LGBTQIA History in Museums

The best practices for collecting  and exhibiting LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, Asexual) history in museums are still under discussion. To be truly inclusive, the LGBTQIA members of your community should be reflected in your museum’s programs, just like other groups and other members. While the best ways to represent your community are best formulated in conversation with your community, the following resources provide a general guide for some questions that you may have about making your museum welcoming to visitors of all orientations and gender identities.

Language and Terminology

The evolving nature of preferred language can make writing about LGBTQIA history in exhibitions challenging. The links below offer different glossaries and recommendations for the currently-accepted and correct terminology and symbols.

In 2015, the Swedish Exhibition Agency compiled a reporttitled “Museums and LGBTQ: An Analysis of How Museums and Other Exhibitors Can Highlight Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Perspectives” which discusses the issues of terminology and provides a glossary of some terms. 

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) provides a comprehensive glossary of accepted terminology for LGBTQIA identities, as does the American Psychological Association.

More glossaries are available at the National LGBT Health Education Centera division of the Fenway Institute, and the University of Southern California LGBT Resource Center, among others.

Additionally, the non-profit, One Love, All Equal provides a glossary of terms in addition to an explanation of the various flags used by different identities within the LGBTQIA spectrum.

Each of these glossaries offer unique additions to the lexicon of LGBTQIA exhibitions, and occasionally they may have conflicting viewpoints on the usage of these emerging terms. When questioning the language you’re using, the most reliable resource you have is your community!

Collecting

Deciding how to collect for LGBTQIA histories can be challenging. The most traditional items associated with this community are letters, diaries, and other texts that are typically within the scope of libraries and archives. However, other artifacts, from items of dress to valued personal possessions, are important as ways to represent LGBTQIA people in your three-dimensional collections.  

In 2007, Darryl McIntyre published an article in the International Journal of Art & Design Education titled “What to Collect? Museums and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Collecting” which outlines what sort of physical objects museums can collect within their community or out, using examples of what museums have begun collecting and exhibiting for LGBTQIA-specific exhibits.

Another useful article, “What makes an object queer? Collecting and exhibiting LGBT stories in regional museums and archives,” by Jessie Lymn and Sam Leah offers both ways to look at objects as LGBTQIA as well as what physical objects can be considered as part of Queer collections.

Additionally, another resource is simply LGBT museums, or museums that heavily feature LGBTQIA histories, globally. The GLBT Museum in San Francisco, California, the Schwules Museum in Berlin, Germany, the National Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame, located in the Center on Halstead in Chicago, Illinois, or the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay & Lesbian Art in New York, New York are also good sources of information and examples to which your institution can look.

These institutions provide examples of ways in which your museum can begin collecting for LGBTQIA histories, or exhibit what has already been collected.

It is important to note that not all LGBTQIA people interact with museums the same way. Other aspects of  identity — gender, race, ethnicity, or economic status — can impact how they visit your museum. Because of this, we encourage you to explore the other pages of our Museums for All initiative to learn more.