Thursday 18 May 2017

Putting the Unseakable on Display

Today is International Museum Day. This year’s theme is “Museums and Contested Histories: Saying the Unspeakable in Museums”. To quote from the Museum Day website “… museums play a vital role in peacefully addressing traumatic histories – while still sharing knowledge of the past and giving it meaning to help us understand the world today. Museums therefore become tools for teaching universal values and help create a common destiny among different, peaceful geopolitical spaces.”

There can hardly be any more contested histories than that of the lgbt community. Even as I speak the plight of lgbt individuals in Chechnya is causing alarm. Not only do some people refuse to give the community a voice but some take measures to eradicate it.

It would have been inconceivable to produce any public historical display of lgbt heritage before the 1960s. Even today there is a reluctance on the part of lgbt historians and academics in the UK to take an active lead in establishing an lgbt museum. It has always been talk and no action, and that talk is predominantly negative, more excuses on why such a museum can’t be created instead of reasons why one can.

In other parts of the world similar museums have had varying degrees of success. Below I’ve selected some of the successes and failures of museums around the world. These will include some museums also dedicated to sex and AIDS as these are also considered “unspeakable” and “contested” themes and the lgbt community cannot be separated from them. I’ve deliberately selected only one museum for each continent, except Antarctica.
We’ll begin with what is usually referred to as the first gay museum, 1) the Schwules Museum in Berlin. Like a lot of other lgbt museums around the world this German museum was inspired by a one-off exhibition. In 1984 Berlin Museum mounted an lgbt exhibition called "Eldorado". The following year, due to its success, the Schwules Museum opened above a popular gay night club. The museum moved to its present location in 2013. The original emphasis was on the history of male homosexuality in Germany. In 2009 the museum received a grant from the Berlin Senate to enable expansion of its collection to include other sexual and gender identities.

There does not seem to have been any attempt to create an lgbt museum in Africa. However, in South Africa a museum has been created dedicated to the history of AIDS on the continent, 2) The Museum of AIDS in Africa.  The idea of an AIDS museum seems first to have been developed in 2004 in New Jersey and there is one currently in Florida. So much had been learnt about the origin and spread of HIV, and many huge advances in medical science that has helped us deal with it and understand it, that it became clear that in just a few short decades disease had generated its own history and legacy.

The Museum of AIDS in Africa was founded in 2012. The original aim was to build up a collection of artefacts and a series of travelling exhibitions in a permanent home in South Africa. Johannesburg and Durban have both been considered. It came about through the work of Stephanie Nolen, a foreign correspondent on a Canadian newspaper. She covered the HIV and AIDS news in Africa between 2003 and 2008 and realised that there was a lot of misinformation and propaganda. Some tribes believed it was either witchcraft or a curse from their ancestors.

The physical museum of which Stephanie Nolen first dreamed has not yet been achieved, but last year a specially designed travelling exhibition venue, a pop-up building, was designed and, it is hoped, this will become a “permanent” travelling museum of AIDS in Africa.

An earlier museum which included the history and information about AIDS was the 3) Antarang Museum – the Museum of Sex, or Sex health Information Art Gallery, which opened in India in 2002. It was created in Bombay/Mumbai is response to the increase of AIDS cases in the city. It was a joint venture between its founder Dr. Prakash Sarang, the Greater Mumbai Municipal Corporation and the Mumbai District AIDS Control Society. Initially the museum attracted a lot of media attention due to the general subject matter of sex education. Its main visitor base graduated into local prostitutes and their clients, and Dr Sarang expressed a hope that the museum would be better received in Goa. The museum went into a kind of limbo in 2007, closing down due to structural problems and lack of funds. It was virtually abandoned by its original creators, except Dr Sarang. Its future, if it has one, is not certain.

We move across to South America now. With São Paulo having some of the biggest lgbt Pride parades in the world it is natural that the city should house the only lgbt museum in Latin America. Celebrating its 5th anniversary this month is the 4) Museu da Diversidade Sexual (Museum of Sexual Diversity). It was created in May 2012 by São Paulo state’s Culture Secretariat. It currently occupies a large space in the mezzanine floor of the city’s Metro Republica subway station in one of the city’s public parks. There were plans to move it to a larger, more impressive, site – a 112-year-old mansion house in the city centre. Designs for a new annexe with library, auditorium, café and gift shop were approved in 2014 but nothing seems to have been done. There were even suggestions that Elton John would be invited to perform the official opening. However, it remain a very popular museum and exhibition space.

Australia, and 5) Sydney in particular, also seems to be the perfect place for an lgbt museum with its vibrant community and highly successful annual Mardi Gras. There have been several exhibitions in Sydney’s museum and art gallery and the idea of a permanent lgbt museum gained a lot of support after the 2013 Mardi Gras when a pop-up lgbt museum was created by the organising committee with the help of $40,000 from the city council. Impetus gathered after the suggestion of a permanent museum was raised in city council meetings. A venue was ear-marked but the council leader wasn’t enthusiastic. Finally, in 2014 the whole idea was dropped. The Mardi Gras committee admitted that the selected site would have cost them too much money and opted for more pop-up museums in the future.

In the next few weeks the 6) Stonewall National Museum and Archives is likely to see an increase in visitor numbers. Don’t be fooled by the name Stonewall. This museum isn’t in New York where the famous Stonewall Inn is located but is in Fort Lauderdale in Florida. The reason it may become popular for a few weeks is because the 4th World Outgames are being held next week just down the coast in Miami. The Stonewall National Museum was founded by Mark Silber in 1973. In 2009 the museum moved to its present site on East Sunrise Boulevard.

So, those are some of the lgbt museums that have been created or considered. They illustrate the successes and pitfalls of establishing a museum dedicated to a subject that is still quite controversial, in museum terms. I’d like to finish with the words of Gerard Koskovich, a founding member of the GLBT Historical Society and Museum in San Francisco, which with the Schwules Museum and the Museu da Diversidade Sexual comprise the most successful of lgbt museums – “By critically representing the stories of lgbt history in the setting of a museum, we not only create a foundation for greater social acceptance today, we also help open the way of LGBT and non-LGBT people alike to imagine a future of greater dignity and equality”.

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