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Telling Trans Stories Through Collections and Exhibitions

Category: Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion
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View a recording of “Telling Trans Stories Through Collections and Exhibitions,” a webinar organized by the co-chairs of the AAM LGBTQ+ Alliance’s Task Force for Transgender Inclusion. Panelists Margaret Middleton and Eric Feingold share their experiences and answer questions, giving participants starting points from which to tell trans stories in their own museums.

Transcript

Alison Kennedy:

All right. Hello everyone. My name is Alison Kennedy and I am the co chair of the LGBTQ Alliance, taskforce for transgender inclusion. Welcome to Telling Trans Stories through Collections and Exhibitions. The taskforce was created at the 2018 AM annual meeting to provide support and create opportunities for transgender museum professionals. And we’re excited to present this webinar for Transgender Day of Visibility, 2020.

International Transgender Day of Visibility is honored every year on March 31st. It is a time to celebrate transgender people around the globe and the courage that it takes to live openly and authentically while also raising awareness around the discrimination that trans people still face today. Even in this increasingly trans phobic, global political climate, transgender activists are making strides to transform how people think about gender around the world. As transgender people become more visible, it is important to mobilize against oppression.

Visibility is important but we must take action. Museums can take direct action by speaking out and educating others. Our panelists today are going to share their experiences and answer questions and give you all starting points from which to tell trans stories in your own institutions. So we have two panelists today. Eric Finegold pronounced he him his is a history curator at the Ohio history connection. He helps grow, preserve, research and share the organization’s collection of historical objects. Among his collecting areas is the Gay Ohio History Initiative Collection, which documents Ohio’s LGBTQ history.

Margaret Middleton pronounced they them theirs, is an independent exhibit designer and museum consultant based in Providence, Rhode Island. They have a BFA in industrial design from the Rhode Island School of Design and write about the intersection of museum work and social justice movements. Unfortunately our third panelist for today had other work commitments and was unable to make it. So we will go ahead and get started. Each of our panelists is going to talk for a little bit and then they will be able to answer questions and we can get some feedback. Excellent. So Eric, I would love to start with you. Can you tell us a little bit about what you do and the ways that the Ohio History Connection is working to collect trans history?

Eric Finegold:

Sure. Thanks Alison and good afternoon everyone or good morning depending where you are. As Alison mentioned, I’m a history curator at the Ohio History Connection and my pronouns are he, him and his. And as Alison mentioned, I work with Gay Ohio History Initiative or GOHI collections, so that’s full of pieces related to Ohio’s LGBTQ history. So before jumping into the kind of the meat of my portion, I just wanted to share a little bit of background on GOHI. It started in 2005 as a partnership between the Ohio History Connection. At the time we were known as the Ohio Historical Society and it was a partnership between us and a local LGBTQ media outlet in Columbus. And the partnership involved recruiting community volunteers and setting up an advisory committee to run and oversee GOHI with support from museum staff.

So that involved support for collections acquisitions, marketing, fundraising, administrative roles, things like that. And so GOHI’s early efforts were mainly focused in central Ohio. And of course we are a statewide organization but the early efforts were based in central Ohio and driven by local community members. So some of the early collections acquisitions from those years really reflected those two points. So the foundations of the collections, the GOHI collection were documents and photographs, political memorabilia, [inaudible 00:04:19] and other items that were documenting the local history in Columbus. But especially the experiences of white gay men and white lesbians. And we want our collections to be as representative as possible of Ohioans experiences. So we’re always working to address some of those gaps in the GOHI collection and our history collections at large.

And as far as the GOHI collection, one of the big gaps is that we lack pieces that come from Ohioans who identify as transgender. So that’s definitely an area of growth that we’re hoping to see in the future. But we are taking some steps to try to address some of those gaps. One of the ways that we’re doing that is through a GOHI specific collecting plan which we try to revise every few years. And as I’m sure a lot of you know, collecting plans are really helpful because they can give you a sense of your collection strengths but also its gaps and the blind spots that you can address. And we’ve used community input to develop our collecting plan and so working with the community has helped us learn about different figures in local LGBTQ history who we may want to try to collect pieces from and better incorporate the work that they do or the work they’ve done into the work that we’re doing.

So I’d really encourage you to if you haven’t done this already, if your organizations haven’t done this already, is really try to build and foster relationships with local activists in your community and LGBTQ activist groups. They can really share more information that maybe wasn’t on your radar before. So along with that getting that community input to inform what we collect, we’ve taken some other public facing steps to grow awareness about GOHI and the GOHI collection and our interest in preserving a wide array of stories so that includes work with our outreach department and having a presence at Pride Festivals around Ohio. We’ve done presentations at local colleges and schools. I have had the opportunity to bring some of the collection to a local middle school, gay-straight Alliance meetings, which was really, really enjoyable.

And it gave the students a chance to learn about our collection, but also kind of the value of material culture in general which was really nice. And our outreach department also leads a historical markers program that allows us to share LGBTQ history around the state. And a lot of the content for those markers is developed in conjunction with community groups around the state. So along with that work outside of our walls, so to speak. Of course we also do programs at the Ohio History Center, which is our main site. We have close to 60 sites throughout the state of Ohio, but we have done some programs that the history center in Columbus, kind of your standard curator talks where you share information about GOHI and local LGBTQ history.

We’re really proud of this program we held in 2016 and 2017 called LGBTQ Community Day. And at that event we invited the public to come to the museum and digitize items that they had related to Ohio’s LGBTQ history without physically donating them to us. And as much as we want to grow the collection we really understand that items have a lot of significance to people and they may not be ready to part with them yet, which is totally fine. And in the end we’re just happy to help them make those items available to the public. So that was really nice. And also just kind of a side note about that.

In 2017 we actually had a film screening of a documentary that was about Central Ohio drag King scene which was really fantastic. It’s called Kings, Queens and in-betweens, but highly recommended if you’re interested in taking a look at that. And also kind of a nice coincidence that fell on one of those free museum days that the Smithsonian offers. So we had a lot of folks kind of just the general public coming in and seeing GOHI on full display which was awesome.

But along with some of those programs, we’ve done a few exhibits. Sometimes they’re just focused on the GOHI collection and kind of featuring highlights of the collection. But we’ve also done a display about David Zimmer who was a local LGBTQ activist in Central Ohio in the 1960s. And David went on to be a drag performer. And so we had a great display with some of David’s performance costumes and photographs, including this great photograph of him performing in drag when he was in the military during the Korean Conflict.

So some of that pre Stonewall uprising history but also showing LGBTQ veterans, which was really nice. But one note about that, if you have the resources or the collections or you want to do a program about drag and drag performances, you just want to make sure to not conflate gender expression with gender identity in a display or a program like that. But along with those more GOHI specific exhibits, we’ve started weaving LGBTQ history into other parts of our displays.

So for example, last year we opened a pretty large exhibit about sports in Ohio. One of the sections focuses on identity in the sports world. And we had recently acquired some pieces related to a Roller Derby team that’s based in Columbus. And that team actually did some rebranding over the last few years to be more inclusive and representative of the gender identities of its skaters, coaches, referees, and other folks who volunteer and work with the Roller Derby League. So that was a chance to kind of weave LGBTQ history into a larger sports exhibit. So I was going to share some information about tips on researching this history if that works Allison.

Alison Kennedy:

Yeah, that’s great. If you want to share some tips and tricks for people who are looking at maybe they don’t have the capacity to build a collection right off the bat, but how can they look at their existing collection for LGBTQ related topics, pieces, things that might jump out in surprising ways.

Eric Finegold:

Cool. Yeah. So just to jump back quickly, some of the pieces that I just mentioned, whether the David Zimmer pieces or the Roller Derby pieces, you can find those on our online collections catalog and they’re very neatly cataloged under content terms like GOHI or LGBTQ or gender expression, content terms like that. But of course there are a lot of items in our collection and there in other collections for that matter that aren’t cataloged or weren’t originally cataloged that way with those really helpful subject terms. One of my suggestions is to, for lack of a better word, mine your collection and other organization’s collections. I know there are some really good catalogs out there that you can search but as far as mining those collections I really kind of break that down into two thoughts.

So for one look into items that may not jump out as LGBTQ or LGBTQ related or related to gender identity or gender expression. And a good example of that are laws. Laws are a really helpful tool for interpreting this history. An example from our collection is our archives library has a copy of the Columbus City Ordinances from 1848, which doesn’t necessarily jump out as a source that would be relevant here but these definitely aren’t cataloged under those helpful content terms, but there is a section in that city ordinance that outlines, I think it’s called an ordinance to suppress immoral practices is what it’s called.

And that section has one of, if not the earliest laws in the country outlawing what we described today as cross-dressing. And so that’s just one of the example of how a law like the local law or state laws can help you research some of this early history which can be a little more challenging to find, especially when you’re talking pre-Stonewall uprising, so pre 1969.

Alison Kennedy:

I’m going to go ahead and drop a link in the chatbox for everyone. The Ohio Memory website. And I’ve already gone ahead and searched for GOHI. So then it links you straight to some of those pieces that we’re talking about, but they are in a way that you can see how they’ve been put online for folks to be able to find.

Eric Finegold:

Cool. Thank you. And a couple of other kind of larger groups of material culture, toys and clothing can be really helpful for interpreting gender and gender norms and how they’re transmitted through our society and our culture. So I would encourage you to look into those and see how those can be interpreted related to this subject. But another tip for if you’re searching through your other catalogs don’t limit yourself with an acronystic search terms. So using terms like LGBTQ or gender expression may not yield some results from the 19th century, early 20th century even up until the seventies or eighties, even. And so Susan Stryker is an author who has written some books on transgender history and those books actually include a nice list of terms that medical professionals used in the 19th century and 20th century to describe what we’d call forms of gender expression and identity.

And a really helpful online source is the national archives and the United Kingdom has a nice research guide for LGBTQ history and they include a list of historical terms that were associated with gender and sexuality. So I would definitely encourage you to take a look at those. And one other caveat about some of those terms if you’re going to go ahead and use them in a display or a program just be aware of the implications of some of them. Though they may be historically accurate, they can be traumatic and harmful to folks today. So you need to find that balance between kind of historical scholarship but also being respectful and as welcoming as possible to visitors.

That’s kind of the quick rundown and just one other source. Some of you may have come across Susan Ferentinos book Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites, which is fantastic. It’s such a great source. It was the winner of the 2016 National Council on Public Histories Book Awards so if you haven’t taken a look at that, definitely do it. There’s some really great case studies that Susan outlines in there and just a really good resource to have on hand at your organization.

Alison Kennedy:

Awesome. Well, thank you so much Eric, for telling us a little bit about what you’re doing from the collection side of things. Margaret, do you want to tell us a little bit about your work on the exhibition design side of things?

Margaret Middleton:

Yeah, thanks so much. So I’ll give a quick introduction and then I’ve got some slides to share which hopefully I can do seamlessly. We’ll see how that works. So yeah, my name’s Margaret Middleton and I’m an exhibit designer and museum consultant. My background is in children’s museums and in 2015 I did an exhibit called Mimi’s Family and it was an exhibit for children and their families about a family with a transgender grandparent.

And I’ve since written quite a bit about that. So I’m not going to talk about that exhibition. But I am going to just drop a link in the chat to my academia page so you can see, I’ve written a couple of different articles. If that’s something that’s interesting to you, if you’re thinking about family audiences and if you’re thinking about interpreting contemporary public history.

The work that I’m working on right now is not related to exhibition design. In the past four years since having left the Boston Children’s Museum, I’ve been an independent consultant and most of my work has actually been for history museums, which is brand new for me. Not a historian but I love learning history and I’m really excited about learning queer history. So something that I’ve been thinking about in the past year is a concept that I’m calling queer possibility. And I’m writing about it in an article for the Journal of Museum Education right now.

And over the past year I’ve been talking about it at conferences to kind of test drive the strategy and hear back from folks about how it might fit into their work. And if they have some critique for me, I can kind of consider all of my work like a prototype all the time. And so that’s kind of how I see conferences. So if you are at NIEA or ASLH or VAX in the past a year or so, then we might’ve run into each other and you might’ve seen… These slides may look familiar to you. But I’m going to jump in. Let’s see if I could do it. How’s this look?

Alison Kennedy:

Looks good.

Margaret Middleton:

Thank you. Okay. So these are my queer possibility slides. And they have always included transness as part of them, but I’ve tried to tailor these more specifically to our conversation today. So that’s about me. We’re done with that.

Alright, so I’m just going to start here. This is how I’ve been summing up current practice when it comes to interpreting trans history in museums right now. Current practice says that the trans identity of an artist or historical figure should only be disclosed if they describe themselves that way. We’re a hundred percent sure that they were trans and the curator believes it’s relevant. So I’m going to go through each of those points one by one and challenge each one of those individually. So the first one, they described themselves that way.

This is not a trans-specific slide, but I like it too much to… Are we all seeing this? I’m not going to get it-

Alison Kennedy:

Yeah, it should be. Yeah.

Margaret Middleton:

You all are seeing that? So if I get rid of that, that’s going to… Now we can see the full slide.

Alison Kennedy:

Yeah, I can see the full slide.

Margaret Middleton:

Thank you for that confirmation. All right. So language comes up a lot when we’re interpreting queer history and trans history. In this particular… I thought this was a really fun coincidence I guess, that the word renaissance was coined in 1858 which was 300 years after Leonardo da Vinci’s death. And the word homosexual was coined to 10 years later in 1868.

And here we see Leonardo da Vinci saying, “True, I never referred to myself as gay. Then again, I didn’t identify as a renaissance artist either.” What this is meant to convey is that language does change over time and it’s not specific to sexuality or gender. Language regardless of what we’re talking about is changing over time and there are ways that we describe historical figures that they would never have used to describe themselves. But for our purposes, this is how we communicate today. And we wouldn’t issue word renaissance simply because Da Vinci didn’t have access to that word in his time.

So with that, this may be a familiar graphic. This is the transgender umbrella and this is from the gender book, which I recommend if you don’t have it in your library. It’s a great one. This I think for me the reason why I included this is that there are so many things that are trans adjacent or could be considered part of transness that I think it’s really helpful to have access to all of these words and to like maybe your visitors don’t use these words or aren’t familiar with them, but maybe they weren’t familiar with the term abstract expressionism before either. So this is a cool opportunity to introduce some new words and talk about all of the different ways that people are and have been trans or gender-nonconforming over time.

All right. So second piece, burden of proof. People are assumed cis-gender until proven otherwise. And we don’t require proof for cisgender people. The disproportionate fear behind erroneously outing someone is based on the idea that transness is shameful. And that fear is transphobic. That idea. So I don’t think that we all want… So when we’re interpreting history, we want to be right. But it’s all when you’re talking about interpretation, we know that some of these things that we’re saying about any aspect of history has the potential to be inaccurate. Just because we’re we’re talking about what we know today based on the evidence we have available. And there is a lot of hand wringing around whether or not we can refer to historical figures as queer or trans. And I think that that fear is disproportionate.

We’re much more afraid of doing that than say… Oh, somebody had a great analogy. They said, “Well, we found a box of baseball cards under his bed when he died. I think that we can infer that he was a baseball fan.” So in that way we’re okay making some leaps and it’s not as risky. I think it’s we’re making it out to be. So last point, relevance. So we don’t actually have great research for trans visitors in museums right now. I know somebody who’s working on a dissertation about this. Whence I am so excited to get the data back, but right now all we have is research for lesbian, gay, and bisexual museum visitors. And research has shown that they are negatively impacted by not seeing their identities and experiences reflected in museum content.

And I think, this is me editorializing, I think it’s safe to assume that the same as also likely true for trans visitors. As for CIS visitors one in five regular museum goers, and I had to ask Susie about this point because I was like, “Who’s a regular museum goer?” This is somebody who’s described as visiting museums three or more times a year. One in five regular museum goers report that visiting museums has given them a greater awareness of others as something that people look to museums for.

They want to meet people who have a different experience than they do. Alright, last slide. Trans possibility. The idea of trans possibility is based on two radical concepts. Transness is not shameful and transness is relevant. I’ve written three examples and I actually, I would really love to hear how these land with you all, everybody who’s participating today because this is something that I’d like to do more examples of. I have examples of queer possibility for gay and lesbian subjects in history and art but I’ve not seen this yet and no one shared them with, any examples of specifically trans possibility in a label.

So these are ones that I made up and I’ll just read them to you right now. We refer to him as a man because that is how he spoke about himself. Her life predates the coining of the term, but historians at our museum believes that if she were alive today, she would likely identify as transgender. The person defied gender norms in many aspects of their life. Contemporary queer artists have embraced them as a gender queer muse and ancestor. So I’ll just break down the strategies at play here. The first one going back to the way that the person identifies and we’re not necessarily using the language of identity, which is kind of a newer way of talking about this.

We’re simply saying this is how he referred to himself. In the second one, and then we’re saying man. We’re not saying trans man. We’re saying like, we’re going to use the words that he used, but like this is how we’re picking our pronouns. This is how we’re picking which name to use in the exhibit, that kind of thing.

In the second one we’re putting into context that we’re using a contemporary term that is a descriptive term to refer to somebody who didn’t have access to that word, but whose life seems similar to people who do today. And we’re putting into context who thinks that, historians at our museum for example or scholars have written or that sort of thing. We’re citing where maybe that’s coming from.

And then the third piece here is a way to ascribe a type of transness to somebody who might otherwise not be… Somebody who’s outside of a binary but has often been likely misgendered in the way that they’re being written about. And this is kind of a way to capture that existence outside of the binary. So anyway, I would be so curious to hear what you all are doing to get at trans possibility in your work and placing transness in history and having it go beyond a contemporary focus. So thanks.

Alison Kennedy:

We had a comment from Ren who said, you should look up the best practices for interpreting enslaved in African American history. And it has the same issues of burden of proof being disproportionately higher for talking about African American history and accomplishments rather than white books, specifically white men. Unsurprisingly, all of this is interconnected, intersectionality yet agreed.

Excellent. So we are happy if y’all want to start asking some questions, pop them into the chat box and then I can ask and our panelists can see those as well. And then they are, I’m sure happy to chat back and forth. I’m sure we can come up with lots of stuff to talk about, but I would love to hear what questions all of y’all have.

Yes, I am happy to come up with a list of resources that we can send out and include when this is posted in the future once it has captions. Yes, I will happily do that. Can I ask a question? Yes, please ask a question. I’ve got you unmuted now.

Sarah Wang:

Can you hear me?

Alison Kennedy:

Yes.

Sarah Wang:

Great. So thank you so much for this webinar. I felt that it was extremely helpful. I also wanted to thank the speakers because I feel like for the first time in many webinars we actually got practical information and tools that we can just go. I just want to say that, I know this isn’t a kind of affiliated talk, but I’m up here in Canada. We also work a lot regarding this field as well. I myself really come into this with little understanding and knowledge because this is not [inaudible 00:34:06] of my work, but my new position asks me to engage in this a lot. So I guess, I’m sorry for the really long, long winded question, but I live and work in the unsuited and ancestral territories of the Coast States [inaudible 00:34:27] peoples. It’s also known in English as Vancouver.

I just wanted to ask, how do we reconcile in our practice and our commitment to serving the public good when we occupy a land of settlers, of immigrants and just general diversity outside of the white, cisgender community. I feel that for us in Vancouver, a lot of the trans centric exhibitions and galleries in States are less visited by those outside of a certain set of demographics. So how do we engage a more and more diverse communities to come in and learn and I guess just visit, many of whom come from places and times when 2SLGBTQ plus ideas and experiences were never taught, discussed or debated. Oh, and thank you.

Alison Kennedy:

Sure. Do you either Margaret or Eric want to jump on that question?

Eric Finegold:

Well, one thing that I had mentioned that I know Allison our outreach department does a lot of the work outside of our walls. But I think it’s really important for museum professionals to try to go to their communities that’s something that we probably hear a lot. But I think we’d be kidding ourselves if we expect folks to just come to us, especially when historically museums have underrepresented, which is probably even generous. I think not represented is probably a more appropriate way to say it. So many, many, many experiences. So in short if you’re able to go to these communities that could be a good first step.

Alison Kennedy:

Can you talk a little bit more Eric, about what LGBT Community Day looked like? Since that is a specific time that I know… I did attend to that one that people came to the History Center and kind of what that looked like with community partnerships and things like that.

Eric Finegold:

Yeah. So from what I understand, and again it was a lot of a lot of our outreach staff doing some of the grant work. I think it was an NAAH funded grant. Or we may have received some funding for that through the NAAH. But basically folks would come in and we’d have a table set up with flatbed scanner or flatbed scanners. And folks would complete some forms, just gathering information, giving permission to share their pieces on Ohio Memory, which Alison had shared a link to the GOHI Collection on Ohio Memory. But we also have, excuse me, the GOHI community collection, which is the term we’ve given to all the items that were digitized as part of those programs. So folks would come in and they would be able to digitize pieces, but I had a table of collections out and those are some of the most meaningful interactions you can have when you can be on the floor with collections to share them with people up close.

And I know our visitor experience department did some work but what it looked like as far as visitors coming in, it was a great mix of kind of the regular crowd that comes in, but also folks who are coming in specifically for the program. So yeah.

Alison Kennedy:

Excellent. Margaret, did you have any thoughts? All right, so I have another question here. In museums we frequently refer to African American art or feminist art. Is there such a thing as transgender art? If so, how does it make itself known? I think that’s a great question.

Margaret Middleton:

I’m happy to take a stab.

Alison Kennedy:

Excellent.

Margaret Middleton:

So I’d be really interested in some disagreement here. But the way that I would describe trans art would be any art that is created by trans artists or is significant or meaningful to trans people throughout history. So if something has a cultural significance, like and I guess I would use like any… I think we have some precedent. We have some examples of like what gets defined as gay culture which isn’t necessarily gay in and of itself, but because it has gay cultural history significance like Judy Garland or [inaudible 00:40:04] for example.

Alison Kennedy:

Excellent. A good stab at it I think. Here’s another question. What strategies can we use to influence curators in the inclusion of transness and trans possibility into museum labels? I see these ideas and discussions come up internally when talking amongst ourselves about the objects, et cetera. But these ideas often seem to get edited out or avoided in the final label copy. I’m sure both of you can kind of talk to different sides of this one.

Margaret Middleton:

I have a lot of experience having higher ups say no to me. That it’s like a theme in my work I think. And I guess… Actually, you know what? I have a great resource that I can share. I’ll put that in, I don’t know if we have availability to like send you all PDFs, but I have a tool that I use for…

So I’ll give you maybe two strategies out of that larger tool. So there are five different strategies in this tool and it’s really meant to be like a graphic organizer of how to think through making an argument and case making. And it’s a couple of different examples of these strategies are partnering. So if you can say like, “Well, that person that you respect said it’s a good idea.” That’s usually like a third party, somebody outside the museum. I find that’s really helpful. Spread out the blame. Another example is pointing to precedents. This other museum that you respect did something I think we could do it too. That can alleviate some fear. And usually that’s where it’s coming from. It’s usually coming from fear. The no comes from fear.

And it’s really helpful for people to see that like that this isn’t somebody without a lot of power and we see where it’s coming from. Like if a curator is at the top and you’re trying to make a case to somebody like in an upward direction that’s where that’s coming from. And yeah. And then bringing in other outside voices in the way that like you would cite the work of a historian. Like we had some really great examples in one of the presentation we gave at NIEA. Someone had this great idea of using poetry as like a way to interpret that work. So if your curator is like dead set on like not going to like include some words but maybe they can use the work of another queer artist and have them like co-interpret that work for you, that can be a cool strategy too. Anyway, I’ll share that toolkit. I think that might be helpful.

Alison Kennedy:

That’s excellent. So then on the other side of this question how do you deal with an audience that is often reluctant to learn and talk about these themes? I know at one point in a survey when the possibility of us doing educational programming around LGBTQ+ themes came up, people rated it low and asked us not to get political.

Eric Finegold:

I think one thing you can do here is just sometimes it’s about educating folks about this field itself. We have quite a legacy to contend with in the museum field but also a lot of folks who come in the museum see themselves as lovers of history and students of history. And one of the hallmarks is good history is exploring a lot of different sources and kind of showing how these different perspectives really just add to the narrative. And sometimes maybe it’s just a little bit of background about our field that could help nudge people in the right direction, but unfortunately there may be folks who just aren’t willing to open themselves up for that as well. So that’s an unfortunate reality too.

Alison Kennedy:

But I think too, don’t let that make you afraid to go ahead and do things. When I was at the Columbus Museum of Art, we put pronouns on our name tags and there’s a lot of hand wringing about like, “What if people see it and they’ll like it.” And I honestly never had a bad reaction to it because the people who would have probably reacted like that didn’t even notice. So definitely don’t let that kind of fear hold you back for sure. Another question is a really good one[crosstalk 00:45:46]

Margaret Middleton:

Can I add something to that?

Alison Kennedy:

Yeah Margaret. Go. Absolutely. Yeah.

Margaret Middleton:

Sorry. I try to be quick. I think there are two different strategies for that. One is I really do think the community partner piece of this can really help because if you can show that there are other folks just like you who are interested in this and supported this, then that’s really helpful.

Also just from like an administrative side of things, I feel like this one [inaudible 00:46:17] it gets used as a scapegoat. I guess I will say like, I believe you that you have like somebody who’s like come back at you and said this. Some of the pushback that I’ve had personally has been kind of this like made up person who might potentially be offended. And a lot of that’s actually like that can sometimes be a little tricky because what has happened… In my experience what has happened is this has been couched in terms of like, “This is at odds with our diversity initiative.” And this is like basically calling black and Brown people homophobic or transphobic and using that as an excuse for not doing queer work. So it’s super racist. And you kind of have to like… It takes a few questions to get at it, but those are some really important questions to ask if that is some pushback that you’re getting from a fictional person who is concerned about the content.

Alison Kennedy:

That’s a really good point. So we have some really good questions. This one I think could probably be a webinar on its own. How do we interpret complicated and nuanced histories within LGBTQ2+ narratives in a way that can reach visitors, like with the transphobia within lesbian feminism? How can we tell these stories about abandoning the positives that came out of those ideologies? [inaudible 00:47:54] we may just have time to like poke them a little bit. Do you have thoughts on that one?

Margaret Middleton:

I think it’s great. I think you should do it. I don’t know. It seems like you can do it. I think you can. There are so many other examples of movements that have been really, really flawed where we got something good out of it, but bad stuff happened and history is complicated. And I think there are probably plenty of examples of other types of history that have these same issues in them. But I love that you brought it up because it’s important that none of these movements or ideologies or communities are monolithic.

Eric Finegold:

Yeah, it’s something that we’ve tried working into the collecting plan for GOHI as far as transphobia within lesbian feminism, talking about discrimination and ways we can collect materials that show that even within LGBTQ+ communities. So I agree. I think it’s definitely an important subject to discuss.

Margaret Middleton:

I can think of a few ways not to do it. A couple of pitfalls that I see folks falling into in other topics. Not this one because this doesn’t ever get discussed, but I often see things like he was a man of his time. This was a common practice at this time. It was legal, which is bizarre. Like that’s a bizarre excuse if I ever heard one.

So anyway, there are a lot of ways that people excuse bad behavior or bigoted thought by trying to place it within some kind of like historical norm, which is not great. So I would say like that would be a pitfall to avoid with some of these like, “Even though she was really racist she fought for women’s rights.” Like I think we can come up with a better way to say that. And I think like we can say both and rather than yes but. Does that make sense?

Alison Kennedy:

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I have another question. Let’s see. This one is about working with schools and children and teachers. So in the province that this person is in they’re very lucky to have an overall supportive government for inclusivity in like LGBTQ history and instruction. And so they’re piloting a curriculum model from elementary to secondary education called SOGI, which is sexual orientations and gender identities, one, two, three. Can you give us any practical advice working and engaging with teachers and school districts? I’m especially interested in getting students into the museum and looking at how they can assist in curating or interpreting exhibitions, getting young people excited about cultural institutions and knowing what it means to work and contribute to those institutions as well.

Eric Finegold:

Oh, I can use the example of working with some of the local middle schools. In the area, some of the GSAs, the afterschool groups that were meeting and bringing collections to them. And I think the idea is that we just hold onto the collections in the dusty or the storage area or put them in the case and they never see the light of day but bringing these pieces out and educating the students about folks that they’re not reading about in their textbooks. I think at least from my experience it definitely kind of showed them one of the really cool, unique things about the work that we do and the work that collections can help us do kind of these informal learning experiences. Again, just going out into the community is always helpful if you can do that.

Alison Kennedy:

Excellent. I think that’s a really great answer there. Here’s another question. What assigning objects new terms like queer or gay possibly give people an opportunity to exclude objects based on the terms. What strategies could be used to avoid that from happening? To keep that from happening?

Eric Finegold:

Is that meant to be kind of as far as like a cataloging question, like the subject terms. I just want to make sure I’m understanding that.

Alison Kennedy:

I don’t have any other context for that one. Let’s see. Yes. Via cataloging. Yes. There’s a context.

Eric Finegold:

Okay. Cool. I suppose it could if they’re doing like the brilliant search, like not include those terms that they’re not looking for. What strategies could we use to avoid that from happening is maybe use more content terms.

Margaret Middleton:

This my idea. We could choose not to hire homophobes to be in charge of that collection, fire them.

Eric Finegold:

I think that’s pretty good solution too.

Alison Kennedy:

Yes. I think being as descriptive as you can and not letting the fear kind of get to you. Especially those kinds of imagined hypotheticals for sure. And if somebody really doesn’t want to look up something, I think it’s actually better for them to have the opportunity to use that nod, our brilliant search. If you look at the way like trigger warnings work, if you don’t use the entire word with the warning then it doesn’t actually get filtered out by anything.

So I think it’s important to catalog accurately. So we’ve just got a few minutes left. There are definitely still some questions coming in. I’m happy to keep reading them, but if you guys are interested in continuing to think about topics like this, the LGBTQ Alliance is currently looking for folks to participate in our professional network committees. So we have lots and lots of opportunities to get involved with us, including on the taskforce for transgender inclusion.

We do have the toolkit available. So gender transition and transgender inclusion in the museum workplace as a toolkit that was published last year. There’s also a recording available of our trans ally-ship 101 webinar that happened last year. So I’m happy to send any of these resources to folks. They’re also available on the LGBTQ Alliances AAM Professional Network Page.

There was one other question that I really liked and I think Eric, you might have something to speak about with this one. We’d love to know about others’ experiences of managing up when it comes to queer and trans programming. Have curators you work with chosen to do this kind of programming in order to check off an institutional box without having much knowledge of queer culture. So I know that it’s a tricky question. If you don’t have a lot of knowledge of queer culture, can you still work with these kinds of things in a useful way?

Eric Finegold:

I’m sorry, you’re breaking up a little bit. Can you?

Alison Kennedy:

Oh yeah, absolutely. Can you hear me now?

Eric Finegold:

Yeah, I can hear you now.

Alison Kennedy:

Okay. So the question was about curators who don’t have a lot of knowledge of queer culture and then kind of managing up to keep those kind of authentic, I think.

Eric Finegold:

I think the community engagement piece is super important. That is really important, that shared authority. And working with your communities is critical. But it can also be very helpful to have an understanding of this field. [inaudible 00:57:40] something I mentioned a little earlier and understanding that museums have been seen as an authority and maybe that was not earned frankly, because there were so many stories and experiences that weren’t told all the time. I would encourage other curators to really try to just do our jobs better, frankly.

Margaret Middleton:

I have a tip about the community engagement piece and this is coming from a mistake that I made when I was working on the Mimi’s Family Exhibit. Initially I had compiled a few local organizations to partner with. And when I showed them to a colleague I mean, here I am, I’m a queer person. I think of myself as somebody who’s like aware. So I’m like choosing a few organizations that I think might be interesting to work with, but I haven’t worked with them yet. I showed them to another queer colleague and she pointed out like immediately that I had chosen like all of the white organizations. That I had like a huge bias in the choices that I had been making.

And we end up having much, much better community engagement process once I had opened up the very initial stages of the community partner gathering piece because we’ve all got blinders and mine were huge. And I was really grateful that I happened to have a colleague who was able to fill in those massive gaps for me. So it’s not just whether or not you’ve got somebody who’s like up on queer culture, it’s also like which queer communities are they operating in and aware of. And where are the gaps.

Alison Kennedy:

For sure. Definitely something that I know we’ve looked at with GOHI, the Gay Ohio History Initiative as well. So if everybody is still okay to keep chatting, would you have a few more questions even though we’ve hit our 3:00 PM time, I want to check in with my panelists and make sure we’re good.

Excellent. This one back to the subject of art, is there some central reliable and respected source that lists transgender artists, indeed transgender role models in multiple professional fields, both current and historic that serve as role models for undergraduate students… I ask this after having struggled to come up with a list of contemporary transgender artists. I am not sure if that exists yet, but that sounds like a great project for a professional network committee as part of the taskforce for transgender inclusion. If you are a part and like willing to help build a resource like that, please email me and we will work on it.

Margaret Middleton:

We distributed a list of contemporary trans artists for our talk that we gave at the NAE conference back in last winter. So I’m happy to contribute that. It’s still only a page, so it’s only scratching the surface, but that could be a place to begin.

Alison Kennedy:

That’s a great point. So I have one last question and I’m going to get someone who wants to be on voice. Unmute it. There we go.

Speaker 5:

Hello.

Alison Kennedy:

Hi.

Speaker 5:

Hi. So my issue is kind of with intergenerational trans shame and my specific community. So I work at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Museum in Las Vegas and we still have a lot of legends who are alive from like the golden era of burlesque. And like quick story last year we had one of our legends, Alexandra the Great 48 pass away and she was an out trans woman that was part of her billing. It was something she wrote about in her autobiography. However, when we posted like kind of for representation for our younger like Neo Burlesque community, like this is like one of our trans legends, we want to remember her as trans, our older legends had a really big outcry against the fact that we mentioned she was trans.

I think that partially it has to do with the fear for some of them who are like not out as trans and how they would be represented though obviously we’re not trying to like traverse those boundaries. Again, Alexandra was out, but do you have any recommendations for how to deal with that intergenerational, like trans shame especially as we’re trying to really represent fully, really important members of our artistic community to a very queer contemporary like burlesque scene. So it’s a little fraught.

Margaret Middleton:

That’s so challenging.

Speaker 5:

Yes.

Margaret Middleton:

I can say that I’ve had some success in talking through outing people. Historical figures. I mean, outing historical figures in museums. Some of the lines of inquiry that I’ve used have usually just been kind of like redirecting it back to the person who’s pushing back or expressing concern. It usually sounds like anxiety or it sounds like fear or it sounds like anger. And there’s a lot of emotion there and it’s important to give somebody the space to express that emotion. And ask them like, “What’s coming up for you? How are you feeling?” And like, “Where do you think this is coming from?”

Usually like if I give somebody like enough time to really talk it through and clarify when I ask… Okay, I think what I’m hearing is that like for example like there’s something really interesting that happens for where if we talk about outness that it can be thought of as a binary and that’s not true right that outness is specific to circumstances and time and the people involved and the relationships.

So it’s been really helpful for me to talk through like, “Okay, so I’m hearing that you don’t want to add this person. Do you think this person is out to anyone. Do you think they were out to their community? Do you think they might be out now?” Like that kind of thing. And then asking about like where some of those anxieties are coming from. That was not a super great explanation. I don’t think of like how I’ve done it because I feel like it’s complicated and like it’s about facilitation.

Speaker 5:

Yeah. It seems just like there’s a bit of a cultural gap with some of our older legends where they feel like as you put in your thing that there’s some sort of shame associated with being recognized as trans. Even though there have been quite a few of our community members who that was, which again is like troubling and tokenizing like kind of their selling point as entertainers. But who were like completely, “Yeah, cool. We’ll navigate it. We’ll probably just have to hang out more with our legends and get them a little bit more contemporary trans literate.” I don’t know.

Margaret Middleton:

Yeah, I do think that like framing it as a discussion and having an opportunity for people to really ask each other questions and have that, if you have an opportunity to have like the intergenerational conversation and [inaudible 01:06:52] have it like the two sides, but really just like, We’re all here to talk about this thing. And we all have valid points here.” And like that emotion comes from a real place. So I would want to want to honor that. You’re talking about trans performers today, having shame about outing? No.

Speaker 5:

No. So we call them our living legends, so they’re like our senior members of our community from like the mid 20th century era of performance. Of course the Neo Burlesque Community is quite queer, quite sort of like body positive activists leaning as it is. So we think it’s really important to make sure that we represent those members of our historic community that we know were trans and queer, like to better serve our contemporary community. But our legends who are still around they still and it probably it’s a lot of fear. It’s just probably fear but it’s difficult to navigate because on one hand, part of our audience like needs and loves that type of representation. But the actual subject of our museum and like our culture bearers have a lot of anxiety about that being represented. So very difficult to navigate. Thank you for… I guess we just got to keep talking with them.

Margaret Middleton:

Yeah. Yeah. I think I may have misunderstood what you were talking about because I think I was hearing like internalized shame, that was part of it. So that’s kind of where I’m like, maybe I’m being a little generous to some folks because of that. Not that being generous is bad, but just that I guess I just wanted to clarify that that’s who I was imagining. So now I have a different idea of what you’re talking about.

I think that this is… I think I guess I would say like, yes discussion, but then like how are you going to support queer and trans folks in that space who are like having that discussion with these people who disagree. Like what are some, think about like-

Speaker 5:

Hello all. It’ll just be me.

Margaret Middleton:

Well, there you go. But yeah, I think generally speaking like it’s helpful for people who are not in that community not to be making those decisions. And that’s tricky because you’re talking about somebody who’s in both of those communities. Like they’re they’re connected to it in more than one way.

Speaker 5:

Oh, well thank you for… That’s why I couldn’t type it out. Sorry. Thanks.

Alison Kennedy:

Thank you for asking. I think that’s a great last question to end on. It’s about 3:10. So we’re a little bit over our time, but thank you so much everyone for coming and chatting with us and thank you to Margaret and Eric both for sharing your experiences and knowledge and thank everybody and thanks for AAM for letting us host it.

 

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