Sex Sells

By Kevin Schram

Sexuality in museums. A topic discussed in the last part of Mark Liddiards research essay ‘Changing Histories: Museums, Sexuality and the Future of the Past’ on the changes occurring in museums, concerning technologies and attitudes towards the past. He argues that questions should be asked about the identity and direction of museums within the UK. His research draws on interviews based on two groups, which also form the first two parts of his article: 49 exploratory interviews with a sample of UK museum staff and 200 semi-structured interviews with museum visitors. Finally, in part three, he implicates his data in nowadays museum practice, where he uses (homo)sexuality as an illustration of the changes he described and discovered in his research.[1]

His research, rightly based on different groups influencing museum work, has some interesting outcomes. Part one focuses on the challenges museum workers face in creating exhibitions, where the concept of marketing turns out to be the greatest issue for exhibition-making, next to ‘inclusiveness’ being a repeating term.[2] Liddiard defines the role of the public in that marketing issue as “the power shift from the sacredness of the collection to the sanctity of the consumer”[3], citing Bryan Appleyard. This citation stresses the role of the visitor of the museum as the most important factor in exhibition-making. Liddiards second part, on the interviews with the visitors, strengthens the role of the consumer by doing 200 interviews with visitors, with one particular interesting outcome: visitors are not mere passive consumers of history, but active participators in the interpretive process and critical examination of exhibitions.[4] Therefore, the public seems to be the determinant factor in museum’s exhibiting policies.

Reactive vs. proactive

In part three Liddiard tries to combine the outcomes of his so-called empirical research (i.e. how can the selection of possibly suggestive interviews with visitors of museums actually be empirical and trustworthy, without showing enough of the counter-reactions in interviews, or any statistics derived from the research?) in an example concerning sexuality in museums, before stating in his conclusion that museums have two ways of creating exhibits: reactive and proactive, the first being a slow reaction to changing attitudes within popular thinking, the last being ground-breaking and perhaps shocking, facing taboos.[5]

The trend in exhibiting homosexuality in museums is such a proactive way of creating exhibits according to Liddiard, justifiable from the perspective of inclusiveness derived from results in part one, since it means including marginalized histories.[6] Although it seems proactive, it can also be a reactive response to changing popular thinking, without a museum being forefront and, in Riegels words “not only reflect culture, they also help make it”.[7] I argue here that Liddiard takes on the homosexuality trend too easily as a proactive attitude of the museum world. There are many more factors involved concerning the display of homosexuality in museums. Take for instance the general manager of the Netherlands Museum Association, Siebe Weide, stating during the symposium Queering the Collections that in museums a significant amount of gay people are part of the board, staff and visitors. This can be an important factor in finally creating a gay-related collection.[8]

During this symposium, another related issue was raised concerning an ideally inclusive representation of (queer) history in museums. Tanja Ineke, president chairman of the COC, a Dutch LGBTQI-organization, called for this inclusive history, taking a negative stand against a separate gay museum in Amsterdam, which led to a discussion with University of Amsterdam professor of Gay & Lesbian Studies Gert Hekma.[9] He wanted a separate museum. In my opinion neither are the best at this moment. First and foremost, I think that the history of homosexuality (and other queer-related concepts) should be researched and discovered, to have a substantial base  besides ‘normal’ history. Secondly, museums should start critically analyzing their existing collections from a different perspective, like Jill Austin et al found out in the process forming the Out in Chicago exhibition and the struggles they encountered.[10] What I try to state is that inclusiveness can only exist by the merit of its foundation, which means scientific research and the use of that which is already apparent.


In creating exhibits, Liddiards research is useful as contextual material for anyone participating in the process. Museums being reactive or proactive is a logical reaction to the need to differentiate and define, but remains a problematic distinction, since it focuses on the attitude of the museum and misses its target when actually dealing with people and, especially, when dealing with sexuality. Therefore I choose for inclusiveness as the keyword in displaying sexuality, for which marketing will be no issue: sex sells.

[1] M. Liddiard, “Changing Histories: Museums, Sexuality and the Future of the Past,” Museum and Society, Mar 2004, 2 (1), 15-29, there 15.

[2] Liddiard, “Changing Histories”, 16-17.

[3]B.  Appleyard, “Pleasures or treasures?”, The Sunday Times, 8th August 1999, 4.

[4] Liddiard, “Changing Histories”, 20-21.

[5] Ibidem, 26.

[6] Ibidem, 26.

[7] H. Riegel, ‘Into the Heart of Irony: Ethnographic Exhibitions and the Politics of Difference’, in S. Macdonald and G. Fyfe ed., Theorising Museums, (Oxford 1996) 89.

[8] S. Weide, “Column”, Queering the Collections, 20-3-2015.

[9] T. Ineke & G. Hekma, ‘Discussion round’, Queering the Collections, 20-3-2015.

[10] J. Austin et al., “When the Erotic Becomes Illicit: Struggles over Displaying Queer History at a Mainstream Museum,” Radical History Review 113 (Spring 2012) 187-197, there 192.