Where can trans people call home in history?
E-J Scott, Issue 118/10, p16, 01.10.2018
More effort is needed to include LGBTQIA+ stories in permanent displays
The problem with pop-up exhibitions is that they pop down. And the problem with anniversary-led programming is that it passes.
So, while we witnessed a flurry of queer exhibitions across the UK in 2017 to mark the 50-year anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain, we are now seeing them close. This begs the question: are LGBTQI+ audiences still welcome in museums?
This is a particular concern for the Museum of Transology - a collection of more than 250 objects donated by 117 trans people with their stories attached to them on handwritten labels. Commissioned by the Fashion Space Gallery at the London College of Fashion in 2017, the exhibition opened at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery in July and has been extended to run until mid-2019.
The overwhelmingly positive response to the display reflects a thirst among audiences to engage with gender debates and, moreover, the longing for trans people to find themselves in history. But the collection still does not have a home.
So where should it live, when its work is not yet done? After all, it is not really the Museum of Transology. Rather, it is the Museum of the Trans-Visible-And-Increasingly-Confident South East's Transology. Trans people's lives are lived differently across the UK (and indeed, throughout the world), amid different levels of social tolerance. Stonewall's Trans Report earlier this year revealed two in five trans people in the study had been victims of hate crimes in the past 12 months, with crimes up 80% in the past four years. Increased visibility has also increased vulnerability.
Museums create meaning. The social impact of invisibility in the museum is the fostering of unknowing and othering, breeding misunderstanding, disdain and fear. By comparison, the Museum of Transology shows that the social agency of museums can be used to foster social cohesion. This show needs to go on the road because its everyday objects help people accept the everydayness of being trans. If it were to tour, community collecting and archiving workshops could run as an engagement programme alongside the exhibition.
This would skill trans communities everywhere to build their own museums of transology collections, leaving an imprint on collections throughout the UK and halting the erasure of transcestry. The process would also encourage trans people to enter the museum sector. This is vital, because without them becoming heritage workers, trans narratives will continue to remain unrecognised and unspoken. However, which museum has room for a trans exhibition in its upcoming programme? Queer is so last year.
The work put up in temporary shows often vanishes without trace. More effort is needed to include the complexities of gender and sexual identities in permanent displays. The Queer Walk Through British Art launched at Tate Britain's Queer & Now 2018 festival is a triumph because it engages with multiple perspectives of queer artists, cultural producers and staff.
Each distinctive lilac text panel is displayed next to the work to which it refers, alongside the original curatorial panel. Rather than contradict the original reading, it complements and complicates it. It dares to validate voices rarely heard after the party's over.
Museums are the thread that tie together tolerance. Through objects, we can unravel our fascination and weave it into understanding and acceptance. Difference becomes diversity. Unlike my own trans history (I was labelled mentally ill, with the term "gender dysphoria"), the next generation of non-binary people are claiming gender euphoria.
The trans movement is now a liberation movement. To ignore trans lives and politics in the museum is to ignore the most significant moment in gender politics since third-wave feminism. This is social history - not to be simplistically denigrated as ideological identity politics - and belongs on permanent display in the museum.
E-J Scott is a dress historian, curator, academic and queer cultural producer
E-J Scott recently curated Queer & Now 2018 for Tate Britain. They are producing West Yorkshire Queer Stories in partnership with Leeds City Museum and West Yorkshire Archives, and founded and curated the Museum of Transology, which will run at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery until May 2019