Last Friday I attended the Unstraight Museum conference at the Museum of Liverpool, National Museums Liverpool. The conference sought to address the challenges involved in the incorporation of LGBTQ objects, narratives and exhibitions across the cultural sector, and interrogate examples of best practice. Examples included April Ashley: Portrait of a Lady, a collaborative exhibition between the Museum of Liverpool and Homotopia (http://bit.ly/SKrM3U), and the work of Finnish museums, libraries and archives as presented by sociologist Kati Mustola. The delegate body was truly international and representative of a variegated global cultural sector, everything from the Tom of Finland Foundation to the V&A.
The name of conference referenced the ongoing Unstraight Museum project (http://bit.ly/UI0LQk), which began in Stockholm, Sweden, in 2007. This virtual museum is described as ‘a site dedicated to presenting the stories of Unstraight individuals and their contemporary reality’ and it does this in a particularly playful fashion. The traditional curatorial preoccupation with category and definition is abandoned in favour of a collective appreciation of experience and emotion. Visitors to the museum are encouraged to upload images of their Unstraight objects with accompanying narratives. This opportunity was afforded to each of the conference delegates as one of our tasks was to bring along an Unstraight object and help create a pop-up exhibition within an hour. Images of these objects and their associated narratives, some of which were filmed, will soon be uploaded to the Unstraight Museum.
Delegates were keen to know how exactly how the museum defined Unstraight and put the question to its curator Nicolas Hasselqvist, he responded just as the video above does in that the museum wants its users to ‘be part of defining unstraight’. With the addition of each new object, narrative, and experience, the definition of unstraight expands exponentially. I find this particularly exciting as it allows for the creation of a multi-verse of perception and interpretation, that perhaps only a virtual museum is capable of capturing. It’s reminiscent of the fascinating work on multiple ontologies being conducted by anthropologists such as Dr. Martin Holbraad, University College London, which emphasises the need for multi-layered interpretation and multiple methodologies. Museums globally are increasingly recognising this need, just as Prof. Yashiaki Nishino has done at the University Museum, University of Tokyo, with the Chamber of Curiosities. This installation has no explanatory text or object labels but simply asks visitors to view, experience and react to the very many encyclopaedic objects around them.
Such innovative methodologies will increasingly encourage museums to recognise that interpretation is a perpetual process and the need also to incorporate multiple modernities, as described by Prof. Thomas A. McCarthy, Northwestern University, in his book Race, Empire, and the Idea of Human Development, 2009. In this way the Unstraight Museum provides a crucial interpretative vehicle to access other modernities beyond that of the heteronormative. Interestingly, McCarthy also states in the same book that the virtuosos of reflexivity invariably originate in the margins of society. Perhaps then the Unstraight Museum is a tangible example of museological reflexive virtuosity in action, and a wonderfully irreverent approach to documentation and display that the sector globally could learn from.