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Queering the MOHAI

Queering the Museum is an ongoing project that fills venerable institutions with overlooked LGBT art and artifacts. Last year, QTM founders Erin Bailey and Nicole Robert worked with Tacoma Art Museum and the Henry Art Gallery to ensure their collections and programming are more inclusive of queer work. The pair takes on the Museum of History and Industry next; turns out the institution known for ships and airplanes also houses an archive of pride paraphernalia and LGBT treasures. The exhibition doesn’t open until winter 2014, but Bailey and Robert are conducting a symposium on June 8 that will do something quite unusual in the white-walled world of museums: ask the public what it wants to see.

Participants can review and provide feedback on the exhibition plan, then drop into presentations by the New York-based Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, the Puget Sound chapter of Old Lesbians Organizing for Change and curators from the GLBT History Museum in San Francisco. The night will wrap up with a performance by Capitan Smartypants of the Seattle Men’s Chorus aboard the historic steamship Virginia V.

“There’s been a lot of conversation about inclusion in museums for decades, but we found that queer inclusion wasn’t coming up much,” Bailey says. “When it was, it was a very specific, one-dimensional idea of what it means to be queer. We found that there was an opportunity to broaden that conversation, especially considering the role that museums have in the national narrative and how the community is seen globally.”

That conversation took on an increased urgency when the Smithsonian caved to the demands of homophobic congressmen and removed David Wojnarowicz’s video A Fire in my Belly from a 2010 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Dozens of institutions worldwide screened the video or displayed LGBT works of art in protest. QTM has built on that momentum, hoping to reach museums across the country and increase the visibility of queer art and history.

Robert has pioneered a new take on oral history, producing eight short films which will screen at the June 8 symposium. She organized a four-day workshop that helped non-filmmaker members of the local LGBT community create their own vignettes that highlight stories they would like to preserve for posterity. “We taught all the participants to do this on their own so that they can go and do this as many times as they want and teach other people—they got the opportunity to share a story that is appropriate for inclusion in an archive or to be shown in a museum,” says Robert. “We’re hoping to repeat the workshops as often as we can get the money to do it.”

QTM has its roots in projects like Mining the Museum, Fred Wilson’s groundbreaking 1992 intervention which unearthed horrifying artifacts lurking in the Maryland Historical Society’s collection—Klan hoods, slave shackles—and displayed them alongside typical history-museum stuff like silver tea services to highlight the effects of racism on the way museums collect and show objects. The exhibition fueled a shift from the parochial, white-male curatorial style that dominated the 20th century and continues to affect our nation’s cultural repositories. QTM pushes museums to look critically at their practices and mine their collections. 

Bailey’s archival diving has turned up some interesting finds. “The beautiful thing about this project is that you see all fresh things that people haven’t seen before,” she says. “There’s a ton of things that come out of the woodwork. I had a community member tell me that they had a pride flag that was used early on that was made by a fiber artist here in Seattle. It was used for several years, taken down to Burning Man and back. It made the rounds around the country and he still has it.”

What will be in the final exhibition? You’ll have to wait and see. And come out on June 8—Bailey and Robert won’t make any decisions until after the public has a say.

Get tickets and the full schedule at http://queeringthemuseum.org/2013/05/14/symposium-program/

Archival photo courtesy MOHAI

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