Curating inclusive history collections that represent diverse experiences, including LGBTIQ+ stories, enables Te Papa to present Aotearoa New Zealand to ourselves and the world, says history curator Lynette Townsend.
Efforts are made to ensure that the history collections represent historical stories from diverse cultural perspectives, ages, genders and sexualities.
It’s an aspect of the curatorial role that’s taken very seriously, and with enthusiasm.
The inclusion of objects representative of LGBTIQ people and communities have been purposefully acquired since Te Papa’s inception.
Carmen Rupe, Chrissy Witoko, and Wellington Devotion
In fact some of the earliest inclusions relating to gay pride were donated by Neil Anderson who was part of the team working on Te Papa’s opening exhibitions.
Neil donated a variety of items including a pair of yellow faux fur shorts worn in the 1990s at a Wellington Devotion dance party – a major event in the gay pride calendar, and several T-shirts celebrating and reclaiming the name ‘queer’.
Another major acquisition came via transgender icon Carmen Rupe.
Glitzy clothing and flamboyant headdresses, photos, paintings and decorative items were acquired, items that are evocative of her life as a drag queen performer and brothel owner.
These important inclusions represent a part of New Zealand history that is often hidden or excluded from mainstream history.
LGBTIQ related objects span a diverse range of topics including sport, protest and everyday life.
Objects relating to marriage equality in 2013, Lesbian Radio, and the 2nd Asia Pacific Outgames, held in Wellington in 2011, are all in the mix.
A set of 34 collages, created by Evergreen Coffee Lounge transgender owner and manager Chrissy Witoko, is another illuminating gem in the history collection. The collages once hung on the walls of the Evergreen, but today they provide an important visual record of the people, places, and major events intertwined with LGBTIQ life in New Zealand.
The collages include images that span the 1960s to 2002, and are a unique highly personalised snapshot of a community traversing some of the most seismic, hard-fought moments in our history such as Homosexual Law Reform in 1986, and the Human Rights Act of 1993 legislating against discrimination on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The collages feature Chrissy’s family, friends, and acquaintances, and other people who frequented the café.
Research focusing on the content in the collages and interviews with people featured in them has brought to the fore a rich diversity of LGBTIQ histories and personal stories.
A cause of celebration and a spotlight on issues
Celebratory items feature in the collection alongside objects that show ongoing issues and concerns around prejudice, for example a poster for a 2011 ‘Queer the Night’ march. The march was in response to violent attacks on members of the LGBTIQ community.
The Queer the Night Collective wrote:
‘Attacks based on an individual’s perceived sexuality or gender are an attack on us all… The only real way to battle community violence is through community action…the march is not just about fear of being attacked on the street, but also the institutionalised homophobia and transphobia in our society.’
The march aimed to raise awareness of a range of issues including the fear of bullying in schools, discrimination against trans-people in the workplace, the fear of being shunned by friends and rejected by families.
In some circles it would be easy to believe that homophobia was a thing of the past, but sadly recent history tells us that this is not the case.
Lesbian rights activist and gender studies scholar Dr Alison Laurie once said at a 1985 Bigot Buster rally, ‘One of the most important things, is to be visible. To be visible as lesbians and gay men. A closet is a very dangerous place to be.’
She went on to argue that the more visibility there is, the safer and stronger the community will be.
This is a strong message, still relevant today, and particularly pertinent when considering the curation of history collections and exhibitions.
A museum’s responsibility to LGBTIQ+ history
I believe that museums can contribute to social inclusion at a personal, community and national level. Museums have the potential to challenge stereotypes, and showcase real people and their stories.
In doing so we can promote understanding and respect.
For me, the importance of including LGBTIQ+ histories, alongside a plurality of voices and experiences in the museum context, is one of the ways we can have an impact of people’s lives.
It’s our responsibility to ensure that new generations of young people can see themselves, and know that LGBTIQ histories, stories and perspectives are a valued part of our society today.
In support of the Wellington Pride Festival, curators Lynette Townsend and Stephanie Gibson will lead two behind-the-scenes tours, showcasing a selection of treasured LGBTIQ objects in the history collection, on Thursday 16 March at 10am and 11am. Places are limited. To book, go to the Wellington Pride Festival website or email Festival Director <email@example.com>