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

Why not a lesbian museum? Miriam Saphira reflects

Herstory, History, Lesbian, Museums

In 2001 a small archives group was set up in Auckland to try to encourage people to write their stories and send them to LAGANZ (Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand). In February 2003 I took a T-shirt quilt and the badge collection to the Outlines conference, and thought they would be great at LAGANZ, but they could not collect objects so back in Auckland the group  thought, ‘What about all those lesbian art works that relatives will never understand or know what to do with? – Why not a lesbian Museum?’.

Quilt made from 48 T-shirts from the 70s to early 90s for the Outlines Conference 2003, by Miriam Saphira

Lesbian history has been lost. Lesbian culture was always hidden and available only to a few lesbian academics. With a history of discrimination, violence, and hospital incarceration there is little trust in the straight world knowing about lesbian culture or viewing it. In the 1920’s there were several group of lesbians who mixed socially in New Zealand e.g Tuesday Club in New Plymouth. Apart from a few hearsay references and photos we have very little information about their lives.  After the backlash from World War Two in the late forties and fifties,  lesbianism became classified as a mental disorder. It was not until the seventies that there was a renaissance of lesbian culture. This material was becoming lost.

I did a feasibility study – not knowing anything about museum standards or what was involved, and I set up the Charlotte Museum Trust with Nicola Jackson, Christine Hammerton, and Paula Wallis. We put some money in and began fund raising. In 2007 the Charlotte Museum held a Poster show in conjunction with Marco Trust under the title REMEMBER THIS ONE. The exhibition was held throughout the Hero festival and was very well attended with over 800 people viewing it. We got registered with the Charities Commission in May 2007. As founder of the Museum and as Secretary of the Trust, I would not have put my hand up if I had known it would involve writing 86 policies to become a real Museum with Museum Standards…

But hey, we did it!

One of the failures of modern society is to provide safety for our young people. Lesbians still have a higher than average rate of suicide. The stories of several lesbians who have been incarcerated in mental hospitals and subjected to invasive treatment in attempt to change their sexuality needs to be in the public domain.

Information of lesbian culture is now available for the first time to the public, especially to young people who might be questioning their sexual orientation or wanting to understand a friend’s orientation. The many songs and poems the museum hopes to preserve are part of the stories of women from many different walks of life and education. The Charlotte Museum Trust collects and preserves artifacts of lesbian culture such as labrys, music, theatre, film, literature, art and other memorabilia from early lesbian life in New Zealand / Aotearoa. Currently we have a collection of 800 lesbian cultural artifacts: Labrys (in bone, glass and silver), domestic ware, lesbian ceramics, 2100 lesbian books and many of the early magazines from both New Zealand and overseas.

Straight people who have visited the museum are astonished by the early women who had female companions and the women orientated works we have on display, while lesbians visiting us talk about a sense of pride.

Dr Miriam Saphira

For lesbian lips only.

Genderqueer, Herstory, History, Lesbian, Transgender

The Charlotte Museum Trust contains within its archives a selection of lesbian feminist newsletters and magazines from the 1980s. Run by collectives and penned by volunteers, these publications were hell bent on, wait for it, a lesbian revolution. Lesbian Lip and Circle moreover were explicit in their preferred readership, featuring the censoring ‘For Lesbians Only’, and ‘For Women Only’, on their covers. Why such exclusivity? Why such separatism? A lesbian revolution required an authentic (patriarchy-free) sense of womanhood (womyn/wimmin/womon, et al, hood), so these magazines embraced the idea of women-only and lesbian-only spaces. Gawd, if you wanted to know what women were really capable of, best you figure it out without men telling you what to do, right? Right on sister!

As a director becoming newly acquainted with the Museum’s collection, flicking through the articles featured in Lesbian Lip and Circle coincided for me, with what we might call the ‘Bruce Jenner Effect’ imploding upon the interwebs on the one-hand, and the related correspondence received by the Museum regarding lesbian-only spaces, and how they might be preserved within wider issues of queer and trans politics, on the other. An intersecting juxtaposition you might say, and one that got me thinking about the relationship between lesbians (or lesbian-feminists), and transgender issues, from within the archives of the Charlotte Museum Trust. So what can the Museum’s collection tell us about this relationship, or at least, what are a few of the many things it can tell us? I thought I would reflect on two counts, firstly, on the perspectives found within 1980s lesbian feminist newsletters and magazines, and secondly on the scope of the collection itself.

Who has lesbian lips?

For some of the writers of 1980s Circle, intent as they were upon moving beyond heterosexuality and patriarchy alike, a bloke was a bloke was a bloke, and nobody raised as a boy was welcome within the closed circles of political lesbianism. However I would like to pay more attention to the articles featured in Lesbian Lips in the May-June newsletter for 1982, because in this issue the lesbian feminist authors contemplated the relationship between ‘women’s liberation’, and ‘lesbian liberation’, arguing in turn for a new definition of ‘woman’, one which would incidentally lead to that lesbian revolution they were looking for. To be fair, I am myself taking a liberal interpretation of the political position expressed by these women, however, one way of understanding lesbian politics, is to understand the need to redefine ‘woman’ in a way that breaks free from heterosexuality (women attract men and breed: full stop) and patriarchy (men are normal and make all the rules; women are not and need to be taught the rules). Under the heading ‘lesbian and queers’, one author argued that ‘woman’ exclusively meant white, middle-class, and heterosexual. In turn lesbians couldn’t be women. They may be either invisible or hated, but they were not accepted as women. Aberrations – sinners – perverts, but not women. So lesbian feminists of the 1980s? Some argued against their white cis-gender middleclass heterosexual feminist peers to create a utopia where ‘woman’ could mean non-heterosexual, and moreover, where ‘woman’ existed outside of patriarchy, that is, outside of the rules created by men.

IMG_0830 crop

If we fast-forward through to 2015, then one way of understanding the relationship between lesbian and transgender politics , is that transwomen are, like cis-gender lesbians of the 1980s, capable of redefining ‘woman’ in ways that are neither patriarchal nor heterosexist. Should she want to be, a transwoman lesbian feminist may be the most radical revolutionary of them all. So trans politics and lesbian politics? Yes. But wait, there’s more:

Lesbian lips in drag: what we collect

From the perspective of a historian, lesbians are always hard to find. That’s not because they didn’t exist, it’s because they didn’t always go by that name, and sometimes straight women behave like they might be lesbians. Gender and sexual identity are what historians like to call ‘historically contingent’, which means what counts as being homosexual for one generation, doesn’t for another, the edges shift, and if you go far enough back, no special category for lesbian sexuality even existed.

Reflecting this situation, the collection of lesbian culture at the Charlotte Museum is not clear cut in its inclusion of lesbians and its exclusion of all others. It couldn’t be. There are too many grey areas in the past for it to be otherwise. Take the case of Amy Bock, popularly described as ‘a Tasmanian-born New Zealand female confidence trickster and male impersonator’. Amy was a con-artist, participating in criminal activities that culminated in her attempt to marry Agnes Ottaway in 1909. Having used many aliases throughout her life, Amy lived as Percy Redwood until she was caught out in her attempt to secure access to generous patrons through her marriage to Agnes. Some consider Amy Bock’s 1909 cross-dressing marriage as proof of Bock’s lesbianism.

Postcard depicting Amy Bock as the Female Bridegroom, collection of the Hocken Library, University of Otago.

Would we include her in a lesbian museum? Sure, because we may never know if her feelings for Agnes were sincere, or if given the opportunity she would have chosen to live as a lesbian, but we do know that she is part of lesbian culture, for she did seduce and marry a woman, and thus she fits within the bigger grey edged picture.

But Amy is also in one of our grey areas for another reason. In living as a man to marry a woman, Amy is both a historical lesbian and transgender man. And its often the case that our lesbian heritage does include women who may have lived as women their entire lives, but expressed their lesbianism in terms of being ‘born with the soul of a man’. In a way, our collective understanding of lesbian heritage is deeply entwined with the experiences of people we might now think of as being trans men. Our collection has favoured the experiences of people raised as female, who then went on to love other people raised as female, irrespective of whether or not either party may have wished to be identified in that way had they been given the choice. It’s a clumsy way of expressing it, but it’s how it works. In a sense, historians are bound to the nuances, or lack thereof, that made up the lived experiences of those in the past. When bodies are allocated one sex or the other upon birth, and peoples’ lives were explained in terms of their ability to fulfil or otherwise, the roles of that sex, then ‘lesbian’, ‘spinster’, trans man or gender queer, are all going to look pretty much the same when we look backwards. In turn the ‘lesbian space’ created by the collection, reflects the past, and as such already includes the history of trans politics within it…

For more on contemporary trans politics see http://frufruscrub.tumblr.com/post/91765505896/language-tips-for-cis-feminists-speaking-on-trans

For more on gender and safe spaces see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rdua6xvcalg

For more on Amy Bock see http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2b30/bock-amy-maud

For more on Circle and Lesbian Lips see The Charlotte Museum Trust collection in person, 8A Bentinck Street, New Lynn, Auckland. Open Wednesdays and Sundays 1-4pm.

We also welcome comments on this and other blogs.