gaze is not queer. Art museums are full of – to say it disrespectfully – wanking material, and even the Musee d’Orsay exhibition about male nudes since 1800 did not seem to stir any controversy. I do wonder what would have happened if this exhibition had been put up with a gay frame. (http://www.musee-orsay.fr/en/events/exhibitions/in-the-musee-dorsay/exhibitions-in-the-musee-dorsay-more/article/masculin-masculin-37292.html?tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=254&cHash=77c6929456)

    Now I’m just wondering who wrote this /o\ (you forgot to include your name).

  2. I was a bit surprised by the emphasis on sexual objects in this context. First I’m wondering why it is necessary to include the detailed kinky sexual topics in telling LGBT history. That history should be about so much more right? It also has the risk of stereotyping this community. Besides, I’m not too sure if comparible sexual objects are present in other museums. The ancient bowl en the paintings you mentioned above are art objects with nude men, gay or not, and it also tells us something about nudity, malehood and homosexuality in the past. I don’t see that many expressions of sexual stories or habits (or wanking material) in museums and I’m wondering if museums are the right place for it.
    For me, more emphasis on LGBT history is the way to go, but I would suggest to include it in regular exhibitions, to teach the public that is is a part of every single society.

  3. Good evening Robin,

    Thanks for your comment. I’m actually still working on the article, I accidently posted it – don’t really know how WordPress works yet. I hope you find it somewhat more coherent when I finish it 😉 I agree on your point about the heterosexual gaze vs. queer gaze – the exhibit you mention, put up with a gay frame, would probably have resulted in being labeled ‘homo-erotic’.

    What I mean by fully shared authority in cases of displaying sexuality (and maybe even in marginalized history in general) is that there shouldn’t be limits in the creation of an exhibit – in objects, stories and use of space. These histories deserve to be told and are too important to only display in fragments. The CHM exhibit I think had too many limits to truly realize this.

    This is Annabel by the way!

  4. Haha, check. WordPress can be confusing like that. I’ll look at you post again tomorrow ;).

    And José, you’re right, this is a very touchy subject. There is the risk of stereotyping queer communities, but at the same time their way of life was (and sometimes still is) seen as taboo and shameful. If we don’t want to talk about or show this side of communities, then we’re also in a way stigmatizing them. There has to be a balanced representation, that shows the full scope of queer lives. In my own blog post I’ve talked a bit more about this complex problem of how to present queer stories in museums.

  5. “Furthermore, debate about the normative heterosexual gaze in art should be stimulated in order to create a more inclusive spectrum of experiences.”


    Also, it’s way more concise now, a very good read.

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