Queering the Museum

Laurie Bassam, Curator and co-founder of our LGBTQ+ Working Group, reflects on the ongoing work the group are carrying out to identify queer objects within our Scottish Design Galleries and bring these stories to life.

Written by: Laurie Bassam

What does it mean to ‘queer’ a gallery? To think about the objects we display and the narratives they tell and who sits at the heart of them? To really think about whose voices are heard and in what context we view and describe certain objects?

Margaret Middleton in their paper ‘The Queer Museum’ describes how ‘in a society in which people are assumed straight until proven otherwise, museums that omit or ignore queer issues support a heteronormative, cis-centric dominant narrative. Research shows that lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans museum visitors are negatively impacted by not seeing their identities and experiences reflected in museum content. Museums have an opportunity and a responsibility to counter that dominant narrative – to choose queer inclusion'. You can read more here.

For those of us at the museum, especially the LGBTQ+ working group, we feel these consequences are reflected in whose stories we choose to, or don’t choose, to tell, within our permanent Scottish Design Gallery. We have spent the last 6 months researching, investigating, visiting archives, giving tours and holding our first large scale public workshop to create this space of queer inclusion that helps to right this wrong. Our aim with this work is to create a space where you can learn new perspectives, outside of the expected, that challenge your pre-conceived ideas of what ‘Scottish Design History’ is and who might be included. We hope within the next year to be able to add new labels which explore queer narratives, as well as incorporating new objects within the gallery that might help us to tell these stories.

For a relatively new museum the question is also often asked ‘why now and not earlier?’ and I suppose the honest answer is with all these things, it takes the community to come together to really facilitate change. The LGBTQ+ group was founded in the opening year of the museum, after the galleries were already curated. It’s been our desire since the moment we came together as a collective to change the dominant narrative in the gallery, but as is always the case in the world of museums – these things take time.

With this in mind, on the 26 April 2022 we held what we hope will be the first of many workshops with members from across the LGBTQ+ community, asking them to tell us what they wanted to see that reflected them within the museum.

We wanted to know how the stories could be told, what stories were there but unspoken or unwritten, and how best we could reflect upon the myriad of intersectional experiences that make up LGBTQ+ identities. It was such a powerful experience for all us, especially the afternoon session where community members described personal objects that reflected their identities. For some of us, it was the first time we had been in such a large group talking about and sharing these lived experiences and it felt like such a privilege to listen to so many queer experiences in one space.

Reflecting back on that day I think about how an LGBTQ+ design history needs to show us this personal, often self-made approach the world, that LGBTQ+ folk often have to inhabit. How signs and signals help us to find each other, how bookshops, clubs, newspapers, helplines, badges and marches helped shape so many identities and form the communities that give us the space to be our true selves. Also, how hard fought and won these moments, objects and narratives are for people. How no object has just one story, but layers of meaning that are built up and reinterpreted by whomever they encounter.

A favourite discussion of the day was how you reflect the intangible (a quite impossible task in the context of the museum!) – whether this is a place, or a personal experience. It was no better incapsulated for me when one of the attendees described receiving the baby box for their unborn child. How important it was for them to receive something designed and made for families, but which included a poem by a black Scottish lesbian (and Poet Laurate of Scotland) Jackie Kay. Seeing yourself reflected in something so universal and welcoming as the baby box was important to her, to feel part of a wider Scottish and queer experience. I hope we find a way to do something similar in the gallery, so that all experiences of queerness, whether it’s the working-class men cruising the streets of Glasgow in the early 20th century, or lesbians who were part of the Scottish Women’s Social and Political Union – or more recently in the Trans Pride Marches and resurgent queer literary scene of Scotland, are told. As these lives and histories are important, and no design history is complete without them.

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