Richard Sandell speaking at the Nowhere to Hide session

Why are museums so scared of LGBT stories?

Geraldine Kendall, 04.10.2011
Public supports exhibitions but museums still see them as a risk, delegates hear
In spite of equality legislation, most museums have done little or nothing about representing the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in their public programming, according to Richard Sandell, head of museum studies at the University of Leicester.

Sandell was speaking at Nowhere to Hide, a session at the Museums Association conference in Brighton exploring how the Equality Act 2010 creates an obligation for publicly-funded institutions to adequately represent protected groups.

Delegates were told how, although other minorities were being more fairly represented, museums still viewed telling LGBT stories as a risk. This was in spite of the fact that recent exhibitions had enjoyed considerable public support and drawn in new audiences, said Sandell.

He added: "There's a real possiblity that the financial climate may inhibit museums on equality."

But museums have been making some progress. According to Sandell, more LGBT exhibitions have opened in the past five years than the previous 50.

One such intervention, Queering the Museum, opened at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) last year. Its curator, the artist Matt Smith, told delegates that he wanted the exhibition to be positive rather than worthy or controversial.

"I focused on visual jokes, camp, double meanings, pathos and subterfuge," he said. "People could find a trail throughout the museum. It was very important that we didn't have a gay exhibition off in a room to the side."

All museums have "more objects than you could possibly believe" that can be reinterpreted to draw out LGBT stories, Smith added. He described how he used BMAG's existing fairground-themed sculptures to represent slang phrases from Polari, the coded language used by gay men in the 20th century.

The growth of an industry around civil partnerships offered museums another easy source for collecting current LGBT stories, he added.

Employment judge Joanna Wade told delegates how the focus of the Equality Act was not slavish equivalence, but rather ensuring fair representation of protected communities that "spans right through a museum, from board members to procurement and commissioning".

The law does not create any specific duties for museums, but Wade said having an enshrined commitment to equality could offer protection during employment tribunals and would also "show funders that you're the right kind of organisation to fund".

Representing the LGBT community also has the "huge and indirect benefit" of bringing in enthusiastic visitors and accreditation from external organisations such as Stonewall, said Wade.

"I wish that sexual orientation was simply a normal and interesting part of a museum's life and that people didn't get scared that it was all about sex," said Wade.


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05.10.2011, 16:15
IWM North have exhibited the Military Pride exhibition and toured it around other venues in the Manchester region. A fabulous exhibition of LGBT stories linked to personal experiences in the armed forces.