Kate Davison is currently a research assistant at the Centre for the History of Emotions at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. In this paper she discusses how to make LGBTI history more visible in Australia. She explores the work of institutions like the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives (ALGA), the Museum Victoria and the State Library of Victoria and examines how such work can be continued and improved. Complementing, the paper by Graham Willet ("Playing Well With Others"), she further examines the question of how larger institutions can "institutionalize" their support to make it more sustainable.
What do you think about the projects like the LGBT Material Survey that Kate Davison presents in her paper? And do you agree that larger institutions should get involved in "unearthing, documenting and representing LGBT history?
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Agents of Social Change? LGBT voices in Australian museums
LESBIAN, GAY, BISEXUAL and transgender (LGBT) histories have been commonly regarded as ‘hidden’ histories. Evidence has all too often been actively suppressed or destroyed, leading to false ideas that these histories do not exist, or that LGBT sexuality and its impact on society is limited to the present and the very recent past. Even while this is acknowledged to be false by many individuals and institutions, there is still a dearth of identified historical material that sheds light on the place of LGBT sexualities in Australia. This has left an imbalanced, inaccurate and even dishonest picture of the country’s past, even though it has a very rich and diverse history of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender experiences, which has been predominantly recounted through oral (ie, non-material) history.
Part of this diversity and richness has been documented by the archival and public work of the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives (ALGA) since its establishment in 1978. Other organisations, such as the Women’s Liberation and Lesbian Feminist Archives in Melbourne, the Pride History Group in Sydney and many other groups and individuals have also been collecting and documenting the material culture of LGBT people and communities. All, however, face significant challenges in both resources and broader public support and recognition. ALGA, for instance, is a self-funded community group reliant upon volunteers. Its efforts to collect and preserve material and to make it accessible to the public has been significantly limited by lack of resources, and proactive research and accumulation has proved challenging. Conversely, major museums and libraries are yet to substantially focus on LGBT histories in their collections or adequately recognize and organize relevant material within existing collections. This absence is in desperate need of correcting, but requires a level of effort, commitment and, above all, courage by management that up to now has not, regrettably, always been evident. Australian museums and libraries have the opportunity to be among world leaders in the field. Exceptional examples, such as the LGBT Material Survey jointly conducted by Museum Victoria, the State Library of Victoria and ALGA have proven that with targeted resource provision for research, we can continue to unearth important and exciting documentation.
This article will begin by reflecting on current international trends and the theoretical grounding of LGBT material culture before moving on to a localised analysis of the LGBT Material Survey as a long awaited and yet to be repeated intervention in the Australian context. Through a discussion of past exhibitions, outcomes of the Survey, and current museum and library practices around cultural diversity, not only will the problems of LGBT historical material be explored, but also the possibilities of how past practice can be changed for the better. Finally, with a series of recommendations, it will make the case for large scale and ongoing commitment by institutional management to collaboration and community involvement, in order to finally make this important and hitherto ‘hidden’ aspect of Australia’s past known.
Museums as ‘agents of social change’ – the international context
The difficulties of representing a diversity of sexual identities and practices in times past have long been discussed by many historians, but in recent years this discussion has taken on a practical application in international museum, archive and library practices. Although increased attention to sexualities in these areas can be seen as part of a broader trend evident since the late 1990s, real change has been slow in coming. Mark Liddiard observed in 2004 that, despite ‘the wide variety of museum forms, with their highly diverse collecting and exhibiting policies, the theme of sexuality has long been almost uniformly ignored in museum displays and exhibitions’. The process of addressing this absence, however, runs deeper than simply the idea of social inclusion, and has more serious implications for good historical practice in general. According to Frost, the reason why sex and sexuality should be accurately represented is related to honesty, accuracy, relevance and integrity. An exhibition which did not explore the significance of sex and sexuality where this was relevant would contribute to inaccurate and misleading history.
Notwithstanding the valid caution within historiography surrounding notions of ‘honesty’ and ‘accuracy’, museums which claim for better or worse to represent histories of place and society as a whole have a corresponding responsibility to reflect the multitude of narratives thrown up under that rubric, and to actively push against old prejudices. In Australia, this challenging and often very political process is not unknown, the consummate example being the debates around the presentation of Aboriginal Australian histories in the Australian National Museum in the 1990s and beyond. Few commentators in Australia today would argue that that project of creating a more honest and nuanced national story, even if uncomfortable for some, had been in vain.
Serious reflection by major Australian institutions specifically on the representation of LGBT identities, experiences, and stories in the public domain is well overdue, but has finally begun to gather pace. Museums, archives and libraries both in Australia and abroad have undergone a gradual shift in attitude around possibilities and responsibilities for wider social inclusion, not only of sexualities but also other hitherto ‘hidden’ or excluded aspects of human society such as disability. This has been buoyed by the creation and inclusion of cultural diversity policies in research, collecting and management structures, but the inertia of the museum industry has been challenged primarily by the hard work done by grass roots LGBT community groups in pushing for it ‘from below’. Smaller, independent or specialized bodies have taken it upon themselves to initiate proactive inclusion policies, driven by a desire to correct the often obvious gaps in the public historical record, and providing an example for their larger, usually state-administered counterparts.
Internationally, the indications and effects of this groundswell can be seen in examples such as Berlin’s Schwules Museum (Gay Museum) – a combined museum, archive and library surviving on donations – which provides consultancy to other museums and organisations. Poland, the Netherlands, the United States, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and other countries have either had discussions about establishing museums like the Schwules Museum, or have had exhibitions in major public museums within the last five years. Indicating the growing impact of these efforts, there is now an internationally focused organization dedicated to the development of LGBT collecting and exhibitions. The Archives, Libraries, Museums and Special Collections (ALMS) inaugural conference was held at the University of Minnesota in 2006, the second in 2008 and the third conference is scheduled for 2011. Several organisations have also made changes to their acquisition practices, particularly in the UK. Since 2006-2007 the Museum of London has begun to include LGBT perspectives in its official collecting policies, and according to the Library of Norwich (UK) website, ‘local gay and lesbian community representatives advise on the selection and display of stock’. Here in Australia, the State Library of New South Wales has long had a special collection devoted to gathering material related to the gay liberation movement. These examples can be matched by many others from around the world.
Most importantly there are indications that major institutions are not simply bowing passively to pressure, but are beginning to recognise their powerful social role and their duty to proactively challenge prejudices and omissions. Evidence of this is reflected in books such as Richard Sandell’s Museums, Prejudice and the Reframing of Difference, published in 2007. As Sandell points out:
museums have become increasingly confident in proclaiming their value as agents of social change and, in particular, articulating their capacity to promote crosscultural understanding, to tackle prejudice and intolerance and to foster respect for difference.
Against this international backdrop, the LGBT Material Survey in Victoria in 2005-2006 (hereafter referred to as ‘the Survey’) was the first major, concentrated attempt by an Australian museum to confront the non-appearance of the LGBT community in its collections and displays. In 2003, coinciding with moves by Museum Victoria to address issues of cultural diversity in relation to sexuality, the museum was approached by members of the LGBT communities with an exhibition proposal to mark the 25th anniversary of the Crimes (Sexual Offences) Act 1980, which decriminalised some sexual acts between men in the state of Victoria. While many broad, long-term aims were discussed, the concrete outcome was to conduct a limited pilot project to firstly tackle the issue of material documentation, and later to investigate future possibilities in the state of Victoria. This was jointly organised and directed by ALGA, Museum Victoria and the State Library of Victoria and modestly funded by Museum Victoria and the State Library. In 2006 the report of the project was published, with a range of recommendations for future work, including the need for such research to extend beyond the state of Victoria.
History on the fringes – the national and historical context of the LGBT Material Survey
As a pilot project the Survey was a crucial, if tentative, intervention in the struggle to bring LGBT history out of the shadows of arbitrary will and asserting its due place in the national story. The Survey report was the first major document to be published on the subject by an Australian museum. Nationally, the only available example of previous work done in compiling a similar listing of material at the time of the Survey was a page on the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales’ website detailing a contents overview of ‘Gay and Lesbian Life and Culture’. That pioneering list, which contains examples from across the library’s collections, was the result of a wider internal project that identified thirty-five priority areas within the library’s collection in need of resources and promotion. A smaller, more local example is found in the Queer directory of the student union’s Rowden White Library at the University of Melbourne, a ‘comprehensive list of works by queer writers or featuring queer characters’ compiled by library staff. Another brief listing on Gay Rights has since been established on the State Library of South Australia’s web page ‘SA Memory’.
The ALGA website provides a list of archival resources from both within and outside Australia. However the Australian list is limited to five material repositories: the State Library of New South Wales listing and the SA Memory website mentioned above, the AIDS Action Council of the ACT library, the Victorian Women’s Liberation and Lesbian Feminist Archive in Melbourne and the Willis Collection of gay and lesbian books at the University of Melbourne, along with two electronic collections: Writings from the Australian Gay Left and a Black Wattle Press Publications list. There are also other non-listed repositories across the country such as the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Western Australia, the Lespar Feminist Library Catalogue (WA), the EROS Foundation Publications and Archives, to name a few. This overview reveals the importance of building on work already begun by ALGA.
Similarly, although many excellent, provocative and celebratory exhibitions have been held over the last three decades, they have all been temporary and have occurred at the behest of small collectives, independent museums or local councils. Between 1982 and 2010 over 25 exhibitions representing queer histories were held around Australia, including at least six in Victoria. Of those held in Victoria, four were community organised and curated, and two others were components of thematic exhibitions at the Australian Jewish Museum. Nationally, many of these exhibitions have drawn out different experiences and challenges that illuminate further how major museums could take a more proactive role. Brief consideration of three examples can illuminate.
1. The Gay Museum Exhibition (2003), Western Australian Museum, Perth
The objects included in this exhibition were chosen for their ability to provide a ‘queer reading’ rather than a direct, proven linkage to actual queer experiences or people. One example is a die carved from bone recovered from the Zeewijk shipwreck (1727) off the Western Australian coast. Two of the survivors – boys – were later found having sex and were consequently marooned on coral islands. The die cannot be proven to have had a direct relation to either of the boys, nor does the object itself tell a story about sexuality, yet it provided an opportunity for the story to be told through its visual tangibility – this approach could be adopted by major museums.
2. Circles and Cycles: the Australian Jewish Family (1998), and Under the Covers: Love, Sex and Intimacy in Jewish Life (2002), Australian Jewish Museum, Melbourne
These two exhibitions contained clear and identified components devoted to incorporating the experience of gay and lesbian people within the Jewish community. Both faced significant challenges. The first was regarded controversial enough for some school groups to boycott the museum due to the inclusion of lesbian and gay experiences, while the second was met with criticism by the Jewish LGBT community as failing to properly acknowledge the diversity of sexual experience due to its focus on a limited perspective of gay male sexuality. Nevertheless, the Director says the Museum is committed to continuing to build upon LGBT representation, highlighting the importance of proactive policy.
3. Forbidden Love, Bold Passion: An Exhibition of Lesbian Stories, 1900-1990s (1995-6)
Presented under the auspices of the ALGA and funded by Visions Australia, a Federal Government Touring Program, ‘Forbidden Love’ was a travelling exhibition curated by a small community collective, History Inverted, and was built around the narratives of nine women’s lives. It was displayed at the State Library of Victoria, as well as at other capital cities and regional centres. The material for the exhibition was collected both from the subjects of the exhibition themselves and other sources. Without government funding it would not have taken place, revealing the importance of financial resources, but it also shows the advantages of community direction.
Poor documentation and knowledge of material objects associated with minority, hidden, or excluded histories have limited the possibility of large-scale exhibitions. The primary contribution of the Survey was to dispense with the myth that the material cannot be found and to highlight the need for a more permanent commitment of resources. Although ALGA has gathered a substantial and impressive collection, it is poorly resourced, and records of community organisations, personal papers and artefacts are largely still held only in private collections.
As such, the Survey research was made up of two major components: investigations into the holdings of public institutions and repositories, and a search for as yet undocumented personal and community collections. Concretely, the work of the project not only involved conducting database searches of publicly accessible collecting institutions, but also reached out to the community by distributing the survey flyer as widely as possible, announcements at public events such as the 2005 Midsumma Festival, and the Camp As . . . Melbourne in the 1950s exhibition put on by the Melbourne City Council, and radio and newspaper spots. We contacted the vast memberships of many historical or LGBT organizations, such as the ALSO Foundation and the Matrix Guild of Victoria, calling on people with relevant information to contact us. An article was published in Museum Victoria’s magazine, and we achieved successful coverage in the Melbourne Age with a quarter-page article, when we put the journalist in contact with some ‘real people’ who had personal collections, one of whom was in possession of material dating back to the 1950s. The major realisation in all of this, particularly with our database searches, was the slipperiness in defining what we were looking for, which Two views from the Camp as. . . Melbourne in the 1950s exhibition. Melbourne Town Hall, 2005. Top: Ken Lovett and Mannie de Saxe reading one of the panels. Bottom:Two of the display cabinets.
Two views from the Camp as. . . Melbourne in the 1950s exhibition. Melbourne Town Hall, 2005. Top: Ken Lovett and Mannie de Saxe reading one of the panels. Bottom:Two of the display cabinets.
What, where, who and how? Developing a research methodology for museums and libraries
Sexuality and sexual identity is in a constant state of movement and change – the sexual and gender identity categories we are familiar with today may or may not have been conceptualised in the same way in the past. In 1992 Garry Wotherspoon observed that in order to unearth lesbian, gay and queer histories in Australia, research requires ‘a framework that allows one to look at the history of something which, at that point, did not exist’. He observed the ongoing methodological problems of finding historical material that went beyond legal records – police, court and prison – that tend toward condemnatory portrayals. At that time he came up with newspapers, biographies, letters, and oral histories. However, our work needs to be focused on finding repositories of material, both public and private, and not simply isolated historical objects or documents. As revealed in the example of the Gay Museum exhibition in Western Australia, often material with less-obvious associations – a bone die – can provide more evocative insights into experiences of the past.
At the time of the Survey, there were no research models in Australia to follow. During the course of our work, we became aware of Buried in the Footnotes, a project on the representation of experiences of disability within museums across the United Kingdom, the aims of which, due to parallels with LGBT history, echoed ours. Their research team distributed a detailed questionnaire to 224 curators of museums and collections to ascertain the levels of awareness among curators, the details of relevant material and attitudes towards its collection, documentation and interpretation. Of those returned, a shortlist of 10 museums was selected for site visits of one to two days each, where catalogues and databases were searched extensively. That pilot project has since been followed up by a more extensive undertaking, a £5 million project involving nine museums across the UK working with a think-tank of activists, artists and cultural practitioners. Another example was a project to create a ‘virtual museum’ of lesbian and gay history containing information about material from across the UK. Curators, librarians and archivists were asked to scour their collections in search of documents and items relating to the lives of gay people, with a view to establishing a user-friendly online information source. Backed by the British museums’ documentation watchdog, MDA, the group Proud Heritage sent out a two-page questionnaire requesting that institutions throughout the country list the gay and lesbian documents and artefacts in their collections. Such frameworks require significant investment of human resources and it is important to note that their research began from the assumption that there would be evidence to be found.
The practical approach of the LGBT Material Survey was guided by the need to ‘cast a wide net’. Our methods were not confined to an internal museum questionnaire but encompassed a broad range of publicity methods to promote awareness of and engagement with the project. However, given the ‘pilot’ status of this project, it was necessary to delineate the boundaries of what was relevant and of interest to the aims of the project, and also to distinguish between types of material. Many of the collections found were archival in nature rather than object-based. These were all accepted as being of research relevance, though the potential for exhibitions based extensively on paper documents is limited. Similarly, often collections and objects were included for their associations with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender histories, rather than a direct connection. The Barry Humphreys Collection at the Performing Arts Museum is a good example – while Humphreys does not identify as gay, his characters and performance have played a crucial role in popular Australian conceptions of gender and sexuality, and have a level of symbolic importance and connection to certain sections of the LGBT community. Similarly, the Percy Grainger Museum collection contains material associated with Grainger’s sexual practices involving sado-masochism and, while there is no explicit evidence that he himself engaged in same-sex acts, the collection was included on the basis of its relevance to non-heteronormative sexuality. Further communication with the curator confirmed that Grainger had homosexual and bisexual friends, correspondence with whom appears in the collection.
Developing a research model was therefore the central task of the Consultative Committee established to oversee the Material Survey, which incorporated representatives from the project’s partner institutions, local government and key community groups as well as individuals with particular knowledge and experience, encompassing the spectrum of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender sexualities. We resolved that a multi-tiered research classification system would be an effective way to overcome problems in deciding what sorts of material to prioritise with the available resources using the following classifications as a starting point:
- orientation – direct relevance, (eg. identified individuals, material containing the words lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or other historically specific terminology such as camp);
- association – icons or public figures, individuals associated with lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender communities;
- sensibility – symbolism, potential for subtext and LGBT readings, (eg. the die in the Western Australia Gay Museum).
These levels should be seen as overlapping but distinct, providing a research framework that can also be used on a national scale.
Taking this multi-tiered framework, our catalogue and database searches used a variety of keywords; however, it was evident that successful searching often rested upon one ‘knowing what you’re looking for before you start looking’. This was particularly true in the case of the state and national libraries’ manuscripts collections, the ScreenSound Australia database, the National Archives of Australia and Public Records Office of Victoria, where names and biographical information are usually required.
For Museum Victoria and the State Library of Victoria, like the Buried in the Footnotes project described above, electronic searches of the database were followed up with manual surveys of objects in on-site storage. Descriptions of objects in the electronic database are often limited, and the relevance of objects to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities may not be identified in the electronic record. Standardised subject headings both within individual museums and across the museum sector (perhaps under the auspices of Museums Australia) would be of particular value and a national, publicly accessible, online list of materials and documents of LGBT relevance (in the manner of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales) would be a major advance.
Concrete outcomes of the LGBT Material Survey
The direct outcomes of the Survey have not been meagre. At the beginning of the survey Museum Victoria’s collection database listed only nine objects with ‘lesbian and gay’ subject relevance. There are now over 148 objects, and more than 80 additional objects with broader relevance to sexuality and feminism. Most of the new additions arose from our manual trawling of the already existing History and Technology Collections Store at the Melbourne Museum, although there were some new acquisitions, including a handsome silver teapot awarded in 1857 to the ‘lady squatter’ Caroline Newcomb, surviving life partner of pioneer farmer Anne Drysdale, by the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of Geelong and the Western District. By late 2010, a third of Museum Victoria’s LGBT collection has been loaded onto the museum’s website, and further information is available through the Culture Victoria website. Almost the entire collection has been image-captured, and narratives about the project and the gay liberation movement are now available online. The State Library of Victoria is also considering the development of a bibliography on the Library’s website, following the model of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales’ ‘Gay and lesbian life and culture’ web page.
Another direct outcome was more tangible in terms of changing public consciousness. One of the key permanent exhibitions at Museum Victoria is the Melbourne Story, a vast and engaging display of the social history of the city. An addition was made in the form of a video interview with Mac Ronan and Geoff Allingham, a gay couple who had been living in the suburbs for several decades. The interview was inserted into a collection of short videos about experiences of life in the suburbs, thereby demystifying the existence of LGBT people in the everyday life of the city.
Yet many striking absences remain in the collections. In particular there is a dearth of material pre-dating the 1970s on transgender, bisexual and lesbian histories, and on regional Victoria. It is also worth noting that the silences (as opposed to absences) in the material record were overwhelmingly found in nineteenth and early twentieth-century holdings in the larger collecting institutions. The major silence, however, is the overall lack of representation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender histories in existing exhibitions – in stories of immigration, in the life of Melbourne, within Indigenous Australian histories, and in relation to scientific, biological and technological areas. Sadly, and to the frustration of many both within and outside the Museum and Library, the video interview in the Melbourne Story remains the sole advance on that front. At the time the survey was being conducted, for example, the scientific Mind & Body Gallery exhibition at the Melbourne Museum told a hetero-normative, reproduction focused story of sexuality. This points to the pressing need for the application of cultural diversity policies across all museum and library departments, but perhaps even more pressing need for those policies to be updated and overhauled to reflect the realities of contemporary society.
Diversity within ‘Cultural Diversity’ policies
It is undeniable that there are recognisable cultural groupings around sexual identities and practices both in the present and in Victoria’s past, yet until recently, practical applications of ‘cultural diversity’ have overwhelmingly excluded sexuality and gender. Deborah Tout-Smith, Curator for Cultural Diversity at Museum Victoria, noted in 2004 that ‘cultural diversity collections in major institutions in Australia still focus on ethnicity, race and nationality rather than the broader meanings of cultural diversity’.
Definitions of the term, including those in Equal Opportunity statements, have remained vague and generalised, leaving ample room for interpretation of how ‘cultural groupings’ might be understood, although this is now undergoing significant change. The Equal Opportunity Act now clearly includes the categories of gender identity, lawful sexual activity, sex, and sexual orientation in the grounds for equality of opportunity. Within the museums and archival field, the Gay and Lesbian Policy Guidelines (1999) of the umbrella organisation Museums Australia state:
[s]exuality, along with many other factors, is an element of cultural diversity. The mission statements written into museum charters which guarantee the representation of cultural diversity in the collections, education programs and displays of the museum cannot be met successfully until lesbian and gay cultures and histories are included and integrated.
It has nevertheless taken much longer for these advances in policy to be reflected in practice.
The History and Technology Collection at Museum Victoria has, since the late 1980s, been actively collecting material relating to cultural diversity. However, up until the LGBT Material Survey this material had almost entirely been collected in the context of immigration and multiculturalism. In 2004 a new Collection Development Plan (Cultural Diversity) provided the first inclusive definition of cultural diversity listing sexuality as an important feature. The stated aims of the new plan included serious consideration of cultural diversity across collection areas, support for the collection of material that would balance the material record of Victorian history. It identified that ‘virtually no material has been collected’ in sexuality and gender and, furthermore, recognised ‘that much collecting in this area needs to be proactive to ensure the experiences of minorities or minority experiences are properly documented in the collection’.
The State Library of Victoria’s Collection Development Policy states that the library will, among other things, ‘enrich the cultural, educational, social and economic life of all Victorians by collecting, preserving and making available their documentary and published heritage’. A definition of what constitutes the ‘cultural, educational, social and economic life’ of Victorians is unfortunately not provided, leaving room for normative (ie. heteronormative) interpretations. Collections of material other than published books are categorised by medium (eg. manuscripts or photographs) rather than social or technological association. Items within the overall State Library collection are catalogued using a selection of Library of Congress subject headings, selection being dependent on a range of social and administrative circumstances. In turn, the application of these subject headings to the material being catalogued can be dependent on the knowledge and personal biases of the catalogue staff. As a result, searches of State Library subject catalogues can return meagre results, and there are significant gaps and silences where the actual identification of the experience of LGBT sexuality is concerned, whereas there are in fact several collections that contain potentially relevant material.
It may be suggested that large institutions have at times been hesitant to acquire material explicitly relevant to specific groups and subcultures through desire not to ‘step on the toes’ of smaller, community-based collecting bodies. Where LGBT histories are concerned, ALGA is an obvious example. This would be a welcome acknowledgement of the important work of these groups, however it cannot be assumed that smaller organisations have the adequate resources, nor indeed that the reasons behind the low level of acquisitions in major institutions is the result of such an acknowledgement! Similarly, it is not simply acquisitions and collecting policies and practices that produce gaps in the representation of the heritage of ‘all Victorians’. A primary reason for the establishment of the LGBT Material Survey was the absence of identified material relating to sexuality within these large institutions. As the Survey was able to show, relevant material can be found in existing collections with appropriate resourcing.
It is also unfortunately still the case that an inclusive understanding and application of cultural diversity is yet to arrive in some quarters. Overall the experience of staff and volunteers on the project was positive, and we were met with openness and support by a majority of historical organisations, researchers, support teams and individuals with whom we came in contact during the six-month timeframe. Regrettably, homophobic attitudes occasionally imposed limitations on our work. This confirms how vital it is that such initiatives have the weight of public organisations behind them, thus providing momentum against old prejudice. Staff at one organisation with a large membership of older Victorians, for example, when approached about distributing the LGBT Material Survey flyer, responded that it would not be ‘appropriate’ to distribute information ‘like that’ to their clientele. This was a blow to the work of the survey, as the older generation was one of our target audiences. Fortunately responses like this were incredibly rare, though it would be beneficial for future research to establish a set of guidelines on how to respond to varying attitudes to sexuality, and how to communicate the aims of the survey to effectively counter-balance notions that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender histories are controversial.
What remains to be seen, and what forms the central challenge posed by this article, is whether large collecting and exhibiting institutions around Australia can broaden and deepen their practices around cultural diversity, to address the issues of honesty, accuracy, relevance and integrity highlighted earlier. What is really needed is a creative and multifaceted approach, backed up by a strong infrastructure and concretely, a permanent and matter-of-fact commitment by museum management at all levels. Most importantly, it is crucial that the development of the field is characterised by a collaborative framework and community involvement at every step of the way.
Future directions: commitment, collaboration and community
Future work in the field of LGBT histories in material culture must occur on three broad fronts. These are: a) research, acquisition and collection development; b) space, storage and resources; and c) exhibitions.
In the first of these areas the most pressing issues are the provision of funding and infrastructure for research into the development of existing collections, a review and overhaul of cultural diversity policies, and catalogue keyword development (ideally with national synchronisation). Discussions have taken place with a view to expanding the pilot survey model into a national project, with possible joint-funding through the large institutions and an Australian Research Council Linkage Grant. Regrettably, these discussions are yet to bear fruit, due primarily to a lack of confidence in securing institutional funding, and also a lack of clarity about what the primary goal of the project would be.
The second area concerning space, storage and resources has been an ongoing issue faced by the community-based organisations that have dedicated many years to collecting material at a grass-roots level. The Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives holds the most significant collection of material relating to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history in Australia, but has been plagued by issues of storage space and appropriate storage conditions. ALGA has recently moved to more suitable premises, having for many years gallantly occupied the basement of the Victorian AIDS Council. However, serious discussions about the longevity/permanence of its location continue. Furthermore, the question of both human and financial resources in terms of cataloguing, sorting, provenance, acquisition, handling and access continues to loom large.
The idea has been raised for the State Library of Victoria to ‘adopt’ the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives under a collaborative agreement, thereby solving many of the practical problems listed above. Such a proposal throws up serious and complex problems about community access and control, which warrant careful and sober consideration. Despite resourcing problems, one of the things that has kept ALGA so strong is its almost symbiotic relationship with the grass-roots LGBT community whose history it has aimed to preserve – volunteers have a hands-on interaction with the collection, and scholars, students, researchers and other interested parties can access the collection at any time (by appointment) with a delegated committee member. The biggest problem here is how to balance institutional support and preservation of the material with the maintenance of a dynamic, community directed archive.
The are other cases that highlight the complex issues involved. The Victorian Women’s Liberation and Lesbian Feminist Archive, for example, has an agreement with the Melbourne University Archives where control and ownership of the collection remains with the Archive Committee, but they receive support in the form of housing and appropriate storage. The collection is searchable on the University Archives’ database and can be accessed through the normal university channels. However, to a large extent this has resulted in the collection being removed from the lesbian and feminist communities, and its location in a university archive may serve as an obstacle for some. Similar issues can be seen with the Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand (LAGANZ), which is housed within the main collection of the National Library and Archives New Zealand in Wellington (following a firebomb attack on the original location). LAGANZ receives not only storage and other material support, but also curatorial support from National Library and Archive staff. But rather than the material remaining under community control, LAGANZ members and volunteers are now subject to strict access restrictions as dictated by these larger organisations. The manuscript collection can only be accessed by arrangement with one of two appointed curators, while the collection of published materials is, according to the website, ‘mostly not available’.
Through the LGBT Material Survey, we began to tackle these issues by drafting a Partnership Agreement between the three participating organisations – an important symbolic step in establishing a firm structure for ongoing collaboration between the institutions and the community. We moved from locating and documenting other collections of relevant material, to exploring how Museum Victoria and the State Library of Victoria could structurally and materially support the ALGA. As the Survey was a pilot project, the Partnership Agreement was cautious about committing to practical aspects of storage and access, and focused rather on establishing cooperative structures for expanding our initial research. Crucially, the process of developing the Partnership Agreement demonstrated the importance of a formal, official, and publicly recognised commitment by large organisations to resourcing and initiating such research projects in a collaborative framework, as research into lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, can – as we know – fall prey to normative interpretations of cultural diversity. In a similar vein, it can fall down the list of priorities without an enthusiastic and personally committed curator or staff member. This has been the case at the Mitchell Library where the Lesbian and Gay Life and Culture collection has not significantly expanded since the departure of a particularly active staff member. A more solidified management-level commitment could guard against the turnover of individual curators and staff. It would be a fantastic step to see the already enacted Partnership Agreement continue to build on the work already done, by pushing for the expansion of the Survey project on a national scale.
The third area for future work is in the field of exhibitions. Public displays of museum and library material are well known for their educational and social value in raising popular awareness about our past – often a museum display is the only conscious interaction some people have with the history of their own society. A significant recommendation of the Survey report was the idea of mounting a large museum-quality exhibition of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender histories from Victoria and from around Australia. As the project brief was being developed, it was envisaged that the outcomes would bring us closer to a professionally-developed historical exhibition to be hosted by a major collecting institution, and which could incorporate collaboration with partner-museums and libraries in other states and territories. Such an exhibition would be a highly effective way of raising awareness of the need for these histories to continue to be unearthed and documented, and would therefore contribute to the primary aim of this project – to build into the Victorian and Australian stories the important role that LGBT sexuality, sexual experience and identity has played not only in individuals lives but also in broader society. A related issue is the pressure of time with regard to private collections and community knowledge. Many older, pre-1970s records are disappearing as their owners and collectors age and pass away. Resources are needed to ensure that their memories and experiences do not simply drift into the unknown. As yet, no progress has been made on the development of a dedicated exhibition in the major museums, and with lead-in times averaging between three and five years, we will be waiting a while longer. Yet the example of the Melbourne Story oral video narrative is an encouraging, albeit small, sign of how museums can and should now begin to act.
As indicated in the introduction, one area of LGBT historical practice in Australia that has always been strong is oral history. Oral histories have formed a crucial cache of information, more often than not spurring the collection of related material culture. The centrality of oral narratives can be seen in the CAMP Stonewall public installation in Sydney’s Taylor Square, opened in September 2010 to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the Campaign Against Moral Persecution movement. This temporary public art monument is an interactive stone wall of oral history recordings which can be heard via speakers in the wall. Artist Annie Kennedy said these stories ‘have been an invaluable contribution to completing this historical narrative that gives a glimpse of what it means to be gay in Australia’. Such a creative presentation of history, echoing the Gay Museum of Western Australia in its artistic origins, shows what can be done with the information at hand, and the existence of a public monument at all is a major advance. Yet as this article has shown, it is time now for LGBT histories in Australia to take their due place not only out on the streets but also within the custodial powerhouses of our national narrative – our museums, libraries and archives.
There still exists a level of skepticism among sections of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities towards the idea that larger institutions are becoming interested in unearthing, documenting and representing LGBT history. Not without reason, many still harbour concerns that institutional support and initiation of these projects are a flash in the pan. The only mechanism available to allay these concerns is the conduct and completion of projects like the Survey, and the carrying out its recommendations. It is an opportunity for these institutions to rise to the challenge of sustained, ongoing and increasing commitment to truly broadening the scope and practices of cultural diversity. Museums, libraries and archives, as Richard Sandell puts it, must realise ‘their potential to frame, inform and enable the conversations which visitors and society more broadly, have about difference’. In order to meet this social potential museum management, government, and funding bodies must remember that where there is a will, there is a way. Our collecting and exhibiting institutions can be bold and can contribute to the struggle for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights, if they are prepared to take on the challenge and really achieve the ‘honesty, accuracy, relevance and integrity’ that is demanded of them.