Museums and the Transgender Tipping Point

RCMG 20th Anniversary Event 2019

Over the past decade there has been a growing number of museum exhibitions and displays featuring transgender lives, reflecting an increasing trans-visibility across many areas of public life. At the same time, progressive representations – told from the perspectives and through the voices of transgender people, as well as being shaped out of an understanding of the human rights issues affecting the community, past and present – remain highly unusual.

How might these progressive portrayals – that privilege trans lived experience over other forms of expertise – be understood in relation to broader efforts to secure the rights of transgender people? To what extent might museum narratives of gender diversity be harnessed to inform the ways in which visitors perceive, think and talk about transgender equality and, potentially, to have positive influence more broadly beyond the institution? How might progressive portrayals of transgender lives potentially act upon the coercive, restricting and oppressive gender norms, and widespread prejudice, that pervade the variety of contexts within which transgender people attempt to claim and exercise their rights?

Richard Sandell introduced this session drawing on recent research to argue that progressive portrayals of transgender lived experience can be seen as a form of human rights work, carefully crafted and purposefully deployed with the specific aim to act upon the conditions which constrain equality and negatively impact the lives of transgender people. 

E-J Scott (dress historian and curator) discussed the Museum of Transology – the first major exhibition in the UK (if not the world) to explore trans lives using the material culture surrounding them; an iconic museum project that has attracted enormous public interest and evoked extraordinarily powerful responses amongst visitors. The project began by gathering everyday objects and stories from the local trans community in Brighton, and developed into a collection of over 250 objects chosen by 108 trans people to represent their gender journeys. Heartfelt, brave and intimate, the deeply moving stories share themes of hope, despair, ambition, confidence and desire through objects of social history, dress, medicine, beauty products and personal ephemera, artists’ installations and portraiture. Brought together, these individual experiences provide a revelatory account of how gender politics has evolved in the UK, reflecting the increasing shift in social consciousness towards mainstream acceptance and legislative equality for the trans population.

This event for LGBT History Month was one of a series marking 20 years of the University of Leicester’s Research Centre for Museums and Galleries.