Finding sources for transgender perspectives in museums can be difficult. Even more so trying to find ones that consider the trans people they might write about. It is that mentality that inspired me to create this annotated bibliography. My hope is that it can serve as a place to find resources with a short discussion on each. This is not a complete list of recommended reading. There are writings that I do regularly cite but are outside the scope of this list. It is solely the works that I have read and have influenced my work and way of thinking about transgender museum studies. This list is also not complete because I hope to come back to it regularly and update it with the new pieces. If you see any notable omissions or have recommendations, I would love if you got in touch either over Twitter @NtYrAvrgCistory or through email.
7 May 2022
7 May 2022
DeVun, Leah. The Shape of Sex: Nonbinary Gender from Genesis to the Renaissance. New York: Columbia University Press, 2021.
This is a prime example of the interdisciplinary ability of trans studies. Through the exploration of how nonbinary bodies have been portrayed in Medieval art, DeVun paints a picture that explores many topics that are incredibly relevant to today. Not only does it provide glimpses of gender complexity throughout time, but it also allows for conversations of what those can mean today. I have a full review of the book on my website, which can be found here.
Playdon, Zoe. The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes: And the Unwritten History of the Trans Experience. New York: Scribner, 2021.
Playdon’s account of Ewan Forbes, a landowning trans man is a fascinating read. It rather effectively weaves trans history in with his life as someone who transitioned at the very outset of trans medical interventions. It also offers a way to admit uncertainty in a history without reinforcing cisgender heteronormativity, although it does lean into that too heavily in some areas. I have a full review of the book on my website, which can be found here.
Sandell, Richard, Rachel Lennon and Matt Smith. Prejudice and Pride: LGBTQ Heritage and its Contemporary Implications. Leicester: Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, 2018.
I cannot recommend this collection enough. To celebrate the anniversary of the partial decriminalization of homosexuality in the UK, the Heritage Trust launched a program across their many sites to tell queer history. This collection is a series of short reflections on those histories. Each one is a case study on telling queer history in historic houses. Something like this is invaluable for any museum professional that is looking for ways to expand their queer programming. The full report can be found here.
Sears, Clare. Arresting Dress: Crossdressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.
Arresting Dress is my prime example of how to admit uncertainty for transgender existence throughout history. The book paints a very engaging history of crossdressing that does not focus solely on those who we might consider “transgender” today. This study includes those who were crossdressing for any number of reasons beyond just identity, including immigrants and dress reformers. This intersectional approach allows room for imagining what trans existence could be like beyond the prisons and asylums where we have the most historical material. The talk of “dime museums” was also my first contact with the subject, which I have written about on my website here.
Stryker, Susan. Transgender History: The Roots of Today’s Revolution. New York: Seal Press, 2017.
Transgender History is the go-to book for how transgender history has progressed. At under 300 pages and covering many decades of history, it is not the most in-depth book out there. What it does do well is to serve as an introduction to the concept and themes present in transgender history, providing a jumping off point to explore further.
Tyburczy, Jennifer. Sex Museums: The Politics and Performance of Display. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016.
The argument that all museums are sex museums in some way is very compelling, and the book provides numerous examples of how sex has been sold in museums and art throughout time. Tyburczy’s book offers great examples of how to look at exhibitions and art through a queer lens. The book is not perfect, however. One example it uses is Matisse’s Blue Nude and the controversy the piece engendered. While I do not believe this was the intention, the interpretation does verge into transphobia by describing the more masculine woman in the painting as repellant. It is really disappointing to see.
Clayton, Zorian and Dawn Hoskins. “Activists on the Inside: The Victoria and Albert Museum LGBTQ Working Group.” Museums, Sexuality and Gender Activism, edited by Joshua G. Adair and Amy K. Levin (London: Routledge, 2020): 57-68.
Trans history is very often obscured under bad and insufficient collecting practices, and this chapter by members of the V&A LGBTQ Working Group provide a case study for how to start unravelling those historical blind spots. In this, Clayton and Hoskins show how the group worked to create inclusive LGBTQ collections and programming at the V&A, as well as the difficulties that arose for them. This is an effective case study and one I point to often when I hear about institutions wanting to re-examine their collections.
Johannesson, Asa, and Clair Le Couteur. “Nonbinary Difference: Dionysus, Arianna, and the Fictive Arts of Museum Photography.” Museums, Sexuality and Gender Activism, edited by Joshua G. Adair and Amy K. Levin (London: Routledge, 2020): 167-180.
This chapter may be less useful to others, but there are aspects that I really appreciate. It gets a little too theory heavy, in my opinion, but I really find the ways that museum cataloguing have changed and evolved over time, and how that took centre stage with the discussion of Dionysus. This was also my first experience with the phrase “gender complexities”. I have since adopted it into how I describe trans existence throughout time.
Serano, Julia. “Ungendering in Art and Academia.” Whipping Girl (Berkley: Seal Press, 2016): 195-212.
The whole of Whipping Girl is fantastic and a foundational read for transfeminism for a reason, but this chapter has always stood out for museum work. In this chapter, Serano presents examples of trans and intersex stories in novels, films, and queer studies to present a picture of how gender diverse existence is used by cisgender authors as a metaphor or lesson for cisgender audiences. These works often do more harm than good as they do not provide a full glimpse into transgender lives but get held up as though they do. While this chapter does not relate directly to museums, the lessons Serano presents are invaluable for thinking about how (and how not) to reach a transgender audience.
Sullivan, Nikki, and Craig Middleton. “Warning! Heteronormativity: A Question of Ethics.” Museums, Sexuality and Gender Activism, edited by Joshua G. Adair and Amy K. Levin (London: Routledge, 2020): 31-38.
Through a queering of ethics, Sullivan and Middleton present an excellent case study on how we can queer museums. It can sometimes be difficult to imagine how to bring theoretical concepts like queering museums (rather than simply museums that are queer) to a reality, but the authors present the example of warning signs that signal there might be material that is objectionable. These warning labels often uphold heteronormative principles by creating a dichotomy of what the institution deems to be objectionable. By troubling these loose definitions, it becomes possible to view a queerness that extends beyond identity. I believe that this method can very easily be used elsewhere to better create a queer lens.
Weismantel, Mary. “Towards a Transgender Archeology: A Queer Rampage Through Prehistory.” The Transgender Studies Reader 2, edited by Susan Stryker and Aren Z. Aizura (London: Routledge, 2013): 319-334.
If writing about trans history, I could not recommend this chapter enough. Weismantel uses archeology to show how cisgender heteronormative biases sneak into how histories are interpreted. By making these frequently unacknowledged anachronisms visible, Weismantel makes a fantastic case for the democratization of history by allowing alternative perspectives to break through. If you are looking for something that will rage against the concept that being trans in history is an anachronism, this is just the thing.
DeVun, Leah and Zeb Tortrici. “Trans, Time, and History.” Transgender Studies Quarterly Vol 5, No 4 (Nov 2018): 518-539.
This article provides a valuable glimpse into how we can envision a wider trans history, one that is not limited by claims of anachronisms. The way that the authors introduce and discuss imagination as a tool for historians to expand beyond what exists is compelling and presents a method for inclusion in heritage spaces where there might not be explicit examples. The line “History often lends legitimacy to a community’s claim it belongs in the here and now” is one that has had a lasting effect on my work and how I approach telling queer and trans stories.
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.
Felten and Kahn were the curators of a small exhibition at Berlin’s Schwules Museum that sought to display the difficulties of finding trans materials in collections that did not account for these identities. Although short, the article offers an interesting look into some issues that non-trans focused archives and collections can face in trying to find the trans stories within their walls. One very interesting conversation that deserves more discussion is the issue of institutional memory. Late into the research for this exhibition, the curators discovered that it was not the first time that the Schwules Museum had put on a transgender show. It was too late into the design to integrate that previous exhibition, but this discovery reflects a need for stronger institutional memory to ensure that these stories do not get lost after being found.
Ikeda, Asato. “Curating A Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints.” Transgender Studies Quarterly Vol 5 No 4 (Nov 2018): 638-647.
This is likely the article I reach for when thinking about transgender visibility in museums. Ikeda’s reflection on her exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum is an excellent case study in how to balance transgender existence with scholarly fidelity. The exhibition was on a facet of Edo era Japan, but the curators sensed a commonality with modern trans communities that informed how they approached the subject. While they were careful to not use “transgender” in the exhibition itself, Ikeda recognized that the curators could not fully control what the audience interpreted. Core to this is an idea that exhibitions are created in this era and should speak to issues present today. History of history’s sake is not sufficient.
Middleton, Margaret, and Alicia Greene. “Trans Narratives in Children’s Museums.” Journal of Museum Education 43:3 (2018): 220-227.
Through the exhibition Mimi’s Family, Middleton and Greene provide an excellent guide to handling transgender stories in museums, at a children’s museum no less. Their case study proves that there does not have to be age limits on talking about transgender experiences within museums. But that is just the tip of the iceberg, for the second half of the article shows how a temporary exhibit like Mimi’s Family can have lasting effects on the institution as a whole. In this way, Middleton and Greene present a list of ways that an institution can bringing in trans-positive policies in conjunction with exhibitions.
Middleton, Margaret. “The Queer-Inclusive Museum.” Exhibition (Fall 2017): 79-84.
In “The Queer-Inclusive Museum”, Middleton presents an easy to follow guide to queer inclusion within museums. This should be on the top of anyone’s list when searching for improving an institution’s inclusion. Especially worthy of note is the hierarchy of inclusion they present. As they argue, not all types of inclusion are equal, and certain forms of inclusion feel more genuine than others. With more genuine forms of inclusion comes more commitment from the institution.
Mills, Robert. “Queer is Here? Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Histories and Public Culture.” History Workshop Journal Issue 62 (2006): 253-263.
Mills’ article was one of the first I found that actually attempted to discuss transgender topics on their own terms in museums. It is only short, across only two pages or so, but Mills describing the inclusion of trans voices with the all too familiar “T is silent” echoed the desert I found while searching for transgender perspectives.
Talks and Lectures
Kennedy, Allison. “Telling Trans Stories Through Collections and Exhibitions.” American Alliance of Museums. 7 May, 2020. Panel, 1:10:20. https://youtu.be/ZGO7DBWiONs.
The American Alliance of Museums has been doing excellent work highlighting transgender museum professionals and transgender museum work. This talk, just at the start of the pandemic, is a prime example. Middleton’s comment comparing the terms “homosexual” and “renaissance”, invented fairly contemporarily to each other, has always stuck with me. One we are free to apply retroactively, the other we shun from historical descriptions.
Scott, E-J. “Museums and the Transgender Tipping Point”. School of Museum Studies. 8 February, 2019. Lecture, 1:17:50. https://youtu.be/sZZHDVFcSXg.
The Museum of Transology is a fantastic exhibition on transgender existence and finding meaning for ourselves. In this talk, curator and founder E-J Scott describes the exhibition and highlights some of the stories from the collection. I wrote about The Museum of Transology in my blog post discussing PhilosophyTube and trans curating.