Susan Ferentinos, Public history researcher, writer and consultant spoke at MuseumNext Indianapolis in September 2015 about ways that museums might begin thinking about expanding their interpretation to include Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) stories.
United States


00:00:04Museum next is a global conference series on the future of museums in this episode we bring you Susan ferentinos public history researcher recorded live at Museum next Indianapolis in September 2015
00:00:20things are hopping and Indiana
00:00:24particularly with regard to LGBT interpretation for example for indiana-based Heritage organizations are currently collaborating on a phone app that allows users to engage with significant places in Indianapolis history and just a few weeks the Indiana Historical Society will be opening an LGBT exhibit at a little later today you'll hear about another local Museum the Eiteljorg and their experiences interpreting LGBT lives
00:00:59so clearly something Monumental is a foot because Indiana is more often associated in the public imagination with conservative politics and should a traditional worldview rather than being known for our efforts at inclusion
00:01:21but discussion of LGBT issues is happening all over the place at this point even in Indiana and so in this presentation I'm going to discuss some of the preliminary considerations that go into interpreting LGBT experiences so basically I'm going to tell you a lot of what you already know about interpretive planning but I'm going to do it through a queer lens by highlighting some specific considerations for this type of interpretation with regard to stakeholders interpretive methods and staff
00:01:59so to begin with stakeholders
00:02:07when you're seeking buy-in from your stakeholders particularly Museum leadership your board funders I urge you to make sure they know what they're getting into because generally speaking at least in the United States these days when you say LGBT experiences chances are many people are going to picture in their head something like this because this is the Betrayal of LGBT life that most often appear in the news and on the media it's a it is a portrayal of same sex love and desire that mirrors hetero sexual experiences pretty closely and so that might be what they told her stay there buying into when in fact when you get into LGBT interpretation you're likely to encounter a far more varied experience
00:03:07and some stuff that might be challenging for people chances are you might hit some shocking interrogations or portrayals of violence and Prejudice particularly from the past but certainly not it relevant for today and
00:03:28and you're also likely to come into some pretty strong critiques on the part of LGBT communities of societal Norms particularly with regard to gender and sexual expression
00:03:46and I would argue that that's actually one of the advantages of LGBT interpretation and why I encourage you all and all of your museums to be getting into this just as soon as you can if you haven't already and that is because
00:04:04LGBT people generally speaking operate as gender and sexual Outsiders and from that status there they have a different lens of the dominant culture and of societal Norms that within the dominant culture people take for granted so you might not even
00:04:27realize certain that certain things need to be interpreted interpreted some things that
00:04:39some things that
00:04:44are assumptions that that folks haven't even considered why they think that way by presenting a different lens in the past or through ART or through a variety of things people can engage in a conversation and have a better perspective on their own lives
00:05:08so in addition when putting together advisory panel's of stakeholders for your LGBT interpretation do keep in mind stating the obvious but there's a lot of variation and differences within LGBT community is there is in fact no monolithic community so you want to make sure you have good representation in all manner of category certainly race and class generational variation different neighborhoods in your city or different regions of your country depending on the focus of your Museum and the audience free museum and also creating a variety of religious perspective I would recommend because particular in the United States
00:05:59conversations about religion and
00:06:03and same-sex desire and gender variance of tail and become involved in the same conversation and So within LGBT community is of courses people with different experiences of
00:06:20of religion and that representation is a valid range of point-of-use to consider
00:06:27in addition to all of these aspects within LGBT community is even far more identities and simply those for lesbian gay bisexual and transgender here are many other self identifications that you might want to consider having represented on any kind of advisory panel on and that is not even all of them but just to give you a little flavor
00:07:02now moving on to considering interpretive choices obviously your interpretive choices are infinite and you can go in any variety of directions but I want to hit on just three considerations that have particular relevance to LGBT interpretation
00:07:23and one is terminology the words you use in an exhibit or programming are important and carry a lot of political weight and we're better or worse there is not currently any universally agreed-upon terminology or lexicon that everybody is is comfortable with and Embraces and there's particularly a lot of generational differences within LGBT communities over this so I guess the good news is that is there's no single right answer but whatever words you do decide to use do make that choice conscientiously and you might want to consider explaining that your choice of words to visitors and the example on the screen is from the out in Chicago exhibit at the Chicago History Museum and the pink part is a photograph of a label that was in the exhibit
00:08:23part of what they called a sex addict on that was that Define the various words that were used in the exhibit show their change over time and Define them for people who might not have been familiar with the words and also described some political disagreements where applicable about particular words
00:08:48another consideration particularly and dealing with
00:08:52traditional exhibit is if you're going to assimilate LGBT stories within your larger narrative essay in a permanent exhibit at your Museum or if you're going to highlight and showcase LGBT stories by special programming or special exhibits and both obviously have advantages and disadvantages and I have seen both approaches done extremely well
00:09:21and the good news is that you don't actually have to choose because hopefully as you move into LGBT interpretation you will have multiple Avenues through which to interpret that and it will be an ongoing process
00:09:42so the example here is from the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle and the slide on the left is part of the museum permanent exhibit the interpreting the history of the city of Seattle and it is talking about LGBT community is in that City on particularly the history of gay bars and the slide on the right is from a special temporary exhibit at the museum that was Community curated focused specifically on the queer community of Puget Sound which is the region that Seattle is in
00:10:21and when I visited the museum in 2014 these two I took these on the same visit these photographs and they were happening simultaneously at the Museum just to give you an example of it not being an either-or situation
00:10:43next consideration with regard to interpretive choices is how much of the interpretive experience you're going to describe with your visitors and of course that's an ongoing conversation with in museums but in addition to all the relevance of that larger conversation there some specific issues I would say particularly with regard to talk about specific individual specific historical agent such as artists from the past or at historic House Museum the owner of the house because chances are for people that lived in the early 20th century or earlier you're not going to have they're not going to be using the words we use now they're not going to be seeing the world and seeing sexual attraction and experience in the same way that we do in this era and so chances are you're not going to have a letter that says
00:11:43very explicitly what's going on I'm a specific person and even if you know that they were very strongly emotionally attached to somebody and so the reason I called this pulling back the curtain is within the field of public history that's the term that is currently in use to sort of describe like The Wizard of Oz pulling back the curtain and sharing with the visitor the process but historical the process of historical practice where we don't always have the answers and there's some analysis and Bob so providing contacts providing specifical his specific historical facts and then allowing visitors to engage in meaning-making and
00:12:28a nice example of this is the Jane Addams hull-house museum in Chicago Jane Addams had a longtime partnership with another woman Mary Rose at Smith it lasted over 30 years we know that they that they would phone at Telegraph ahead to request
00:12:54single bedrooms when they were traveling together Jane Addams had a picture of Mary Rose at Smith hung over her bad at her bedroom at whole house and we know all these things from the historical but we don't know if they have sex we don't know how they understood their relationship in part because Jane Adams letters to Mary Smith are were destroyed upon Adams death by her request which is tends to be an indication of
00:13:26potentially controversial content within the letters but we don't know that for sure so anyway the whole house Museum presents these facts to the visitors they present a context of late 19th century early 20th century women's history that many professional women partnered with other women because it was very difficult to maintain a traditional heterosexual marriage and also have a career and then they they leave it open to the visitors to draw conclusions from that
00:14:00rather than specifically providing analysis that may or may not hold up to General historical practice
00:14:10by using Concepts that weren't in play at the time
00:14:16show me where are two issues a Staffing in sustainability with regard to Staffing again to State the obvious do you remember that experience doesn't necessarily mean that a staff person has the professional and scholarly expert expertise to lead up here LGBT interpretation there's a number considerations when you're putting together your planning team if you're in a museum that's large enough that actually not all your staff is involved in every specific effort
00:14:57and in addition beware of getting into LGBT interpretation because it is a particular staff persons labor of love it's wonderful that your snap is engaged in projects that your organization is involved with but that's not really a sustainable model in which to engage with LGBT history so
00:15:29I have worked with a lot of different museums that have been involved in lgbtq interpretation and a very consistent piece of advice that they offer is to to make Outreach to these communities a part unofficial part of somebody's job duties that you know their performance in that area is evaluated and it is tied to the position not the person because that is less likely to burn out and it's less vulnerable to staff turnover
00:16:00and also a lot of times organization things like okay we're going to interpret LGBT experiences they do it and they're thinking of it is something they do and then complete and finish whereas your visitors might have different expectations like the bar may have been raised particularly as LGBT visitors and they are looking for an ongoing commitment to their stories from the organization so do be aware of that an example here is Ohio history connection formerly the Ohio Historical Society partnered with the gay Ohio history initiative and launch as Indiana Historical Society is actually doing now launched a big collecting initiative of LGBT oral histories and artifacts and stories and the museum in the Museum's mind it was
00:17:00collecting initiative and so there was no plans to in the near future to interpret the create an exhibit based on the new items in the collection but the people that had donated their stuff were confused by that of course a museum would be collecting things in order to display them and so there was some pushback from people who had trusted the organization in and share their stories and yet felt that they were being hidden and suppress and so of course Ohio history connection made some amends in that area
00:17:40so do as even from the very preliminary steps do you have a plan for sustaining momentum
00:17:48so obviously there's a whole lot more to talk about and I'm happy to do that over the course of the conference with you but just some parting words about these very preliminary considerations be brave seek input and keep the LGBT interpretation coming
00:18:07so thank you very much here's a few things I published if you're interested in knowing more and as I say I'm happy to talk with all of you thank you
00:18:24Susan ferentinos was recorded live at Museum next Indianapolis in September 2015 to find out about our next event does it Museum next.com

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