The Morrison County Historical Society has been a member of the American Association for State and Local History (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 to attend. The one session we both HAD to be at 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 sexuality of the individual artist. 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 exhibit at our small museum that were inspired by a transgendered person.
Even though the population of Morrison County started out as diverse, it has grown to be incredibly homogenous, with the 2010 census showing 96.9% non-Hispanic white persons 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/?page_id=7661 – The transgender essay is here: http://morrisoncountyhistory.org/?p=7626)
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” and 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.
~ Mary Warner, Museum Manager
Addendum: Since writing the story on the transgender exhibit, we have received a vehement complaint about it. A visitor said that we should not be giving exhibit time to such a small, vocal population and questioned anyone claiming to be transgender. I spent a considerable amount of time explaining that museums need to discuss all of our diverse populations, no matter how small, and that we can’t simply focus on the mundane, nostalgic or “feel-good” topics. After our discussion, the visitor thanked me and said she would spend more time thinking about the subject. For a museum exhibit, the promise of further consideration is a successful outcome. – MW
One of the Guys
“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. As a child I was frequently bullied because I was very meek, but general I got along well with both boys and girls. When I got older and everyone around me and myself began puberty the differences between boys and girls became terribly evident and I knew that my body was changing the way it shouldn’t have. Instead of my voice getting deeper and muscles developing, I began bleeding and my chest started swelling. I was revolted with myself. I found myself growing increasingly depressed every time I was called “she” and discovered how little I had in common with the girls around me, I wanted badly to be “one of the guys” when in the company of my male friends despite my best efforts to fit in, I was always treated like a girl.” – Shawn
A portion of the essay “What’s It Like [to Be Transgendered] in Morrison County” that served as the a label for an exhibit case filled with items speaking to U.S. society’s concept of gender identities.