When I think about how I describe my current career trajectory and the aim of this blog, the phrase I frequently come back to is “bridging the gap between trans studies and museum studies.” I think this really highlights what I am trying to achieve. Museum studies alone is not at the point yet where I feel it can quarrel with the very broad idea of transness on its own (just recently I found an article published last year that used a definition that misgenders trans people) and so it is frequently within the sphere of trans writing that I find relevant material. This was the case with Clare Sears’ Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco and one section in particular.
Sears’ book examines the history of crossdressing and subsequent crossdressing laws as existed in nineteenth century San Francisco. It explores the multifaceted ways in which problem bodies were hidden from the public view through the legal system at the time. These included disabled people, racialized populations, sex workers, and gender transgressors. The crossdressing law criminalized those who crossdressed in public. This did not solely focus on trans people at the time, although there are records of people who identified as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth, but also with the kinds of indecency that came with social and dress reform of the era. Throughout the book, Sears shows how the law came to be and how it came to be brandished in inconsistent ways. Of note is with the nineteenth century dime museum.
When I was first reading the book, the mention of the dime museum stood out to me. I had never heard the phrase before. The dime museum was a particularly low-brow form of entertainment that came out of the earlier anatomical museum. Also known as freak shows, these exhibitions would put individuals with bodily difference on display to be examined by the audience with the express goal of enforcing the Victorian morals of the day. Prominent displays in dime museums included the racialized “What Is It?” that stoked racist fears around evolution, as well as the gender confusion that came with the Bearded Lady. Displays like the Bearded Lady were created to emphasize the ways in which they broke from the Victorian norms of the day; the display was not just a woman with some facial hair but was hyperfeminized in contrast to the masculine facial hair (Sears, 107). One such display in San Francisco was that of Milton Matson who, after being arrested for crossdressing as a man, was hired to exhibit himself. This launched a slew of imitators at competing dime museums, all wanting to display this transgender figure (Sears, 104-105).
This becomes very interesting when you introduce Tony Bennett’s Exhibitionary Complex into the conversation. Bennett’s essay shows how nations and empires in the nineteenth century used museums and exhibitions to shape the public through new forms of display. This civilizing effect came from a process of seeing and being seen; seeing the power inherent in the displays while also being watched as a member of a crowd, not wanting judgmental eyes upon you for breaking from that crowd. This was a central feature of many of the national exhibitions of the day, some going so far as to build large architectural creations like the Eiffel Tower or Ferris Wheel to observe the crowds from above (Bennett, 69). Crowds serve to educate and influence how a population is meant to behave in public, according to the Exhibitionary Complex.
Bennett is curiously dismissive of the freak show, however. He sees them as an outdated form of entertainment, one was just holding on to relevance by attaching itself to the more modern national exhibition (Bennett, 74). But when put into conversation with Sears’ exploration of the dime museum, they seem to echo and parallel each other. Much like how Bennett frames his exploration of the museum against Foucault’s prison system, Sears’ discussion of trans people in the dime museum is likewise marked by the criminalization of crossdressing. Sears, however, takes this idea of “seeing and being seen” to another level, from the passive “seeing” to an active “looking”. It is no longer a crowd from which the visitor will learn how to behave in Victorian society but instead from the individual, highlighting the bounds of what is acceptable in public life. The audience member must internalize these differences, so as to not repeat them and be marked a “freak of nature”.
This act of looking and being looked at did not end with the walls of the dime museum though. Visitors were encouraged to interact with the people on display, hear their stories, and question their veracity (Sears, 110). In examining gender variant people on display, dime museums helped to create a vigilant population that was experienced at examining and finding trans people outside of the museum. This sort of vigilance was essential to enforcing the crossdressing law. Newspapers would often print stories of people crossdressing, informing the public of the law and, combining with the experiences gained through dime museums, would prime them to keep an eye out for these so-called criminals (Sears, 84). It was from these concerned citizens that the police would be alerted. As a result, the public would work alongside the dime museum to reinforce a rigid gender binary that was deemed acceptable in society.
In examining how Bennett and Sears interact, we can see the role that museums have played in creating and enforcing a violent gender binary on society. By putting trans and gender variant people on display, dime museums created the environment where their visitors can learn to examine them and then use that examination to ensure that they do not exist in public life. Being caught crossdressing carried very real dangers, not just incarceration but increasingly institutionalization. It was not merely the public being shaped by the pressures exuded by the exhibitionary complex, but also sections being excluded for not fitting in with the society envisioned.
Bennett, Tony. "The Exhibitionary Complex." In Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics, 59-88. London: Routledge, 1995.
Sears, Clare. Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.
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Trying to bridge the gap between transgender studies and museum studies.