Brown Bag 15th December - Queering the Museum

Brown Bag 15th December 2010

Queering the Museum”

Matt Smith and Andy Horn

Clearly, there was something about this Brown Bag seminar which felt, well, right. I have to say that it was one of the best attended in quite some time, which given the time of year and the general grottiness of the weather in these parts, is really cheering. So thank you everyone, for attending, and I hope you got as much out of it as I did.

I think, however, the biggest thanks have to go to the organisers and presenters themselves. Marianna and Lisanne did a great job in bringing in two such affable and interesting presenters. Matt Smith, an artist and curator working mainly in ceramics, and Andy Horn, Exhibitions Manager at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery spoke to us, at times amusingly, and at others rather movingly, about their intervention project at BMAG, Queering the Museum. (Incidentally, both are former students here - it's nice to see what people go on to do!)

Running from 4th November this year, until 31st January next (so get in whilst you can!) this project, run in conjunction with SHOUT, brings out the stories which BMAG, along with many museums, doesn’t usually tell. Though in this context the concentration is largely upon LGBTI culture, Matt stresses that ‘queer’ can be applied to people beyond this community. The stories of the non-normative, the unrepresented, those of us who at times feel excluded: these are the stories of the ‘queer’.

Using his own original artworks alongside existing displays and juxtapositions of objects from the stores, Matt has intervened in the displays throughout the museum in a manner which is paradoxically both overt and subtle. His intentions, he explained, were to explore why museums find it difficult to represent queer culture, and examine ways in which they could do so, despite the frequent paucity of directly related materials. By examining a variety of themes, which included the questioning of museum protocols, the questioning of heterosexual representation, slang and popular culture, politics, and the idea of ‘queer as a verb’ Matt and BMAG have created an intervention which seems both challenging and positive.

As I haven’t seen the intervention yet, though I intend to visit BMAG when I go home for the Yuletide break, I can’t really comment on its’ appearance in reality, however, I can certainly comment on the rationale behind it. Stemming from Gay Birmingham Remembered and the Proud History Exhibition at the Central Library in 2008 and 2006 respectively, the project from Andy’s point of view was one which could tackle negative representations of LGBTI culture, which could provide a way of re-imagining the collections of BMAG, and which could allow this 19th century institution to represent the contemporary in a way which only it could, subtly, fairly, and powerfully.

But it was this very institutional nature which was of concern for both Andy and Matt. Though museums should be challenged to push the boundaries of what they represent, it can often be difficult, for various reasons, to do so. However, the endeavour is not a Quixotic one, for when you do succeed, as Andy pointed out, the ramifications can be immense, far more effective than the same kind of representation in contemporary art galleries, which are often so much more likely to challenge our expectations of material culture and its meaning. Because the museum ‘queered’ is a strange thing, at once comforting, and yet not what it was. Repositioning and unsettling the museum, an institution often perceived as so static, is a powerful statement, but a statement which is embedded in an environment of, it is to be hoped, trust and respect.

This is not to say that there were no concerns. The city council themselves were a worry for Andy, particularly with the programming of the exhibition occurring so close to the recent papal visit to the city. However, many of these barriers seem to have been overcome, and whilst the exhibition has received some negative comments, it appears that overall, the response has been very positive.

Much of this positivity turns on the fact that Andy knew how to work with people, for his colleagues at the museum seemed more than happy to help. Indeed, it seems that the very success of the project turned precisely upon this willing collaboration and trust. I have to applaud BMAG here, for being very open and trusting. Matt commented that he expected only to make a single piece of art, or perhaps a small display. What he was given, in the end, was the whole museum.

If the museum is a storyteller, it is important that they tell as many stories as they can. Whilst they cannot afford to simply present subjects as add ons, because they think they should, museums must work towards an openness in using the resources that they do have. And those resources are not just objects, but staff, artists, buildings, the public, and all of the manifold interpretations which these mixtures provoke. For objects are never singular in their meaning, they are not simple things. They are ambiguous, difficult to categorise, shifting and sometimes excluded. They are, or they can be, as queer as you like. And this is what makes them beautiful.

You’ll have to wait a while for my review of the exhibition itself, I’m afraid, but hopefully, I shall be able to give you one fairly soon! That is, if the snow lets me get out of the house! In the meantime, I'll hopefully soon be putting up a recording of the presentation on go and listen, if you can!


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