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

Colour glaze and venereal disease: food for thought

Art, Contemporary Art, Crown Lynn, Herstory, Museums, New Zealand art

Recently I had the pleasure of playing tourist in the fine city of Auckland, casting aside my commuters’ hat in favour of walk socks and sandals – metaphorically speaking – I don’t actually wear sandals. As such I defied the laws of nature to attend the dawn blessing and subsequent opening of Te Toi Uku (destined to be known as ‘the Crown Lynn Museum’). Later that day I heard Lisa Reihana in conversation with Rhana Devenport (Director of the Auckland Art Gallery), participating in an event scheduled for the opening of Reihana’s exhibition, In Pursuit of Venus [infected]. Both were worth the early start. And because you never really stop being a museum director, both got me thinking.

Te Toi Uku is The Charlotte Museum Trust’s sister museum in New Lynn. Currently it is open as a research centre only, and sports a flash building in which to house its collection. In time it hopes to be open to the public, as we in our less flash building already are. Small display cases show iconic swans, and colour glaze tableware. Having been a collector of Crown Lynn for over ten years, I am embarrassed by how excited I was to be able to attend the opening of a Museum which to be fair, I had only just heard existed.

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In Te Toi Uku is housed a collective heritage that we can all understand – who hasn’t eaten off Crown Lynn dinner plates?! In my family, being bought a Crown Lynn dinner set upon leaving home was a rite of passage. And at the same time, Te Toi Uku is an integral part of a distinctively New Lynn heritage: Crown Lynn isn’t called Crown Lynn for nothing.

After attending both Te Toi Uku’s dawn blessing and opening, I pulled my socks up, and dashed back into town in an attempt to make that afternoon’s event at the Auckland Art Gallery… in spite of traffic.

Lisa Reihana’s talk about her work In Pursuit of Venus [infected] was also well worth attending, albeit I arrived late and missed the beginning. I did however trip over a number of people in the dark which I think made up for coming in late. In Reihana’s panoramic video, spanning an immersive 26metres of gallery wall, the artist recreates Joseph Dufor’s 1804 scenic wallpaper. The original wallpaper focussed on the savages of the Pacific for its design motif, and Reihana’s video recreates this through a series of vignettes using actors, which is shown at approximate life size. It’s very impressive and worth a visit. In her talk, Reihana drew attention to her desire to be both respectful and inclusive in her use of Pacific culture in the work. While Dufor’s wallpaper told the story of an exotic, utopian Pacific, a fantasyland awaiting discovery, Reihana rewrites that history into something more substantial, human, and, well… ‘infected’. Listening to Reihana, I was reminded of how contemporary New Zealand art so often utilises New Zealand history; how our past is regularly being written by historians, but also by artists.

800px-'Sauvages_de_la_Mer_Pacifique',_panels_1-10_of_woodblock_printed_wallpaper_designed_by_--Jean-Gabriel_Charvet--_and_manufacturered_by_--Joseph_Dufour--

Part series of the 1904 Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique

What does this have to do with lesbians, or the Charlotte Museum Trust? Both events raised issues of respect and inclusion, and speak to the question of how we might best represent the past in the present. Te Toi Uku preserves a predominantly Pakeha New Zealand treasure. It tells a national history through crockery. In Pursuit of Venus [infected] also offers a history, one which aspires to Pacific inclusion and respect. And this made me think, is it possible to tell a national history through lesbians at the Charlotte Museum? Can we do that and also be respectful and inclusive? When sometimes, respecting lesbians means keeping them invisible?

Reihana’s work is on show at the Auckland Art Gallery until 30 August. For more on Reihana’s work see http://www.inpursuitofvenus.com/

Te Toi Uku is open by appointment only. For more on the Crown Lynn Museum see http://portageceramicstrust.org.nz/

Compulsory Invulvament

Art, Feminism, Guerilla Knitting, Herstory, Museums, Patriotism, World War One

Over the last few weeks I learned a number of valuable lessons – the plural of vulva is vulvae, Hamilton is the knitting capital of New Zealand (closely followed by Wellington), and also that it’s hard to stand still in a strongly flowing stream, let alone walk against the current. For weeks prior to the opening of the Charlotte Museum Trust’s ANZAC Day exhibition, I was absorbed by a vulva-poppy mania. What newspapers would have referred to in decades past as being absorbed by an ‘orgy of knitting’. Lynda messaged me photos of her knitting from Dunedin, Jacqui handed over a bag of crochet poppies when we met for brunch, Colleen was unsure how to finish her vulvae so I sewed them up, Ineke passed a sample over at bookclub, all the while my partner was overcome with a knitting frenzy resulting in a growing pile of unsewn vulva-poppies piling up higher and higher on my desk. I knew why I was doing this particular exhibition, and wit aside, I believed in it. But as we got closer and closer to ANZAC Day, and I watched the little videos showing the making of Te Papa’s ‘The Scale of Our War’, I began to waver: was my vulva-poppy mania (masquerading as a women’s commemorative campaign) getting in the way of the ‘real meaning of ANZAC Day’? Golly, was it?

On ANZAC Day I drove up to the Charlotte Museum, wending my way north from the knitting capital of New Zealand. A scattering of people in formal regalia were preparing for an ANZAC commemoration at Gordonton, farmers had planted oversized poppies in their roadside paddocks around Huntly, and the ANZAC Day speeches were already being aired on the radio. I began again to feel the pull of public sentiment, a creeping feeling that maybe I was missing out by refusing to attend a dawn service.

When I spoke about the vulva-poppy installation at the Museum later in the day, I dwelt on the tension in feeling a love for one’s country, when you know that the country being commemorated is not the country you love. I love New Zealand, but the New Zealand I love has knitters and mothers and nurses and ambulance drivers and prostitutes as well as soldiers in its history for the period 1914-1918. That is, it has women, too.

panoramic for blog

 

During World War One women knitted, and their knitting kept men in the army. Trench foot was a constant threat to soldiers exposed to wet environments, where feet basically began to rot if left uncared for. Soldiers with rotten feet couldn’t fight well, and you know what slowed down trench foot? Clean dry socks. Simple really. Women’s knitting kept the troops on active service. And they knitted a lot.

During World War One mothers were encouraged to ‘give’ their sons to the war. Those little bundles of joy raised and cherished and taught to do good? Now they were being sent to die and you weren’t allowed to say a word in opposition. This was the maternal sacrifice of women. But there was also a second layer to the maternal sacrifice. In New Zealand and Australia maternal mortality was high, and if you didn’t die during childbirth, there was a really good chance you would be left with ongoing pain and debility. In the 1920s when soldiers were fast becoming memorialised as superstars of the ANZAC nations, some women responded, ‘you know what? we die for the good of the nation too, and we do it giving birth to those flaming soldiers’. Or something to that effect. Some reports suggested that while 30% of returned soldiers were on invalid pensions, 50% of mothers were invalided through childbirth, but with far less fanfare.

It must be said, there are no bronze statues to the women knitters and the dead mothers.

Record numbers attended ANZAC Day services on the centennial of our ill-fated landing at Gallipoli on 25 April, services commemorating our numerous soldiers and a scattering of nurses.

Charlotte strode against the current to commemorate the thousands of knitters and, yes, the mothers of World War One.

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‘Invulved’ is an exhibition of beautifully knitted poppies, vulva-poppies, and vulva, arranged in the shape of a silver fern, open Wednesdays and Sundays at the Charlotte Museum Trust, 1-4pm, until 13 May.

A poppy by any other name – or – when is a vulva not a vulva?

Art, Feminism, Guerilla Knitting, Herstory, Museums, World War One

When I was young, every Anzac Day we had a school flag hoisting; rows of fidgeting primary schoolers contemplating the significance of a day when we watched the principle erect a flag on what was on other days at best a crude maypole that we might swing ourselves silly around. But on Anzac Day the flag pole wasn’t for the blister inducing squeal of finger-skin on metal. On Anzac Day the pole was for rather more clanging than usual, as the ropes were adjusted, and for the pseudo-silence created by fidgeting children. When I was ten our class re-wrote John McCrae’s ‘In Flanders Fields’, and our teacher read it for us at the flag hoisting. On that day I cared less for the ritualised drama and more for the reading of our poem. Or to be precise, for the reading of the one word that I had contributed to our poem: cobber. Cobber was also my own personal victory. When my teacher had requested of our young poetic minds, ‘what word should we use here to mean friend?’, Cara raised her hand to suggest ‘mate’. But both the teacher and I knew that ‘mate’ was not the right answer, and when I, prompted by personal affront at the potential misrepresentation of my forbears, offered ‘cobber’, Cara’s word was rubbed off the blackboard to be replaced with mine. You see I came from a home where cobbers were the eerie ghost contained within the corners of my father’s smile. Oh yes, my family knew of war. The teacher was well pleased with my familiarity with Pakeha myths and legends. As, to be fair, was I.

The same year that I bested Cara for what was probably the first and last time, Georgia O’Keeffe died at the age of 98. An American modernist painter, O’Keeffe’s rise to fame in New York coincided with the middle of World War One, where McCrae’s original ‘In Flanders Fields’ was published a few months before the opening of O’Keeffe’s first major solo exhibition. By the 1920s O’Keeffe was painting large-scale close-ups of flowers that highlight the similarities between female genitalia, and flowers. Because it was the 1920s Freudian interpretation abounded. Because her flowers looked like vulva, she went on to become a myth and legend of late twentieth century feminism. I knew none of this at the time of her death, which took place about a month and a half prior to the reading of our Anzac Day poem, which understandably, because of my cobber contribution, I now thought of as my own.

There has always been a similarity between vulva and flowers, Georgia O’Keeffe didn’t create it, nor did the feminists who later asserted she had painted this subject matter on purpose. There has always been an association between flowers and Anzac Day, too, in part because the day originally took the guise of a communal funeral with wreaths and other floral commemorative bouquet, but also because of the poem written in 1916 about Flanders Fields, where the poppies grow. But there has never been an association between vulva and Anzac Day to make the triangle complete. Until that is, Charlotte decided to proceed with an installation that knitted women and Anzac poppies together, set to open on 25 April 2015.

In my mind’s eye the walls of the museum’s gallery will be lined with thousands of knitted poppies and vulva, making the room seem like a red woolly womb, a snuggly fitting tribute to the women of World War One. But in the meantime it involves knitting, which always gives me blisters on my fingers. And, incidentally, seems to induce anxiety dreams about wool.

CMT experiment crop

The Charlotte Museum Trust invites knitters to contribute to their community knitting exhibition commemorating the women of World War One, by posting or delivering knitted poppies, poppy-vulva, and vulva, of approximately 10-15cm across, to the Museum by 20 April. Further details are available on our facebook page.