It’s all about you: finding community in a museum

Community, Herstory, History, Lesbian, Museums, Participatory Museum

There is no doubt in the mind of anyone affiliated with the Charlotte Museum Trust, that preserving lesbian heritage and culture is an important and powerful endeavour. The museum claims a slice of what Nestor Garcia Canclini referred to some time ago as a patrimony, it creates a symbolic turangawaewae for passing and evolving generations of lesbians, it celebrates communities while creating community.

During 2015 I had the opportunity to think about how we might best use this gendered, queer space, not just as a well-deserved commemoration of the lives of New Zealand lesbians who faced what was at times abhorrent treatment, but as a way of presenting the past fairly and inclusively. Also, because I am a supporter of Nina Simon’s ‘participatory museum’, it was important to me that my time at the Charlotte Museum present opportunities for community participation in exhibitions. And this is why I offered Invulved and Me Myselfie I as community exhibitions during 2015.

In Invulved I sought to supplement ubiquitous yet isolated stories about lesbian disenfranchisement within and from the military, with the clicking of knitting needles across a virtual community of lesbian and lesbian-friendly knitters. And this is the principle of a participatory museum – the idea that it’s not the museum’s job to teach, preach, or demonstrate to its public, but rather to facilitate the public’s creation of meaningful exhibitions and experiences themselves. It is, to be fair, suspiciously akin to performance art, and is also in many ways very similar to earlier approaches to women’s galleries, where the participatory museum as an ideal, acts as a catchment area for community expression and co-understanding. It aspires to be anti-hierarchical, where knowledge/art/meaning/history, is co-created within rather than by, a museum space.

My job then, was to design projects and exhibitions that would create meaning for lesbian culture and heritage by looking outwards, to you, as much as inwards, towards the collection. Admittedly I began upon this path cautiously, retaining a high degree of agency over what the final exhibition of knitted vulvae would look like – I arranged it into the shape of a fern and afterall, it was me who decided that we would commemorate women’s participation in World War One by knitting vulvapoppies in the first place. But each and every vulvapoppy we received was a part of each of you, and in knitting them you had become a community of lesbian knitters. That was a start. What I learned from that first show, was that not everyone knits: I had at my disposal a dedicated team of craftswomen rather than the lesbian community at large. The image heading this page is from an envelope that contained one of the vulva poppies sent to us in the post.

Which led me to the Charlotte Museum Trust’s selfography exhibition, Me, Myselfie, I. For this exhibition I asked for selfies. I also looked outwards in this exhibition, by allowing you to tell me where the edges of our community lay. I was asked the difficult yet timely question that amounts to, which kinds of lesbians are welcome to participate, to which I answered, anyone who feels that being lesbian is a significant or primary part of their sexual and/or gender identity. I let you tell me who ‘we’ are, by creating an exhibition whose edges were shaped by your own choices, not mine.

Looking outward as a way of creating communal identity and co-creating heritage and culture, creates an archive of the now for future generations. It is also, I believe, integral to ensuring that we do not streamline lesbian history, cleaning it of its stragglers, its misfits, its ethnic others, its outsiders. Which also means, that it is imperative that the stragglers, misfits, ethnic others and outsiders find participation desirable. Did Me, Myselfie, I succeed in doing this? We appeared to receive submissions from a pleasingly diverse range of lesbian demographics, old and young, butch and femme, Pacific, Maori, and Pakeha. But were any of my entrants the stragglers or misfits? That is, were they those who might wear the lesbian mantle loosely or alongside many identities, amongst many experiences? And I have to concede that I have no idea. Me Myselfie I wasn’t about life stories, it was about participation. You were allowed to keep your secrets.

Allowing for anonymous participation is one way that we can grow our community involvement in these kinds of shows – sure we now have a series of beautiful selfies in the museum’s collection, but there was an option on the entry form to choose to not have a photograph made public online, and an artist’s statement about the photograph was optional. While we know what some of you look like, we know nothing about how you got to be in our show. And for me, that anonymity within visibility was a powerful aspect of the exhibition.

Dr Nadia Gush

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