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Patrik Steorn

Page history last edited by patrik@fashion.su.se 10 years, 4 months ago

Queer in the museum


How can museum collections be queered? In 2008 I curated the exhibition “Queer. Desire, Power and Identity” at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Stockholm. Asking the museum curators for imagery that might be considered queer, or even lesbian and gay, i.e. icons such as Jeanne d’Arc, the answer was that “this is a museum that collects Art on grounds of artistic quality”. The answer suggested that what I was asking for was imagery of social or cultural interest, images that were not likely to meet the aesthetic standards of the museum. For me, this raised fundamental questions of how art historical and aesthetic canon actively can obstruct the construction of an inclusive museum. Art history is full of images and motifs that do not conform with neither art historical nor heterosexual norms, but they risk to be excluded from display and from the audience.


In this talk I want to address the question of the museum as a producer of normative categorisations and how the relationship to their queer or LGBT audiences is significant of how the general audience is looked upon. Digitalised, on-line archives are opening up the possibility to attribute tags like “homosexual” or “queer” or “heterosexual” to objects in museum and archival collections. Those categories will however not be able to account for the juicy stuff – the kinds of emotional attachment, desire, knowledge and narratives that may queer any certain object. Also, there are no guarantees that tags may be used in order to actively exclude objects with uncomfortable or undesired attachments and references. What is the knowledge gathered through tagging going to be used for? A recent example from Sweden is the exhibition "Lust & Vice" (2011) where the curators actively chose to represent a male heterosexual gaze, and references to same-sex activities or transgressive gender expression were meticulously excluded. Tendencies to straighten things up in museum and archival institutions can make these initiatives counter-active, if they are not handled with care.


Various types of “alternative archives” might be needed instead in order to collect queer presences in museum and archival collections. Queer experiences of a life from outside the heterosexual norm have been used as artistic material by contemporary artists whose works take the shape of various kinds of “alternative archives”. How queer affect and emotion might be collected has been theorized by among others Ann Cvetkovich and Judith Halberstam. "Unstraight museum" is an online initiative from Swedish activists/museum staff that allows anyone to share LGBT-related or queer moments, objects and narratives. To what extent should any ‘alternative archive’ of this kind of knowledge be incorporated by a museum? Should the alternative archive resist public space, and rather stay a semi-secluded archive that may be shared with a larger audience only on terms laid down by the community? The strategies can in any case surely inform museum practice of collecting, display and communication as well as policy-making, which would open up its contents not only for an outspoken LGBT audience. Rather, it would make available several pluralistic and queer narratives and images of transgressive genders and sexualities that can open up for positionalities beyond the current norms.


"Queer in the Museum", 23 Sept, 2011

Thank you very much and thank you so much for inviting me here to talk to this group.  My talk is entitled cure queer in the museum.  I will talk about the exhibition that I was a curator for in 2008 at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Stockholm, Sweden.  This is an interior image from this exhibition it was called “Queer, desire, power and identity”. The work for this exhibition started two years earlier with queer tours of the museum that focused on the permanent display of the museum from a queer perspective. This perspective has nothing to do with the sexuality or presumed sexual acts of artists but the potential, the interpretive potential of the queer perspective. These tours were very popular, a lot of people came even though it was warm, and everybody was having difficulties hearing, the crowd stayed together. Two years later we were able to present to the museum board the concept of the exhibition and when they finally accepted it I was appointed as an external curator together with a colleague at the museum. So as you can see it was in one room and it was a small selection of 40 art works only from the permanent collections of the museum. The collection of the National Museum is focused on Swedish, Nordic and European art from 1500 up to 1900, so no contemporary art or modern art. We crafted a thematic display that comprised objects from various historical periods. You can see in the image: to the left there is a theme about nudity, the gaze in relation to female and male nudity. There was one part that was about performing identities with a number of androgynous portraits from the 17th and 18th Centuries which problematize our contemporary concepts of masculinity and femininity. Another theme was about gay and lesbian icons, motifs that women who love women and men who love men have enjoyed for several hundred years. The display you can see in the lower image. As a starting point I used this image that is from 1866, the year that the National Museum was opened in Stockholm.  This paper it was called “New Illustrated Journal” (Ny illustrerad tidskrift) and this image show how the Stockholm bourgeoisie was walking about in the entrance hall in the museum admiring the plaster copies of antique sculptures. When I looked closer on this image I saw these two men who are actually walking arm in arm in this hall.  This is of course an image so we don't know anything about their actual relationship, but it shows there is a potential for other admirations than the normative, and it shows that is ever since the museum was opened the potential for queer gazing and queer looking and queer appreciation of these art works. Even if these men would be brothers or fathers and son we can never rule out the possibility or the potential that they are actually lovers. This potential is the starting point for a queer perspective on museums.  One of these antique sculptures at the National Museum was Apollo di Belvedere. Johann Joachim Winckelmann was a German historian who is sometimes called the founder of Western art history writing. He appointed to travel to Rome to describe the collections of antique sculptures there. His love of sculptures from antiquity was as passionate as his love for Italian men, and the sculpture of Apollo di Belvedere embodied the male ideal that he was desiring and when reading his texts this actually shines through. This is one an example from the text “Beschreibung des Apollo im Belvedere” (1759): “From admiration I pass to ecstasy, I feel my breasts dilate and rise as if I were filled with the spirit of prophecy.  I am transported to Delos and the sacred Groves of Lycia, places that Apollo honored with his presence, and the statute seems to come alive like the beautiful creation of Pygmalion.” It's very emotional.  And I really like this quote because it shows how art can transform you and touch you, at the same time as it shows how you as a spectator actually transform art with your look. You meet art with your body and your sexuality or whatever they look like – gender, social, religious or ethnic background, generation or region – everything and that from that personal position is where you look upon art.  This quote is a reminder of that ever since the foundation of art history writing queer desires have been an active part of writing art history. When I was going through the process of selecting art works for the exhibition I curated it became obvious to me that emotional attachments can really affect the personal knowledge. Myself, a gay male art historian, I knew a few art historians with the homosexual culture but my knowledge of lesbian art historical icons was clearly insufficient. For example, I included the museum’s painting of Saint Sebastian by Italian painter Perugino very much thanks to my own memories of enjoying the eroticised imagery of saints by Pierre & Gilles in the early 1990s, and commercial imagery like Bruce Weber who took this photo for a male swim-wear campaign in the 1990s. In the 1970's Derek Jarman made a movie called Sebastiane where young tanned men are walking around and throwing water at each other. All of these images show that there is a tradition to reuse the motif of Saint Sebastian within the gay male culture. It was available to me in the 1990's, but actively circulated among men who loved men since the 18th Century. When it came to lesbian visual culture however, my insights were limited. Turning to friends and asking around, I was learnt about the pleasures of viewing  images of Venus bathing with her nymphs, and was told stories of images of Diana, goddess of the hunt and her all-female and allegedly chaste hunting company, having been pinned to young girls’ bedroom walls. However, asking the curators of the National Museum for imagery that might be considered lesbian and gay, or include icons, such as Jeanne d’Arc, the answer was that “this is a museum that collects Art on grounds of artistic quality”. The answer suggested that what I was asking for was imagery of social or cultural interest, images that were not likely to meet the aesthetic standards of the museum. To collect artworks of aesthetic quality is undeniably the explicit mission from the government to the museum, but it is also a tool that separates Fine Arts from popular imagery.  This separation bears consequences for the possibilities of integrating aesthetic representation and social context in productive discussion.


How museums produce meaning, subject positions and valuations of knowledge, historic and aesthetic worth are questions that was important already in establishing the academic field of Museum Studies in the 1990s. In studies by Carol Duncan, Tony Bennett, Eilean Hooper-Greenhill and Douglas Crimp, for example, the museum is considered as an instrument of social and cultural reproduction and an important site for the production and display of discourse. However, while the most brilliant of these studies have laid bare the implicit nationalist, evolutionist and patriarchal narratives of the traditional museum, so far there are only a few who have discussed or analysed the museum’s role in supporting heteronormative narratives. Art history is full of images and motifs that have become loved by groups of women who love women, men who love men and people who have not felt at home in their own bodies. Androgynous ideal in Early Modern portraits can talk to the contemporary spectator about these issues. Looking for example at Swedish artist Alexander Roslin and this group portrait we can see that even though there are gender differences there are also a lots of things that they have in common. Their faces are depicted very similarly and the beauty ideals were common for men and women during this period, the 18th century. Both women and men wear clothes of bright colors, soft fabrics, and the gestures, the way they move, the postures are part of this androgynous ideal.  This is another set of these androgynous portraits. A hunting princess poses in the middle, but without looking at the label would we know if it's a man or a woman? Queen Christina poses in her suit of armor, and to the right an aristocratic man is showing his soft flesh and his natural hair so that his portrait really becomes an ambivalent image. The words “masculine” or “feminine” are not sufficient to describe these images, these bodies and faces. Look at this painting “Mirror of time” from the 17th century, and have a close look at the person standing to the right. When looking at the body you consider it a kind of masculine body, then you look at the hair and realize that it's supposed to be a woman who is standing there. So again, masculinity and femininity are not words that can describe these figures. “Image Culture and Desire” was one of the themes of the 2008 exhibition in Stockholm.  Queer appropriation of images and the potential to change the social meaning of art work depending on the cultural context was discussed in short texts.  In a pioneering text within the field of sexuality research in the 19th century, German medic Magnus Hirschfeldt introduced the idea that one way to determine a person's sexual orientation was to study the objects that decorate his or her home. He listed a quite a few art works that he had seen in the homes of homosexual men, for example the statuettes of half-dressed working-class men by Belgian sculptor Constantin Meunier.  Through this catalogue Hirschfeld, even though he was a medical doctor, established a sort of alternative art historical canon, based mainly on homoerotic aesthetic appreciation. Several of the listed artists are not included in mainstream art history today but a number of them are, such as Michelangelo, Thomas Gainsborough and Auguste Rodin. The alternative archive is not necessarily about completely different objects, but about different emotional and political attachments to objects. Social categories are implicitly present in setting standards of aesthetic quality and establishing a canon based on connoisseurship. Already during the 1970s feminist art historians exposed how the term “quality” was used to exclude certain artworks from the art historical canon. Linda Nochlin, Norma Broude and Griselda Pollock were of course among the scholars who most powerfully showed that implicit assumptions about masculine norms are imbedded in terms such as “masterpiece” and “master artist.” But the insistence on aesthetic quality often privileges normative narratives, images and encounters also in other areas. Therefore, I argue, we need to reconsider what assumptions about heterosexual norms are embedded in a term like “aesthetic quality”. In my previous studies I researched the art historical reception of the work of Swedish artist Eugène Jansson, who painted naked men in outdoor bath-houses and indoor gymnasiums in the early 1900s. The reception was compared to that of his contemporary Anders Zorn who painted naked women bathing in the archipelago. Both artists treated their subjects with an erotic eye but their work has been judged differently in art history. While Jansson’s male nudes systematically were considered as curiosities, and excluded from the Swedish canon. Zorn’s female nudes were considered masterpieces of Swedish turn-of the-twentieth -century national romanticism art. This comparison illustrates how a heterosexual privilege have biased aesthetic judgments and, as in this case-study, lead to the exclusion of homoerotic motifs from Swedish art history. If implicit ideas on heterosexuality have influenced the writing of Swedish art history, this will in turn have affected the acquisition of artworks for the National Museum's collection and their display in permanent and temporary exhibitions. To elaborate a queer perspective in a museum collection or archive whose compilation has been governed by implicit and sometimes explicit heteronormative standards, presents methodological challenges to the individual researcher. Hidden in the collections of any museum there might be hundreds of objects that have immense queer potentials or may be strongly associated with LGBT community. Hidden from curators and researchers and not least, the active and knowledgeable audiences. How to find the objects? How to make the accessible?


In the summer of 2008 there was also an LGBT-themed exhibition on at the Nordic Museum in Stockholm, Sweden. This is the ethnographical museum on Swedish culture. In the summer of 2008 EuroPride was celebrated in Stockholm, which is why there was a lot of activities going on in the museums. An exhibition at the Nordic Museum called Visa dig! (Show yourself!). The museum’s photography collection holds about five million photographic images – amateur, popular, professional, artistic, documentary, commercial – they are all registered in a local data-base. According to the museum curators, entering the word ‘homosexual’ in the search field of the search engine gave zero results. Nor did the words ‘bisexual’, ‘transvestite’ or ‘transsexual’ return any matches. According to the press release it seems like they never even tried searching for ‘queer’. The word ‘heterosexual’ did not result in any matches either, which is actually somewhat less surprising since the dominant norm often is taken as a given in this type of classification system. However, the word ‘couple’ returned several matching images, all representing a man and a woman, which suggests the heteronormative workings of the data-base. It was not until the curators looked for images of spaces where same-sex activities between men are known to have taken place, such as girl schools, prisons and military camps, that they found pictures of men in intimate situations. The exhibition included several other images that the curator found of cross-dressers and intimate same-sex relations, which can be seen in the exhibition poster. Even though images of explicit queer performances are present in the Nordic Museum’s photography collection it is not through systematic data-base search that they were found, but rather through contextual research and manually flicking through the image archive. The inclusion of queer interpretations and LGBT histories within traditional museum classification systems however raises some problems of methodology. First of all, it is important to keep in mind that the terminology of homo-hetero-bi- and trans has its own history. Considering that it was not until the early decades of the twentieth century that homosexuality as a word gained currency for describing same-sex sexual acts in Sweden, it would be anachronistic to label an 1850’s image of two men engaged in erotic activities as homosexual. In addition to the problem of neologism, there is a problem that the act of labelling is also a form of exercising power. Michel Foucault showed that the introduction of the term homosexuality at the end of the nineteenth century concurs with the criminalisation and medicalisation of homosexual acts in several European countries. It is important to keep in mind that reclassifying and tagging objects not only makes them available for database search, it also adds new historical layers and confines objects to fit the established categories. So, the insertion of the neat categories of homo, bi or hetero-sexual would probably limit the individual researcher’s work and restrict queer possibilities. It is further problematic with the oversimplification of the binary opposition between homosexual/heterosexual and would prefer an emphasis on fluid identities in museum narratives. Androgynous portraits from the eighteenth century and photographs of cross-dressing men and women are objects that represent queer presences in both the Nordic and the National Art Museum collections, but if they were tagged as such in a database their identity would become fixed. Inserting queer as a static label in a museum database would surely be the end of the term. Also, there are no guarantees that tags will not be used in order to actively exclude objects with uncomfortable or undesired labels, references and tags. A recent example from Sweden is the exhibition “Vice & Lust”/“Last & lust” (2011) where the curators actively chose to represent a male heterosexual gaze, and all references to same-sex activities or transgressive gender expression were excluded. Would the inclusion of David Wojnarowicz “A Fire in my Belly” have been questioned already during the prepatations of the exhibition “Hide & Seek” here at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington? Comprehensive research on the history and representation of queer, transgender persons, lesbians and gays in collections would arguably be more important to queer museums than a categorizing search engine.


Art historian Michael Camille has written about the performative aspect of collecting: “The history of collecting is not the account of how groups of already-finished, inert things are organized by individuals and institutions, so much as a process by which these objects are being constantly produced, reconfigured and redefined.” The act of collecting itself can be considered a side of queer effect and queer desire.  A performative perspective point out that the act of collecting itself can be considered as a site of queer affect and desire. A tradition of performing and sharing an aesthetic judgement based on personally experienced illicit homoerotic desires can be understood as a prototype of the pertaining tradition of camp in the twentieth century. Theatrical self-presentation and the establishing of subcultural taste are central factors in the manifold concept of camp. The collecting of objects, artworks, interiors, clothes, and memorabilia, and the ways that they are displayed, can be considered as two practices that allow for camping both as the objects are collected and as they are appreciated. In a discussion of the relations between archives and contemporary artistic practice Judith Halberstam rethinks the concept of archive in ways that are also relevant to museums: “The archive is not simply a repository; it is also a theory of cultural relevance, a construction of collective memory and complex record of queer activity” Halberstam elaborates on the performative function of the archive/museum for a queer community, discussing both the importance of ephemeral objects like flyers and music, and the even more ephemeral affects, memories and cultural values generated by other types of objects than the documents and objects that can be found in a conventional archive or museum. The cultural role of affects – positive and negative – is an important field of inquiry within Queer studies ever since Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s seminal work on the culturally productive role of the affect of shame, conceptualised through the symbolic structure of the closet. Considering the productive role of affect in queer readings can serve as a starting point for rethinking the concept of archive – real or virtual. Considering the productive role of queer readings can serve as a starting point to rethinking the concept of archive.  Both the virtual archive or real archive.  From this perspective of affect theory, Ann Cvetkovich has pointed out that it is important to review what sources are used when it comes to describe and represent feelings, intimacys and experiences outside of a heterosexual norm in text and image – in art and in writing. Popular culture is one area that she designates as a potential alternative source: ” ”…the archive of feelings lives not just in museums, libraries, and other institutions, but in other more personal and intimate spaces and also, very significantly within cultural genres.” Popular culture novels, photography and mass produced objects are among the alternative sources she sense could have the capacity to archive feelings and desires that can later be evoked in readers and viewers, and further be used in creative and artistic work. Canadian video- and performance artist Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay often works with popular music and music videos in his art. In the work Lyric (2004) he collected 1000 clips from pop songs that talk about love. The artwork is like a huge catalogue over these excerpts that are thematically grouped. My own experience watching the artists somewhat effeminate body language evoked memories of my own youth, living in the suburbs of Stockholm. Sitting at home listening to passionate pop music woke up desires to move away and hot dreams of forbidden intimacies. Nemerofsky Ramsays art worked like an archive over my own emotions – a mix of unwanted shame and desired pleasures. Bloodscript (2008) is a performance piece by American artist Mary Coble. The artist collected hate speech related to LGBT and queer people, but also others. She let people on the street write names they had been called, had called anyone else or heard someone use, directly onto her body. During the performance Bloodscript she had 75 of the most common names tatooed onto her own body, with beautiful elegant letters. But the was no ink in the needle. The frail blood traces were printed on acquarell paper and is part of the artwork. Coble made her own body into an emphemeral archive over the capacity of words to wound and to inflict pain. The skin healed slowly and lefts no visible traces. The images show what words can not communicate – the feeling of having been exposed to them. I imagine an “alternative archive” that consists of interpretations of artworks or other objects that have been queered and appropriated by a LGBT audience, and which are filled with narratives about affective knowledge and queer desires. The act of queer interpretive appropriation produces not just additional knowledge about artworks (or other objects), but rather it registers another type of knowledge. But an important question to consider is to what extent any ‘alternative archive’ of this kind of knowledge should be incorporated by a museum?


The museum space is very effective as a producer of social norms. Objects that enter the museum change their meaning with their change of context. It’s possible that through context and display originally queer objects may produce normative meanings; the object’s affective attachments and traces of queer desire may be lost. An object that is collected in order to represent LGBT community might end up affirming and reproducing normative attitudes and social categories. My concern is that some archivist somewhere might want to “straighten up” the alternative archive. Camp and queer sensibilities have historically been produced in order to shape alternative communities in times and places where homosexuality was legally or socially forbidden. Therefore it could be argued that the alternative archive should resist public space, and rather stay a semi-secluded archive that we could share within the community and that we share with a larger audience only the terms laid down by the community.  We cannot, I argue, rely on the museums to establish our own alternative archives. Even though museums might aim at integrating a queer perspective in their collections, the queer eye will always see its presences elsewhere and collect the neglected. I want to mention a project called “The Unstraight Museum”, an initiative by Swedish museum professionals that have founded a virtual museum that is focused on the idea of collective collecting. Object that is are imbued with memories, feelings and stories can be uploaded by individuals all over the world onto the website. The physical objects are dispersed around the world and kept by the person who registered it. It's only the narratives that are actually collected. Museums with ambitions to be queer need to look on their role as institutions and as producers of power and of normative meaning. They should allow for queer presences to occur on their own terms rather than co-opt LGBT culture as a way to seem more radical than they really are. Museums should instead facilitate the production of queer meaning in their collections by innovative display, ground-breaking research and encouraging subversive social events on their grounds. New ways of involving the LGBT community on queer matters will probably prove to be the path that leads to new directions for the social role of the museum. It will not only communicate with LGBT and queer audiences, but to all individuals who seek for online and onsite museum encounters that can mobilise various kinds of pluralistic passions. Thank you.



Further reading


  • Cvetkovich, Ann (2002): “In the Archives of Lesbian Feelings: Documentary and Popular Culture” Camera Obscura 2002:1
  • Danbolt, Mathias; Rowley, Jane; Wolthers, Louise (2009) Lost and Found: Queerying the Archive Exhibition Catalogue, Nikolaj, Copenhagen Contemporary Art Centre, Copenhagen
  • Davis, Whitney (2001): “Homoerotic Art Collection from 1750–1920” Art History 2001:2 vol. 24. Also published in Other objects of desire: collectors and collecting queerly (ed. Michael Camille & Adrian Rifkin), Oxford, 2001
  • Halberstam, Judith (2003): ”What’s that smell? queer temporalities and subcultural lives”, International Journal of Cultural Studies 2003:3 vol. 6  
  • Mills, Robert (2008): “Theorizing the queer museum” Museums & Social Issues 2008:1
  • Muñoz, José Esteban (1996): “Ephemera as evidence: introductory notes to queer acts” Women & Performance. A journal of feminist theory 1996:2, vol. 8
  • Sanders, James H III (2008): “The museum’s silent sexual performance” Museums & Social Issues 2008:1





Patrik Steorn is a post-doc researcher at the Centre for Fashion Studies, Stockholm University, currently working on the international project “Fashioning the Early Modern in Europe. Creativity and Innovation 1500-1800” and a member of the steering group of the Queer Seminar at Stockholm University.


Steorn holds a PhD in Art History from Stockholm University (2006) and is affiliated with the Centre for Fashion Studies at Stockholm University since 2007. Visual culture, fashion studies and art history are the main areas of Steorn’s research profile. He has previously initiated and implemented research as well as published books and articles on various aspects of the visual culture of the 1800s and 1900s. Steorn is active as a curator, writer and lecturer within art history, visual culture, fashion studies and gender and queer studies.



Comments (2)

Nancy Proctor said

at 11:18 am on Sep 6, 2011

Thanks for this insightful and "inciteful" preview of your talk, Patrik! Was Margareta Gynning involved in the Lust & Vice exhibition at the Nationalmuseum? http://www.nationalmuseum.se/sv/English-startpage/Visit-Nationalmuseum/Exhibitions1/lustandvice/ I look forward to hearing her perspective on the male heterosexual gaze in that exhibition's design and curation.

MGG@nationalmuseum.se said

at 3:28 am on Sep 7, 2011

From Margareta Gynning: No I was definitely not involved in that exhibition! They had totally misunderstood the whole concept of the male gaze and as a result they thoroughly succeded in reinforcing it...

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