Interpreting During A Culture War: A Review of The AAM's "Interpreting Transgender Stories In Museums and Cultural Heritage Institutions"
Unfortunately, I do not think this is that document, and the advice included within ranges from baffling to unintentionally problematic. I have three major issues with the document, which I will explain and discuss my alternatives after the break.
The first major issue I have is with how vague the document is. The document is titled Interpreting Transgender Stories and yet transgender stories seem almost tertiary. Only about half-way through on page 10 on does it start discussing specifics to transgender stories, such as terminology and trans history. Everything before that surrounds getting the project off the ground. While a fair topic to explore, the advice given tends to boil down to the generic. Advice such as “know your organization’s structure” that should already be familiar to anyone that is looking to develop a project for their institution, no matter the subject.
While there are nuggets of good and/or decent information in there, such as to avoid deadnaming trans people, these come across somewhat basic. Take the section on deadnaming, for example. In it, the authors recommend not deadnaming, but suggest that it might be difficult for historical subjects. Here, the institutional transphobia of the archive is overlooked for the sake of ease. Changing the system to remove deadnames is seen more as an option, an addendum on the end, rather than a recommendation to better reflect transgender lives in general.
Compare that to the response that the curators at the Schwules Museum received to the use of Suleika Aldini’s deadname in their exhibition Unboxed: Transgender In A Gay Museum. It is not hard to imagine that the curators’ thought process was similar to that of the AAM’s. This was a circus performer, someone who would have used multiple names, and finding out more might be made easier if they included her birth name. The response from the community was negative, drawing some of the most feedback that they received. This feedback would inspire the museum to change the name of the collection to not use Aldini’s birth name.
In general, I wish the AAM chose to be a bit more direct and radical with its advice. With so much of the document being about planning of projects, it is more than a little disappointing that institutional transphobia is not discussed more. It seems somewhat naïve to believe that, in the midst of a culture war targeting trans people, an obstinate board member could be convinced by case studies or a community member. The fact that this document does not provide any clear recommendations on how to respond to such transphobia makes its value at a time such as this questionable at best.
My second major issue comes down to the way that the transgender community is imagined in these projects. The document discusses bringing the community in, working with the community, but this relationship does not feel equal. It feels extractive. The community exists almost as a rubber stamp, where the museum does the work and the community approves it. The museum is still the arbiter of all the decisions, the arbiter of taste. Community support is meant to give it validity, but there is little to suggest that the community is supposed to get anything out of these programs beyond “a community gathering space” (AAM, 5). The document does not even mention compensating community members for their time.
Ideally, this process would be far more collaborative. Rather than going into it with these grand ideas of what the museum can provide the community, let the community tell the museum what they want. Involve the community in every step of the way, especially in the very earliest stages of planning, so that it reflects their needs and wants. Their voice needs to be central, rather than the museum translating for the community. If inviting a trans person to speak to your board, make sure they are paid the same as any consultant. Transgender people are the experts in our lives, and we deserve to be treated as such.
This can be used in very beneficial ways. One prime example is with the scarcity of historical records. As the document describes, finding examples throughout history can prove very challenging. Finding ways to get around this is a much larger problem, but one excellent solution is to open the collection up to a local transgender community and let them make their own connections with the past. What resonates with them? What stories do they have that speak to the collections at the museum? And how can the museum facilitate these conversations with the past? It does not need to just be through guest curators coming in, but can be everyday trans people. Only by relinquishing some of its power can the museum truly work with a community on equal footing. In this way, we might finally be able to see, as Margaret Middleton so eloquently put it, “queer experience as expertise and gaydar as epistemology.” (Middleton, 433.)
My last major is with what I found to be missing from the document. Firstly, the lack of a discussion around external pushback to a transgender centric program. There is a small part about expecting to get pushback, but the document “both sides” the issue by suggesting that negative responses will be coming from “both those disinterested in transgender identity entirely and those deeply invested.” (AAM, 18) Honestly, this deserves an entire section on its own. While Interpreting Transgender Stories only came out in October and the scale of the current culture war exploded since the start of the year, negative responses to transgender visibility was still on the rise when it did come out. There is no excuse for the lack of discussion here.
What happens if your institution is made the subject of a weeks long news cycle on Fox News? If protests start occurring over your transgender programs? Is your institution prepared to stand by your front of house employees when they get accosted by angry right-wingers? Are you prepared to receive bomb and death threats over this? These may seem extreme, but that was the response that Target and Bud Light received after their support of queer and trans people. Your institution is likely smaller than these two, but that does not mean that your institution will escape the ire of the right-wing hate machine. It is only a matter of time until the culture war comes for the museum.
The second aspect I find to be missing is the transgender museum scholarship. A look through the bibliography and recommended reading leaves much to be desired. The list includes many citations that I recognize, but I found incredibly disappointing for how little they discussed transgender topics on their own. Many approach transgender topics as a member of the LGBTQ+, and as such, reading them feels as though trans perspectives are just not actually considered. Looking at this list, you would have no idea that there are as many transgender museum professionals as there are. See my Annotated Bibliography if you are searching for a better entry into transgender museums.
The last piece that I find missing is quite simply, what are transgender people supposed to get out of transgender programs? I frequently argue that transgender exhibits should target transgender people, but I think it bares repeating in this context. If the goal is to provide a community gathering space, an exhibition or program should do more than just reflect trans lived experiences; it should say something to those trans people you are trying to attract. Why should they bother coming in the first place if all you are going to do is repeat what they already know right back to them, but in words that do not speak to them?
There was one part where this really stood out to me. On page 12, in the section “Exploring Transgender Histories & Narratives In Your Institution,” the document suggests to tell trans history because “transgender identities present the opportunity to explore [gender] as a dynamic, ever-changing form of social categorization. What does it mean to be a man or a woman?” (AAM, 12) This is a problematic way of approaching anything related to transgender people because it only cares about us so far as we can inform them about the ways that cisgender people move through the world. This is what Julia Serano referred to as “ungendering”, “where gender-variant people are used as a device to bring conventional notions about maleness and femaleness into question.” (Serano, 195-196) Trans people and our history are just presented as a tool to unravel cisgender understandings of sex and gender. If our presence is just a metaphor, what is there for us to latch onto? We are not allowed our humanity if we are only ever presented as research subjects.
Rather than looking at trans history as a lens to view gender as a whole, consider what a trans person would respond to. There is a line in the November 2018 volume of Transgender Studies Quarterly that greatly influenced my perspective on trans history, and I believe it would make an excellent starting point. In “Trans, Time, and History,” authors Leah DeVun and Zeb Tortorici say that “history often lends legitimacy to a community’s claim that it belongs in the here and now.” (DeVun and Tortorici, 521) By finding echoes of oneself in the past, it is possible to imagine a future where you get to exist. There is an incredible power in that. Kit Heyam takes this idea further in Before We Were Trans where they show how this is in contrast to the ways that anti-trans activists will claim that trans people are new and therefore not real. (Heyam, 22-23) By allowing trans people to see themselves in the past, by giving them a history that they can connect to, they might start feeling a little less alone. By centring a transgender audience like this, we can do a far better job at actually reaching these communities instead of speaking over them.
All of these leaves me wondering; who exactly is this document for? It does not provide solid enough discussions on the nuances of interpreting transgender stories to really benefit the average museum professional. The language used suggests it isn’t for transgender professionals looking for supports. Those looking for what has been written on trans topics in museums will be fairly disappointed by the selection. Everything in it feels either too vague or too generic to be of any real use for creating a transgender program or exhibition. I wish I had more positive things to say about it, but I find myself walking away just scratching my head.
American Alliance of Museums. Interpreting Transgender Stories in Museums and Cultural Heritage Institutions. 2022.
DeVun, Leah and Zeb Tortorici. “Trans, Time, and History.” Transgender Studies Quarterly Vol. 5, No. 4 (Nov. 2018): 518-539.
Felten, Sebastian and Rebecca Kahn. “Unboxed: Transgender in a Gay Museum? A Field Report by the Curators.” Transgender Studies Quarterly Vol. 8, No. 2 (May 2021): 257-264.
Heyam, Kit. Before We Were Trans: A New History of Gender. London: Basic Books, 2022.
Middleton, Margaret. “Queer Possibility.” Journal of Museum Education 45:4 (2020): 426-436.
Serano, Julia. “Ungendering in Art and Academia.” In Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2016: 195-212.
Trying to bridge the gap between transgender studies and museum studies.