When you are working with an historic site, how do you interpret queer history when there is no evidence of queerness there? Maybe the records were lost or destroyed, or there’s nothing that you can find that points to a queer past; do you just give up and assume it was not meant to be?
This is a question I find myself asking repeatedly. When historic sites try to talk about their queer interpretation, it is always reliant on the history that is actually present. Maybe the lady of the house had an affair with another woman, or the son was a “confirmed bachelor”. Whatever the case, it is usually tied to something “verifiable”. The problem is that, these stories are rare. Not every site has the luxury of being able to uncover those histories, so what options are available for other sites?
My solution: composite histories.
The best case study I have found on composite histories comes from a dissertation by Elissa J. Sampson on the history of the Tenement Museum in New York City. This dissertation made my understanding of these interpretive elements significantly easier, by this dissertation and I will reference it throughout this post.
But what is a composite history? It’s much like the interpretation version of historical fiction; built upon the real facts and histories is a new story that can be far more expansive. Between 1987 and 1993, the Tenement Museum played with the idea of creating composite histories of the families to tell the history of immigrants in New York’s Lower East Side. While the museum did not fully use composite histories in their final interpretation, the case study offers a glimpse at an alternative that can create opportunities for stories that are not so rigidly tied to place.
The Tenement Museum saw itself as representative of the larger Lower East Side, and as such wanted to tell a history that was as expansive as the area. To tell this history, the museum hired historians to create profiles for the various families that would make up the residents of the tenement. Through these composite families, the museum could tell the social history of the neighbourhood’s residents throughout history. A Free Black family would live in one apartment set in 1850, another apartment would house a mixed household of Chinese bachelors from 1900 who worked in a local laundromat. In addition, each household would have some sort of family drama unfolding in order to explore more social issues. An early memo from one of the founders explores this dynamic:
If you feel that it is more historically correct to separate the religious and the secular families, rather than have someone at each end of the spectrum in one household, you will need to develop two whole households …. Another possibility is that you consciously leave out either the deeply religious/observant or the decidedly secular socialist…. Personally, I prefer to have the tension…
By unshackling the interpretation from the real lives of those that lived in the apartments, the creators could present a vertical slice of life in the area. This familial composition might not have existed in full, but elements of them were present in many very real families. The tensions that arise from the imagined conflicts allow for explorations of real life events and the ways that various family members responded to them.
For as open ended as the composite histories were, it was not without its critics A conflict was emerging. On one side was the goal to represent the communities that formed the immigrant histories of the Lower East Side. On the other was the urge to interpret the lives of the people that had actually lived in the building that the museum had occupied. The plan to use composite histories was first imagined before the museum had acquired a building, allowing for more creativity in the stories they could tell. But once the museum found its home, the focus began to shift towards the verifiable lives that had lived within the building itself. This was deemed to be a more “authentic” experience for those visiting the museum.
This conflict played out over a number of years, with the Tenement Museum switching plans a couple of times. In the end, the museum struck a sort of middle ground, where the recreated apartments would interpret the lives of their actual tenants while walking tours and other programs would continue to imagine the larger community. This would prove flawed for the apartments, as the lived history of the building was far less diverse than the founders had expected, leading to less diversity than they had envisioned. Households like the Free Black family or the Chinese mixed bachelors were jettisoned since there was no evidence that either group had lived in the building.
It should come as no surprise to longtime readers that I find claims around “authenticity” to be somewhat dubious. Within queer and trans history, authenticity and verifiability are often smokescreens for homophobic and transphobic exclusion. Even people who live their whole lives as a different gender from the one they were assigned at birth are refused their trans identity after they are outted. As a result, I find such rigorous adherence to these concepts to be a flawed endeavour.
Furthermore, in sites like the Tenement Museum, the authenticity is just as constructed as if they had used composite histories. As Pete Brown describes in Telling the Truth in Historic Houses: How Substitutes Can Be Authentic, many historic sites style themselves as being a “genuine glimpse into the past” (95) despite this rarely being the case. At the Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet where Brown worked, it was presented as though everything on display was original, that it was authentic to the previous owners. This was not true as the staff “had trawled antique dealers and secondhand shops for suitable items” in order to populate the rooms. The displays were constructed to create the illusion of timelessness, created by people who had done their research.
Why do we view this constructed authenticity, where the construction is hidden from the audience, to be innately more authentic than composite histories? Even when the Tenement Museum chose to use the “authentic” stories of those that lived in their building, it was only to a certain extent. Despite a focus on the real people that lived there, these families were not being interpreted in the rooms or even on the same floors in which they lived. This might seem like a minor point, but the décor tells a story. As Sampson points out, one of the families lived in the back of the tenement, whereas at the Tenement Museum, they now had “a front parlor window to provide light for her dressmaking business”. (Sampson, 136)
Not even the people who lived in the building were exempt from being constructed as the founders made assumptions about them as well. What little information existed for the historical residents led to informed guesses on how these families lived their lives. If the Tenement Museum was going to invent histories for its past residents, what benefit is there to basing it off the real lives of those that existed? The end result is the same, there is still a constructed view of history, but composite histories lack the limitations of historical record.
When Brown was confronted with the constructed authenticity of the Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet, him and his team decided to make that construction part of the interpretation. Some feared that this would ruin the magic for visitors, but this was not the case. Instead, visitors found new ways to interact with the rooms. They were just as interested to learn about the spaces. If making the constructed nature of the set dressing did not interfere with the visitor experience, there is no reason to assume that something like composite histories cannot succeed as well.
This is why I see composite histories as a solution to the lack of queer or trans history. A similar tension exists for queer and trans interpretation as it did for the Tenement Museum. The dearth of verifiable evidence of the lives of the past requires alternatives. We know queer and trans people existed throughout history, but they have often been marginalized and pushed to the edges of society. The stories we have are rare, relying on evidence to not have been destroyed by either that person’s family or themselves. Further, many of the stories of historic trans people are only known because they were traumatically outted either during their lifetime or after they had died.
Through composite histories, it is possible to imagine the people who visited the sites we interpret. By using the same research that would go into any sort of interpretive program, it would be possible to tell an inclusive history. Studying the lives of the trans people that we know existed, for whom records survive, allows us to imagine the anonymous trans people that were never violently outted against their wishes.
These stories do not need to be utilized to the same extent as the Tenement Museum intended, but glimpses into queer and trans lives could be integrated into larger narratives through small vignettes.
The question of how to interpret that which does not exist is one that can never have a definite answer. Most queer interpretation case studies focus on the stories that already exist and elevating them, but not all sites are so fortunate to have those. This is why composite histories can be so powerful; they are not tied to the specific geographic place. They do not need to replace the existing stories, but they can be used as an alternative. By being up front with visitors on the composite nature of these stories, it should not detract from the history itself.
Trying to bridge the gap between transgender studies and museum studies.