31 July 2019

CURATORIAL DREAMING: A MUSEUM QUEERIES WORKSHOP



This past week, I was lucky enough to be able to go to Winnipeg for a workshop organized by the University of Winnipeg based Museum Queeries. Museum Queeries describes itself as an “interdisciplinary research project” with the aim to “challenge normative formations including white privilege, racism, and settler colonialism, among other systems of oppression, as they operate alongside and with transphobia and homophobia.” As a matter of transparency, it is important to note that the University of Winnipeg covered my travel expenses to help me be a part of the workshop. CORRECTION: It was Museum Queeries who paid for my expenses, not the University of Winnipeg.
Some members of Museum Queeries looking out at the Nonsuch in the Manitoba Museum. Photo courtesy of Lauren Bosc.

The workshop was based upon the “Curatorial Dreaming” model put forward by Shelley Ruth Butler and Erica Lehrer. The concept says that, while academics are quick to criticize an exhibition, it is often a lot more difficult to propose solutions. Therefore, it proposes dreaming imaginary exhibitions. As part of this workshop, the group visited both the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and the Manitoba Museum. We would then discuss ways that the labels, displays and exhibitions could be queeried.
Museum Queeries members on the Pride Tour, at the "Taking the Cake" exhibit on gay marriage. Photo courtesy of Amelia Smith.

The two museums differed greatly from each other. At the CMHR, we went on their Pride Tour, a specifically LGBT focused tour offered usually only during Pride Month. The tour brought out queer stories that were scattered around the museum. As a piece of programming, it is a fantastic alternative to the usual curatorial decisions regarding queer content, but at only 75 minutes, the choices made as to what not to include are telling (the lack of any discussion on the Toronto Bathhouse Raids especially so).

Whereas the CMHR had some, at times problematic, queer content, the Manitoba Museum had none. The Manitoba Museum is a more traditional encyclopedic museum that tells the history of Manitoba. This ranges from the environment of the province, to the many Indigenous groups that lived there, to the colonial activities such as the fur trade. Unfortunately, aside from some camp labels, there was nothing that spoke to the queer history of Manitoba.
Members of Museum Queeries at the Manitoba Museum being shown pelts and animal remains. Photo courtesy of Lauren Bosc.


The different approaches to queer content between the two institutions created equally different discussions on how to queery them. For the CMHR, the discussions centred around reworking what was already there, adapting the framework that already existed. This took the form of focusing upon labels and sometimes adding new dimensions to the exhibits that were not already there. This proved to be challenging in places, as the limitations of labels often hampered the amount of information that could be included.
The results of the discussions that came out of the CMHR visit. Photo courtesy of Amelia Smith.



The lack of content with the Manitoba Museum allowed for more flexibility in imagining a more queer museum. By having nothing, the museum unknowingly allowed us to focus on reshaping what content already existed. As a result, the discussions were much more diverse in the topics they touched on. One topic that was particularly interesting was the imagining of a brothel in the reconstruction of 1920s Winnipeg. This would have provided a look into the world of sex work in the 1920s as well as a conversation around how the police violence that the sex workers were frequently exposed to. This was but one of the reimaginings that participants created out of the Manitoba Museum.
The results of the discussions after the Manitoba Museum. Photo courtesy of Amelia Smith.


The workshop, in my opinion, was a success. It challenged us to think in new ways about the exhibitions and displays that we saw. The discussions that arose out of the museum visits provided unique insights into curatorial process. It also offered an opportunity to apply a critical queer lens to museums that usually are overlooked.
The members of Museum Queeries in the entrance to the Manitoba Museum. Photo courtesy of Lauren Bosc.


I would like to express my sincere thanks to Angela Failler, Heather Milne, Lauren Bosc and Nicole Ritchie for organizing the workshop and for helping me to get out to Winnipeg for it. Had it not been for them, I would not have had the opportunity to experience the workshop and hear from others interested in queering museums.

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