Do Museums Underserve The LGBT Community And Other Marginalised Communities?

30/12/2016 14:31

"Steven, your last blog didn't say LGBT once? how unusual" cried my friends... or at least I assume they would have had anyone read the last blog.... But fear not hypothetical and concerned friends! I'm making my rainbow cloaked return to LGBT subject matter!

I was recently having supper with a new acquaintance (this blog partially exists to serve as a humble brag about the fact that I have made a friend) and we were discussing my studies, in particular my dissertation and how I chose to focus upon queer theory. I explained my original starting point to my dissertation was to focus upon the application of queer theory onto the prehistoric archaeological record as a means of investigating the possible existence of a queer prehistoric identity, or as I jokingly named it at the time "Is early Homosapian also Homosexual" (a title that received mixed reviews at best). My friend burst out with something along the lines of "please find some" and seemed quite chuffed when I informed him I had - at the very least- formed a solid argument about the existence of same gendered sexual activity between prehistoric people (humblebrag number 2). In my previous blog I mentioned how archaeology has the prospect to effect social conscious and morals, and I want to use this example to further explain that phenomena.

To explore the effect of definitive proof of early queer activity (a term I adopt for this article as any other language is too specific to accurately represent this phenomena, though I understand the politically charged nature of this word and wish to clarify I am only using it in a quasi-academic context), we must currently understand the view of current queer activity. While it is mostly accepted, the manner in which it is viewed does change a great deal over different social/religious/class/cultural/geographical landscapes, which I believe to all stem from different theories of why the phenomena occurs, notably "is it natural?" or "is it a modern creation?" Both these ideas can be debated due to the little evidence of or study into queer heritage. This leaves people open to multiple interpretations, queerness may be common now because it is a strictly modern phenomenon (theory A) or queerness is more common now because society is more accepting and people are making themselves known (theory B), people who subscribe to theory A find it easier to justify homophobia and other forms of- both legal and personal- queer based discrimination because the absence of history makes it seem less legitimate. This is where evidence of early queerness comes into play, it's much harder to de-legitimise something when it is has appeared throughout time and been sewn into the fabric of various pivotal societies (such as Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Ancient Egypt and Ancient Japan) and possess its own legacy.

Sandel and Nightengale write about how the lgbt community (though this point can be extrapolated to apply to all marginalized communities) are "under-served" by museums. An example of this is how, despite homophobia's prominence throughout history, it is almost entirely absent and/or neglected by both museums and the educational and academic sphere (a phenomena noted by Levin), this is where I think museums are slacking. Not only does the overlooking of queer history and heritage arguably aid homophobia's ability to infiltrate and infect societal spheres, it also misses the opportunity to reach out to the communities they neglect. One of my favorite metaphors for the lgbt community is that they are uncharted volcanic islands (a metaphor put forward by poet Alfian Sa'at), they exist but are often not recognized. A result of this is that members of the community aren't aware of the colorfulness of our own history, or how members of our community have contributed to wider society and above all else, how members of our community are just as good as everyone else. Not only does this absence make it easier for others to delegitimize the community and push us further into the fringes of society (as previously discussed), but it also makes it easier for us to doubt ourselves. A closeted youth will inevitably doubt themselves and their own worth. In my youth my mind was full of the fear that I was not breaking the mould as I liked to hope, instead I was afraid that I was just broken. This is a cavity not explored by museums who- by not reaching back into queer heritage are also not reaching out to the queer community who may need it.

I have discussed the queer community a great deal, but this does not exclusively revolve around them, it can be applied to all communities on the fringes of society. Museums are institutes of academia and palaces of knowledge, but that's not all they are. Museums exist in the center of a venn diagram, one circle representing academia, and the other representing consumerism. They differ from pure academia as they must also appeal to the masses and in many cases consumers. This is why I believe they rarely challenge the social norm or present politically charged theorem, controversy may rob them of their consumers. A result of this is that they often present history or knowledge through a narrow gaze, and while I may understand their reasoning I do believe it comes at a cost. The price of this cost is not only paid by ignoring marginalized groups ignored, but also by allowing museums to lose a wealth of rich histories to modern pressures and ignorance.