Book Review: Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites

22 Apr 2016 - 12:00

Honours in Curatorship student Marc Smith reviews a new acquisition to the Hiddingh Hall Library, Susan Ferentinos’ Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites (2015) 

In a world where it appears that dominant culture is progressively giving greater acknowledgement to queer and LGBT experiences, Susan Ferentinos’ Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historical Sites presents an essential guideline to the interpretation of a varied and multifaceted field of study, rich in its histories, people and experiences. Attempting to provide a “starting point for museums and historical sites interested in interpreting LGBT history” (p. 3), Ferentinos succeeds in her endeavour and, consequently, puts together an enlightening publication on the art of interpretation at a time when demands for texts, such as Interpreting LGBT History, are mounting. The fairly recent and historic ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States on Friday 26 June 2015, which guarantees the recognition of same-sex marriage across the country for all citizens, has certainly propelled LGBT issues into the mainstream. This is but one instance of LGBT history which will surely call for interpretation, and despite Ferentinos’ book being published prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling, Interpreting LGBT History may well come to serve and guide those who wish to interpret this event, and other events prior or subsequent to it, within the spaces of an exhibition, museum or historical site.

Comprising of three parts, Interpreting LGBT History sets off by providing the reader with a clear introduction, which neatly clarifies and outlines the approach taken by Ferentinos. Herein, Ferentinos advocates why she believes it to be important for organisations to interpret LGBT history, despite the challenges it might present. Worthy of commendation is the author’s thorough explanation of and motivation behind the terminology she employs throughout her writing, a necessary undertaking when discussing a topic lacking universally agreed upon terms given the scope of gender expression and sexuality that exist within society. Words have power, a point Ferentinos is attentively aware of. Holding both a PhD in US History, focused on the history of gender and sexuality, and a Master of Library Science, with an emphasis on special collections, both from Indiana University, Ferentinos’ research, writing, teaching and involvement in various historical projects, alongside her same-sex partnership, affords her voice an air of authority and sensibility.

Convincing, comprehensive and sensitive in its argument and presentation, the publication’s guidelines and broad historical overview is particularly effective as one of the first monographs concerned with and aimed at introducing individuals to the subject of LGBT history in settings such as a museum. A historical overview of gay, lesbian and transgender histories, as well as an overview of the development of gender and sexuality within the context of the US, can be found in the book’s second section. It broadly explores periods ranging from colonisation in the US through to the early decades of the twenty-first century. Ferentinos’ accounts continuously serve to illustrate that the experiences constituting LGBT history are not, and were not, ever uniform. Rather, they are affected by varying racial, class and gender differences. Contextualising these experiences and histories is thus of paramount importance because, at the end of the day, a “single, monolithic LGBT community does not exist” (p. 162).

The book’s third and final component contains an examination of current trends of LGBT historical interpretation, such as mining museum collections and archives through a queer and LGBT orientated perspective. These examinations are followed by three informative case studies involving the interpretation of LGBT history, which were written by museum professionals with first-hand knowledge of the exhibitions, initiatives and sites discussed. As part of this section, the book ends off by addressing some of the aspects and issues that all museums, and similar institutions, need to consider when undertaking interpretive projects involving LGBT history. Alongside these observations, Ferentinos provides her readers with, what she calls, an “encapsulated list” (p. 161) of suggestions and recommendations regarding interpretation in this area, in an attempt to aid practitioners and future projects in avoiding the mistakes made by others who have sought to interpret LGBT histories. An informative timeline of LGBT history (which notes significant events), an ample reading list and recommended bibliography are also provided. In effect, what Ferentinos is trying to illustrate to her reader is that even though certain museums, initiatives and historical sites have taken on the challenge of interpreting LGBT history in different ways (ranging from films and exhibitions to guided site tours and LGBT history courses for high school learners) there is much more that can still be done. This is especially true of museums as they are, generally, considered to be trailing behind in this regard. As respected sites of history, museums not only have the ability to inform the greater public and various stakeholders of the lives of LGBT people who have come and gone, but also have the potential to equip these individuals with the skills required to fairly, and accurately, represent and interpret the lives of those who are still to come.

Undoubtedly, Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historical Sites is a remarkable undertaking. Some readers, nonetheless, might consider the historical overview in particular to be a hefty read, despite the book’s inability to address the entire scope of LGBT history in the US, let alone other parts of the world. A recommendation to these readers, and those already familiar with LGBT interpretation, would be to consult the Ferentinos’ final two chapters for a concise summary of key considerations. A final point worth noting is that apart from the information inked onto the pages of Interpreting LGBT History, the publication itself provides a form of inspiration beyond its margins. Not only does the book serve as an initial reference point for museum professionals, curators and relevant stakeholders interested in LGBT projects, but it will surely act as a literary role model to certain LGBT individuals, and their allies. This value resides in the case studies presented, wherein numerous accounts are given of self-identifying LGBT individuals, and their allies, who are openly employed and respected in museums, academic institutions and other historical posts. In the end, this may well inspire practicing or aspiring curators and the like to enter these spaces, fulfilling an objective that Ferentinos might not have consciously envisioned.

For those interested in reading Interpreting LGBT History, it can be found at the Hiddingh Hall library under shelf number H306 7662 0973 FERE