A figurine depicting the Ladies of Llangollen, two sixteenth-century Irish women who ran away from their aristocratic homes to live together in Wales. Part of BMAG's Queering the Museum exhibition

How can museums better represent lesbian and gay audiences?

Geraldine Kendall, 27.07.2011
Conference to discuss how Equality Act affects museums

Recent changes to the Equality Act mean that publicly funded museums have a new obligation to represent the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in their displays.

Delegates at the Museums Association Conference and Exhibition 2011 in Brighton will have a chance to learn how Section 149 of the Equality Act, which came into force in April this year, affects their museums.

Protected characteristics under the act include sex, sexual orientation, and gender reassignment, and the act puts an onus on public authorities to "tackle prejudice and promote understanding" while taking steps to meet the needs of those who share a protected characteristic and encouraging them to participate in public life.

Publicly-funded museums have in the past been accused of shying away from presenting LGBT narratives, apart from notable exceptions like the National Portrait Gallery’s 2009 Gay Icons exhibition.

In a session chaired by Richard Sandell, head of museum studies at the University of Leicester, delegates will have a chance to explore how they can better collect, frame and interpret the lives of LGBT audiences.

The session will examine how Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) drew out LGBT narratives from its collection for its Queering the Museum exhibition, which closed earlier this year.  

The museum reinterpreted its permanent features, such as a Jacob Epstein statue of Lucifer with the body of a man and the head of a woman, to reflect aspects of LGBT identity.

Curator and artist Matt Smith also incorporated green silk carnations, a typical symbol of gay identity in the 19th century, as a visual motif throughout the exhibition.

Smith, who is speaking at the session, said: "[The panel will provide] a one-stop-shop for museums facing the new challenges posed by the Equality Act and present creative ways of broadening their visitor base and reflecting wider diversity in their displays.

“I hope, during the discussion, delegates will air their concerns about how to tackle sexuality within their museums and help to provide advice.”

The session, entitled Nowhere to hide: how gay and lesbian representation in museums is affected by the Equality Act, takes place on Tuesday 4 October.

This week is the last chance for delegates to get an early bird discount - book before 31 July for significant savings.

For more information and to book your place, click here


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07.09.2011, 17:46
Anthony, I apologise that you found the tone of the piece offensive in any way - that was certainly not my intention. “Challenge” was not a word I used myself anywhere in the piece, but I have to refute any accusation that it is perverse to describe the Equality Act in such a way. First of all, challenge is not always a negative thing - in this context it simply means something that requires careful thought and effort to turn into practice. Yes the issue is framed from a heteronormative standpoint, but that is – regrettably - the standpoint upon which museums themselves were established, long before any concept of LGBT rights. There are many, many years of ingrained thinking to overcome with this issue in general and it would be disingenuous and self-censoring not to look at the Equality Act from that point of view. In no way, however, was this meant to come across as meaning LGBT stories are an intrusive subject being forced upon museums – in fact, the piece laments that museums have traditionally shied away from the subject, and also shows how BMAG benefited from listening to LGBT voices. If anything, the sensitivities this debate has raised demonstrate exactly why these issues need to be explored by museums and why the session at conference will be relevant.
05.09.2011, 15:49
@ steve: Queer has come to be a term which rejects discreet or static conceptions of sexuality which can be exclusive. It covers any kind of sexuality that isnt part of the hetronormative status quo. Yes it is a therefore a negative identity, and yes It may be most frequently used by young activists or acadmics, but it has an advantage over LGBT categorisation in that it lets people define themselves individually and doesnt exlude others from that identity- if you want more details on why look up how gay rights movements have often had elements of trans-phobia, or dismissed bi-sexuality as 'half-in'the-closet'
05.09.2011, 15:37
Whilst sypathtic to the attempt of the museums association, Ms Kendall and Mr Smith who wish to finall acknowledge the existance of LGBT people within their representations of the world, i resent the tone of this article. The fact that the equality act is posed as a "challenge" to museum practice is rather self defeating. It frames process in terms of the difficulties of normal people, status quo conceptions of the world, and the museum practices which reflect them to accomodate the intrusive subject of non-conforming sexuality. I hoope that the above will reconsider their peverse approch in order to recognise the historical and continuing disempowering and oppresive role it has played on LGBT people, which was the whole need for the act in the first place.
04.08.2011, 11:33
For me the salient point is that gay people have a history and one which isn't owned by academics. The longer this isn't acknowledged, the easier it is to discount our existence or attempts to even acknowledge it.

The title of the BMAG's exhibition troubles me, to me the label queer remains redolent - at best - either of ranty youth groups or academia. In the meanwhile for many of us it remains problematic and anything but celebratory.
28.07.2011, 14:46
This is a really good article. It's almost strange to still be talking about doing this, instead of just doing it - it seems so obvious that we should represent all sections of society in our collections and learning work. Imagine a large museum that did not hold a collection of African or Pacific material culture, or a small one that had no material on local history or industry; is it not the same thing? Perhaps we could move away from the stereotypes when we represent this area; maybe we use stereotypes because we are scared gay peopel are just the same as everybody else -rather normal and pretty average (funny that!)which doesn't really make for an exciting exhibition.