The Morrison County Historical Society has been a member of AASLH and the American Association of Museums (AAM) for years. When one of these national organizations hosts an annual conference close to home, it’s a sure bet someone from our museum will attend. AAM recently hosted its annual meeting in Minneapolis, Minnesota, only a couple of hours away by car, and our curator, Ann Marie, and I were there to soak up collective knowledge from the field.
The theme of the meeting was “Creative Community,” and we found plenty of interesting and useful sessions. The one session we both HAD to attend was called “From Silent to Silenced: Queerness in the American Museum.” It was led by Jonathan David Katz, Director of the Visual Studies Doctoral Program at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Katz discussed how American museums are more than willing to display the works of LGBT artists, but will not display those works within the context of the individual artist’s sexuality. This, he said, amounted to institutional homophobia. American museums are not properly engaging in one of the biggest civil rights issues of our time.
Ann Marie and I were practically bursting out of our seats because, while large museums may be squeamish about directly discussing human sexuality, we currently have an essay project and an exhibit at our small museum that were inspired by a transgendered person.
Even though Morrison County started out with a diverse population, it has since become homogeneous, with the 2010 census showing 96.9% non-Hispanic white persons living in the county. For some time, museum staff members have discussed ways of gathering and presenting the history of our minority populations.
As often happens, it was a personal connection that led to a method for collecting some of this history. My son has a good friend from high school who is transgender. This friend was born female, but identifies as male. His experience inspired me to create the essay project “What’s It Like […] in Morrison County?”, with the space in the brackets to be filled in with the topic of the writer’s choice. Topics can range from the serious to the seemingly insignificant, including “What’s It Like [to Be Transgendered] in Morrison County?” to “What’s It Like [to Put Up Pickles] in Morrison County?” My son’s friend wrote the transgender essay. We’re still waiting for the one on pickles. (The essays are posted online here: http://morrisoncountyhistory.org/whatsitlike/ – The transgender essay is here: http://morrisoncountyhistory.org/whatsitlike/?p=50)
This year, in order to encourage more people to write essays for the project, we made it the focus of an exhibit. We’ve taken portions of the submitted essays and illustrated them with artifacts from our collections. In the center of the exhibit is a portion of my son’s friend’s essay, which is labeled “One of the Guys.” It begins, “I was born in the Little Falls hospital, and my birth certificate says 7 lbs 6 oz, Female. Despite having been born biologically female, my whole life I knew that this was wrong.”
Thus far, the essay and exhibit have created no controversy. Perhaps they are accepted because the subject is local. Perhaps it’s because the topic is not expected in a small museum. If this is the case, small museums are perfectly positioned to assist the LGBT community in telling its story in order to secure civil rights for its members. We can do it through our unassuming stealth mode.