This month our Digital Theme celebrates Postgraduate Research, and we are delighted to have Hannah Ayres as Image-Maker in Residence. You can see Hannah’s images over on our Instagram throughout the month. Find us at thesociologicalreview.
Imagine walking into an ‘official space’, such as a museum, and seeing nothing that resembles you. There are no pictures of people that look like you, no stories that you can relate to and say ‘yes, this is so me!’ Museums house our stories, our ‘official’ histories and if you walk into a space like this and see nothing of yourself then perhaps you are left thinking ‘but what about me? Don’t I matter?’ During 2017 in the UK, there was somewhat of a boom in the re/presentation of LGBTQ+ lives and stories in museums as many of these institutions sought to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. So, instead of going into a museum and saying ‘where am I?’ Queer individuals felt surrounded by visions of LGBTQ+ history. After 2017, some sought to continue the work and others chose to end it there. Some also felt that, whilst it was good this re/presentation was happening, it still did not go far enough in terms of who was being re/presented and how this re/presentation was being displayed and discussed. Following 2017 then, some of this work has continued to push queer re/presentation in museums further. My research seeks to map this journey and to also investigate the experiences of queer individuals as they have been able to create, critique, and internalise these re/presentations.
I will quickly take a moment here to address my use of the term ‘queer’. I use ‘queer’ in my research in three ways: firstly, as an umbrella term that can yield more productive conversations around inclusivity and exclusivity over the more traditional LGBTQ+ moniker; secondly, as an indicator of that which opposes the norm, and thirdly, as a way to question power structures and make clear the messy frameworks that lie in the background of re/presentation in museums.
You might now be wondering why I chose to look at museums. It is my belief that history permeates people’s everyday lives in a number of different ways. It remains incredibly important in dictating the ways in which we structure our society and how the rhythm of our individual lives are controlled. History is also often taken for granted and viewed as something established, clear-cut, and factual. Museums are part of the reason as to why we view history this way as previously they have tended to veer away from ‘difficult’ or more complex histories in favour of simple narratives and object-based stories. Museums, which are often publicly funded, partly control the narrative of what history gets remembered and internalised in the public consciousness. Queer history has often been erased, lost, and forgotten and so it is not easy to unearth and capture these stories for display in a museum, a space which is so often focused on ‘facts’. My hope is that my research can help make clear the power of history for the individual by using the museum, as a space that holds onto these histories, as a case study.
To do this research then, I use a method called Photovoice. This is a visual method used by researchers to allow participants more agency in the creation of data; to give voice to those who cannot communicate by writing or speaking; to allow the researcher insight into areas they would not typically be allowed to access, and to give a voice to disadvantaged individuals and groups. Typically, this involves participants taking photographs of the world around them, guided by a researcher – in essence allowing the researcher to see through their eyes. I use photovoice in my studies to investigate identity and the ways in which participants are internalising and critiquing queer re/presentation in museums. In my studies, participants go around a queer exhibition or tour and take pictures of things that they feel they identify with. I do not limit the participants by stating that they can only take pictures of the objects on the tour and instead encourage them to go beyond this if they wish and to capture the space around them and anything else that might be of interest to them. I later conduct semi-structured interviews with the participants that are structured around the photographs they took. I later invite them to a focus group, in which a key member of staff (related to the re/presentation) is in attendance so the group has the opportunity to feed directly back to the museum.
The benefit to using this method means that it allows for the investigation of the personal interactions between visitors and objects and, in a way, gives voice to this silent interaction. Here I refer to Jennifer Tyburczy’s concept of queer curatorship in which she theorises that museums have often placed objects in spaces under particular lighting, next to particular objects to produce a normalising affect. In essence, without even saying a word, the museum has guided you along certain paths to view clear-cut narratives that will determine how you interact, view, and possibly internalise an object before you even get to it. Queer curatorship then plays with this narrative, arguing for uncomfortable displays and messy curatorial practice that elicit a response in the individual. This method allows for unobtrusive research to be done, in which the participant has their experience in the moment and perhaps even has a more elaborate interaction with their environment than they would have previously had.
As will hopefully be shown throughout my residency, museums are not neutral spaces and audiences do not interact with these spaces in neutral ways. Historical re/presentation in museums offers a powerful tool in that it offers a way to make individuals feel. They feel connections across the broad expanse of time, they feel a deep sense of being seen for the first time, they feel that there could have been more done to include them, they feel connected to the mess of display and the order of it and they connect with the most mundane objects to the most extraordinary.
I will leave you then with my hopeful thoughts for this method in the future, particularly in light of my own fieldwork being put on hold during the on-going pandemic. I believe this method can be utilised to get participants to queer ‘non-queer’ spaces in museums. A possible outcome of this then could be the development of an exhibition of the photographs produced within museums themselves. This would help emphasise the lack of permanent displays of queerness, the ephemeral nature of queer source material, and the production of queer re/presentation.
Hannah Ayres is a third year PhD student in the department of Sociology at the University of Warwick. She researches queer re/presentation in museums and how queer individuals create, critique, and internalise these re/presentations. As well as this work, she also is the co-convenor of queer/disrupt. She is broadly interested in queer history; public history; queer theory; memory studies; visual sociology; gender and social theory.