A museum carves and sculpts a cultural space for itself and its collection. Within its halls, a museum tells a story of the art pieces it displays, the artifacts it collects, the curatorial process it embodies. Such a mission can be as broad or as specific as befits the museum’s own calling. For many of us, the common image of a museum is perhaps all too expansive. The Louvre. The Met. Their buildings alone conjure up collections that aim to capaciously represent as broad a vision of the world’s art, history, and anthropology. But such ideal (and idealized) images of museums risk turning them into Borgesian endeavors, asking these finite collections to stand in for all too unruly, fractious, not to mention all but infinite, assemblies of peoples, movements, aesthetics, and cultures.
In response to such generalized narratives, it’s no surprise a slew of narrower and more modest enterprises have opted to carve spaces in contradistinction to these larger institutions. From the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles (the oldest Jewish museum in the United States) to the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York City (the first gay art museum in the world), these types of endeavors favor the particular over the universal. Moreover, identity- and ethnic-based museums have made a point not just of redefining their curatorial practices but broadening the audience they seek to engage.
At the heart of the argument for identity-based museums is the conviction that the general histories that established institutions have come to tell cannot but offer a limited image of the world. Even if that’s not exactly how they present themselves. The Louvre, for example, boasts that it is “universal both in terms of the wealth of its collections and the great diversity of its visitors” while the Metropolitan Museum of Art “collects, studies, conserves, and presents significant works of art across all times and cultures in order to connect people to creativity, knowledge, and ideas.” But the underlying and arguably all too specific assumptions about what constitutes “significant works of art” (and to/for whom) is the most glaring way in which such a statement rhetorically obscures its own cultural biases.
Identity-and ethnic-based museums by their very nature are forced to grapple with the real-life effects of the cultural politics of curation. For Robert Mills, the mere idea of a “queer museum” necessarily calls into question the assumptions that have kept queer subjects out of established institutions. “Rather than simply pandering to a minoritizing logic of tolerance and inclusivity,” he writes in “Theorizing the Queer Museum,” “queer perspectives potentially take aim at the very climate that imagines museums and other educational spaces as guardians of ‘public decency’ and the status quo.”
A museum may well be a concrete instantiation of an “I am” assertion. Not just “I am Jewish” or “I am Latino” or “I am gay,” but “I am here.”
To take up LGBTQ identity as a central tenet of a museum’s mission demands exploration of the confines of such a label. Writing about one of the recent photography exhibits at the Leslie Lohman titled Daybreak: New Affirmations in Queer Photography, curators Ka-Man Tse and Matthew Jensen wrote that they “are constantly digging and excavating. We are tasked with the challenge to find our own histories, our own communities and kinfolk, through a simultaneous looking and learning backwards.” That means both re-contextualizing work that had long been neglected (and only now available because of the collection of founders Charles W. Leslie and J. Frederick Lohman) and creating the space for new work to emerge, such as the young photographers featured in Daybreak. Indeed, to walk around said exhibit was to see a continued probing of the very issue of curation that had gathered these photographs together. Like Jess Richmond’s self-portraits (where she poses alongside life-sized cutouts of herself), the exhibit and museum at large “question the nature of identity while destabilizing the fixed image.”
But identity-based museums, given the particularity, also radiate outward from the community they serve. There’s an embedded didactic approach (these are museums, after all) and they often serve the expert as well as the novice. One may argue these museums ghettoize its collections, but in practice they more often than not push our understanding of their missions into the universal not away from it. As Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding member of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, puts it, the goal of the NMAAHC isn’t to create a space solely about the African American experience but to “explore the complex intricacies of race in America.”
The rebuttals to the need and value of identity-based museums can sometimes take the form of fiscal conservatism. Funding, whether from private entities or from federal programs, is limited. But there’s no denying that outreach programs are built into identity- and ethnic-based museums in ways that make not just fundraising but community building easier for such enterprises.
More often, though, the main argument against these spaces rests mostly on the fact that they, as professor Arlene Davila wrote back in 2011 when discussing the proposed Latino Museum on the National Mall, are “balkanizing and unnecessary. Yet the growing xenophobia and heightened nativist political climate enveloping the immigration debate and Latinos,” she continued, “has shown otherwise.” In the eight years since, there’s nothing to suggest the need for such a space has disappeared.
If a museum carves and sculpts a cultural space for itself and its collection, it also carves a space for the imagined community it serves and hopes to engender. A museum may well be a concrete instantiation of an “I am” assertion. Not just “I am Jewish” or “I am Latino” or “I am gay,” but “I am here.”
Header image: Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. Exterior facade. Image courtesy the Leslie-Lohman Museum.