Transcripts: Queer(y)ing Museums: Amelia Smith
In the second episode of Queer(y)ing Museums, BCMA’s Desirée Hall and Tanya Pacholok chat with Amelia Smith, a transgender lesbian emerging museum professional who holds a Master of Museum Studies from the University of Toronto.
In this episode, Amelia shares with us about her approaches to exhibition design and community engagement; how cisgender privilege shows up in museum spaces and in how we talk about trans histories; thinking about audience engagement and who we are designing exhibits for, and more.
Amelia’s work seeks to bridge the gap between transgender studies and queer museology. Upon finding little addressing this topic, she took it upon herself to create it. Her website “Not Your Average Cistory” has grown into a home for exploring the various ways that museums can be viewed through a transgender lens. Check it out here: http://www.notyouraveragecistory.com/
You can also find Amelia on Twitter: @NTURAvrgCistory
If you would like to take action against the anti-trans bills that Amelia mentions in this episode, the American Civil Liberties Union is doing great work to fight for the rights, health, safety, and wellbeing of trans people in the midst of ongoing anti-trans legislation: https://www.aclu.org/issues/lgbtq-rights/transgender-rights
In this episode, Amelia shares with us about her approaches to exhibition design and community engagement; how cisgender privilege shows up in museum spaces and in how we talk about trans histories; thinking about audience engagement and who we are designing exhibits for, and more.
TP: Welcome to querying museums, a gender and sexuality inclusion podcast. My name is Tanya
DH: I’m Desirée so we’re so excited to have Amelia Smith to join us on this episode.
Amelia is a transgender lesbian museum professional. Her work seeks to bridge the gap between transgender studies and queer museology.
TP: Amelia holds a Master of Museum Studies from the University of Toronto, and is the creator of Not Your Average Cistory, a home for exploring the various ways that museums can be viewed through transgender lens.
AS: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
DH: We are so glad that you’re here. Before we begin, did you want to introduce yourself and how you’re doing in this moment and maybe where you’re located?
AS: So like you said, I’m Amelia Smith. I explore the ways that, trans studies and museum studies can overlap and, what the two can learn from each other.
This began during my master’s, I was just very interested in what had been written about trans museums and trans exhibitions, and I really wasn’t able to find anything. So I decided to write it myself. I am currently located in Toronto, and I don’t know I’m doing all right. It feels like another day in the pandemic. I guess
DH: I feel that.
TP: Yeah. And that’s such an important gap that you’re filling. So thank you for all the work that you’re doing. It’s so important. So I guess we were curious to start off. You were recently hired by the transgender archives to design a digital exhibition. And we’re wondering if you would like to introduce that project?
AS: Certainly. So I was hired by the trans archives at the University of Victoria. Back in, I believe it was September that they offered me it and I started. The project was building upon a collection of oral histories that have been conducted with trans elders; around 20 or so interviews. And these folks had been involved in activism and things of that nature for, decades, some of them.
This project was really to bring them together. And then I was brought on to create an exhibition that could highlight the stories, could launch at the same time as the oral histories were watched. And early on in that I went through all of them, which was a very time consuming process, but it was very insightful.
Early on in going through them, I hit on the theme of information. It felt very important as a way of communicating, getting information out there and spreading it. It felt very central and I roughly knew what was available at the trans archives. So I could pull upon that thread as needed.
And then I was able to spend a couple months in Victoria at the university, just diving into the collection. The trans archives is the largest collection of trans materials in the world. And it’s got a very robust, very extensive collection. It was incredibly rewarding to actually get my hands on things, to explore it and just sort of piece together, a story out of that, around this idea of information of sharing, and connecting and communicating, cause that really ran through a lot of these oral histories and it could be felt in a lot of the publications that were made.
One of the highlights was, there was an episode of the Phil Donahue show from January, 1980, with cross-dresser Ariadne Kane. And this was mentioned in one of the interviews. It had a paper trail, but for all intents and purposes, it was lost media. There was no references to it online, aside from a couple of mentions on the digital transgender archives, much less any footage, but there were copies in the collection.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t on a very prominent material or format, it was u-matic, which I had never heard of before. We ended up getting that shipped out to Toronto, to be digitized, basically the only way to actually get a hold of it. And we got it back. And it’s incredible just seeing this material that likely has not been seen in over 40 years, and things like that is so rewarding, finding these things and being able to piece them together to tell a cohesive story, especially from a group that is so often ignored in the archive. So often forgotten about if not intentionally erased, to be able to bring some of that to life and to revive it, was an absolutely rewarding experience.
DH: Yeah. That’s amazing. You know, so much of the time with marginalized communities, there’s this idea that the information isn’t out there and yeah, as you’re saying, things get intentionally erased and lost and yet there are these glimmers of material. I just, I think it’s a bit of a pushback to that idea that these stories are totally lost.
TP: Yeah, it’s, it sounds amazing and such a cool journey of discovering all of that and bringing it out as well. I was curious if you could share with us what u-matic is. Cause I also don’t know what that was
AS: So u-matic is a format that was popular in, I guess film and television as like an industry standard. It was a big clunky, tape that completely enclosed similar to a, like a VHS or a beta max, but a lot bigger.
Maybe about half the width of a regular keyboard. Ariadne would have gotten one as a participant on the show. And it’s very clear from the collection at the university that she collected all of her TV appearances. There’s one on film from, I think, 1976 with Virginia Prince, which is that one, something to watch. I have no idea what, what it looks like, but Virginia Prince is another, exhibition focuses on her for a bit because the, trans archives has a lot of her things as well.
But yeah, u-matic was really not so much of a commercial product, but far more industry wide.
TP: Cool. Thanks for sharing that and helping us visualize.
DH: Yeah, I’ve never heard of that word at all.
AS: I hadn’t either. It was completely new to me. I was digging around for this, I was searching all over the internet and I didn’t even have the date. I didn’t even know when the show aired. I knew it aired in 1980, but didn’t even have like January. So like to have it come to an end, it’d be like, I have it in my hand, but there’s no way to watch it was painful.
DH: Absolutely. So, talking about digital exhibitions, I was reading through your blog and I noticed your post about digital exhibition design. And yeah, I really loved the conversation you bring up around digital exhibitions being designed in the same way that brick and mortar ones are, or typically have historically been designed. And yeah, this pressure that one can feel in physical spaces to read quickly, cause you’re holding up the line.
And just that you say that those pressures shape the text hierarchies. And so, yeah, I really noted that because I think too, that it speaks to issues of access. I just wondered if you might want to expand on this conversation a little bit with how you approached the design of the digital exhibition.
AS: Certainly. So that conversation was with one of the professors of masters in museum studies program, John Summers, and when I was hired on for this exhibition, I wanted to explore some ways of doing digital exhibits. I had previously released one on trans surgeries it’s currently up on my website.
And when that one shifted to digital, I was thinking about an overthinking really about the medium as it presents itself. I found that a lot of the digital exhibits that I was coming across are just 3d recreations of whatever the museum exhibit was. It would be just taking exactly what you saw, maybe multiple photographs and like a 3d space and just put together so that you can walk through it.
To me, that felt insufficient because there were all of these pressures, like you’ve mentioned of wanting to keep going. And these things have influenced how we have worked on how we have written text, because it’s a common understanding that people don’t read in museums. You only have so much space to actually write,
which is often smaller than you might think, if you’re not familiar. And so I really wanted to explore that with that conversation with John Summers. He had a different perspective, which I found very fascinating that the other side of digital exhibits are basically, they are completely unrecognizable from a blog posts.
They are essentially a scroll read next page, scroll read next page. And that to him was not taking advantage of the full media. So we both kind of had this idea that there’s more than can be done here.
That we just were not being seen done. So that conversation was really fascinating in that way. For this exhibition with the trans archives, the issue at hand, one of the issues was that the program that the university of Victoria uses does lean into that more blog posts, style, exhibit design.
And so I had to, while working within these constraints, really try to find a way to make it feel more of like an exhibition. And one of the ways that I did that and that I hope really comes through when the exhibition launches is I developed a way of navigating it differently. So instead of there being just, okay, here’s the next page and then here’s the next page.
And then here’s the next page. I want it to be more open-ended okay. You want to follow Ariadne Kane? Well, okay. Here is her work with Fantasia Fair or here is her work with, on the Phil Donahue show. So you could go and skip whole sections if you wanted to, because that was available, it freed it up for the visitor to do as they felt. I’m really hopeful that that works out and that. It makes it more effective. It’s still, both Summers and I, are trying to think for digital exhibits further. And there’s a lot to come, but working within these limitations has also been enlightening and it’s offered room to grow room to experiment.
And that’s always important because I think the medium of digital exhibits is still fairly new. And so where things go is still to be seen.
DH: Yeah. And in a way, like having to work within those constraints sometimes can birth creativity, you know, although nice to be able to start from a blank slate and not have to have those constraints I’m sure. And I would imagine too, that that’s set up would be really helpful for like neurodivergent folks and just really being able to come to the exhibition, and getting out of it, what they kind of need in the moment or, yeah.
TP: Yeah. That sounds like a tailored experience to each visitor.
AS: Trying to at least. Recognizing how people will navigate it is always important. And that’s both in physically, how does it look on a phone versus a computer?
AS: On another part of the digital though, one of the things that I decided on very early was around social media. In preparation for the position while I was still in Toronto before moving out, I was reading, Nina Simon’s, the participatory museum.
And I was trying to think of how it could engage audiences to be involved in some way. And what I really came to was this idea of basically getting the trans community involved. This exhibition is all about, going from the small individual to a community, and growing at each step. And one of the questions that was asked in the oral histories was “when did you first feel like you weren’t alone?” which is a great question.
And so I thought to use that and to ask trans people to ask people on social media, because it’s not so good to just have a part on the exhibition and to say, okay, put your text in here and it’ll go up. And it’s sort of a separate thing. I always wanted it to be part of the exhibition itself, and integrated from the very beginning.
And this makes a good ending to the exhibition asking, well, what are your stories? And putting them alongside the elders who were interviewed to say, when did you first feel that? And then you can feel a connection. It can also serve as a, part of, promotional materials. And that’s really guided a lot of things that I’ve tried to work with it, especially around the name, which has not yet been chosen, but hoping to have one that can very easily, very effectively be shared as a hashtag and then be put up onto the exhibition itself.
DH: That’s beautiful. You made me tear up a little bit. I just think that’s such a beautiful way to engage people. Yeah.
TP: Yeah. I love that too. So I guess that leads us to our next question about engagement and, that’s a beautiful example of engaging with 2SLGBTQIA plus communities and artists. but we are wondering what sort of advice you might have for other museums or galleries or institutions wanting to better engage with communities and artists and curators?
AS: I really think that engaging with the communities needs to be done authentically for one, and recognizing where the communities are with where they’re coming from. It’s not so good to just think of, okay, we’re going to go in and we’re going to do all of these things for them, and they’ll be so grateful that they’ll want to put on exhibition.
It should be the natural results of a collaboration. And to build up those connections. It’s not so good to just have that exhibition, have something go on and then just great. We’re done. That’s not efficient. That’s not effective. I think that one of the best examples is the Royal Ontario museum, a few, a number of years ago, I believe 2017.
They did an exhibition on Edo era, Japan that had some trans similarities to it. And in, in doing that, they changed a lot within the museum, including having a. Very good gender neutral washroom, multis, multi stalls, just completely not gendered.
They actually went and changed things. So I think that just, it needs to be recognized that exhibitions, especially temporary exhibitions is not just enough. And also recognizing that just because something is queer does not mean that it fits everything within the LGBTQ. If you have something that’s really just about gay men that is not satisfying the whole community.
And so to actually be diverse in that and they content put on is of the utmost importance.
TP: Yeah, thank you for all those points of the intersecting, oppressions and accompanying with action. And all of that relationship building. Those are all, some really, really key points. And in, in one of your recent blog posts, too, you talked about sort of this framing of audience engagement and thinking about who we’re curating our content for.
And, you talked about the difference between, are we curating content for cisgender outsiders or compared to when we’re recognizing that the audience is for trans people? So I was wondering if you could talk about that and how might this affect the approach of a museum or an institution wanting to, engage with LGBT communities and what advice you’d have navigating engagement with audience?
AS: Yeah. So there was an exhibition that I saw it was being displayed at my university during my first year of my master’s. It was on trans pornographies. It was just a very small exhibition, one vitrine, one display case and a wall.
And I’ve not against the idea of an exhibition on trans pornography. It is a fascinating subject to talk about. There are so many ways to attack it. There are so many ways to discuss the ways that, trans pornography has impacted trans people’s lives. And this exhibition felt like it was just saying, hey look, trans pornography exists.
It was really, really disappointing. And the more that I looked at, the more that I thought about. The more annoyed I got because here’s this thing that had impacted my life in some way. And it was not interested in giving a voice to someone like me.
It was not interested in giving a voice to the trans sex workers that were being displayed. It tried to do too many things, but it’s consideration for a trans audience was basically, will they get offended? And that’s not really enough.
When doing anything regarding a trans audience, you should really consider what they’re supposed to get out of it because trans people are so rarely visible in museum spaces. You really need to read between the lines or, know how things are coded to really get that. And even then it’s minimal.
That exhibition really imprinted on me and it’s made me think a lot on how do we talk? How do we make sure that trans people can speak for themselves? That they are not just the subject, but they are involved in the process. when it came time to do my exhibition for my masters, I was asked a question by someone like whether I would consider including.
A discussion on trans existence basically. And it never even occurred to me because we’re doing an exhibition on trans people on trans history. That’s just a given that trans people exist. And so that really became part of the foundation of this whole theory, my whole work that if I’m talking about trans people, it should be for trans people and in doing so, it should not even open the door to a conversation where well do trans people exist because then that’s failing that target audience.
Additionally, I found this echoed in Dr. Chase Joynt’s film, Framing Agnes. Because that film was very much designed and written for trans people. And the result of that was such a rewarding, such an such a challenging and fascinating film that spoke to facets of trans life that
we don’t need to go into the weeds to discuss, oh yes, this is this person they’ve been out for this long. You can just start discussing these ideas around, visibility and being out and be able to contrast things so fascinatingly, and that’s really, I think, such an important thing. Being able to talk to these audiences directly.
Without having to translate it because something is always going to be lost during the translation. And so if you’re actually trying to talk to the community that’s being discussed it, behooves you to speak to them and to really, really lean into it.
DH: I was just thinking about Framing Agnes too. And I guess for listeners, Framing Agnes is a film by Dr. Chase Joynt which recently premiered at Sundance. Dr. Joynt is a professor up at the gender studies department at the university of Victoria. And just to read the log line. After discovering case files from a 1950s gender clinic.
A cast of trans actors turn a talk show inside- out to confront the legacy of a young trans woman, Agnes, who’s forced to choose between honesty and access. The film is in part, a product of archival research done by Dr. Joynt and Kristen Schilt who found Agnes is file in Harold Garfinckel’s private archives at UCLA. In a rusted filing cabinet that they had to use a crowbar to open. I’ll put a link in the description. So folks can find out more and know what we’re talking about.
AS: Yeah. I have to restrain myself because I feel like I could just go on for hours about Framing Agnes, cause there was just so much lovely stuff in that film. but even in that stopping and starting a fashion, it still was enough to make me tear up a bit at the end to feel like I was actually seeing something that spoke to me in a way that I really hadn’t felt before. Framing Agnes really felt like it was trying to say something more and say something to the trans community and I really felt like that really came through in such strong ways in the film. Yeah.
TP: That makes a lot of sense.
DH: Well, and I guess this kind of segues well into our last question. Again, going back to your blog post, about how do we talk about trans history, transgender history, and, yeah, I guess I’m wondering if you’d want to share some of your thoughts on how cisgender privilege, I mean, we’ve touched on this, I think maybe a little bit already, but how cisgender privilege shows up in history and the museum and how folks might challenge that? Or any other thoughts you might have on that?
AS: Yeah. Cisgender privilege pops up all the time. one are the main ways that I see it happening is very similar to I’m sure a lot of queer people will be familiar with the phrase gal, pals, uh, this idea that, no, they weren’t lovers.
They were just very good friends. We can’t know for certain, because they didn’t say that’s basically what it comes down to. There’s no evidence to say that they were, and this is really what run through a lot of the cisgender privilege, in collections. Well, we can’t say for certain that he was trans, so we’re going to use they them pronouns or just ignore it.
I think a prime example, the one that I keep using and I used in that blog post is Dr. James Barry. Dr. Barry was a British medical officer. Served around the world. Famously he was the first doctor to perform a caesarean and section in which both parent and child survived.
And upon his death, it was discovered that he was assigned female at birth. This is in the 19th century, before the idea of transgender, as we know it today. And as a result of this discovery, he has been interpreted a lot as a woman because, oh, we don’t know why he wore men’s clothes, why he took on a male persona for his entire life.
And this comes in two forms. This uncertainty. It’s seen in both denying him at the heart of it is it’s denying him a male identity and saying, we don’t know that he did it because he was transgender. we don’t know that it was because women couldn’t join the military women could enjoy couldn’t go to medical school.
So there’s uncertainty there. However, in denying him his male identity, in denying that he lived as a man for the vast majority of his life, even beyond retirement. It’s saying that identity matters the most it’s saying that we cannot know for certain, therefore we cannot recognize him as he lived.
And this comes in the form of two main ways, either using she/ her pronouns for him and saying that he was a woman outright, mis-gendering him, or saying, well, we don’t know, therefore we’re not gonna use it either. He/ him or she/ her, we’re going to use they them pronouns. And that’s just to me, that is just as bad.
It is refusing him the life that he lived all under this pretense of admitting uncertainty, which is a very important principle within museum writing. It’s one of the rules for the VMA, for the BNA, and their texts writing document.
And it really shows how privilege can distort. Because the assumption then is that yes, he was living as a man because he couldn’t do what he wanted as a woman. And it was all just a facade. It was all just a trick, which is, I hope I don’t need to go into the long transphobic history of facades and transitioning to deceive.
And I think that’s just one way that we can really see this privilege coming through. It’s not impossible to still reject, to still recognize uncertainty in those histories. I think that author Claire Sears does it very well in arresting dress all about cross-dressing in San Francisco, in the 19th century where she brings together histories of migrants. And cross-dressers what we would now say are trans people, disabled folks, women and bring them all together under this umbrella of cross dressing and saying they might not necessarily be trans, but they did live a trans experience. They lived a trans life. And just recognizing that, that potential is there, I think is essential to breaking down the privilege that exists.
DH: Yeah. That’s so true. And just, to me as you were talking, I thought about how using they/ them pronouns is just as bad and even, you know, more insidious too, because. It’s almost a guise of inclusivity.
AS: It’s a major guise. I’ve seen it be purported in prideful ways for Dr. James Barry, who to be clear. James Barry is trans. He wished to be buried in his bedsheets without being examined. It’s very clear that what he lived through was a trans life. And so to say of one of the biggest examples of a trans person in history to say, no, no, no, we can’t trust that. Therefore we’re going to use they/them is just, it is disappointing at the greatest level.
DH: Just as you were describing that too, it also just brings up like, as we’re talking about cis privilege, but cisnormativity, encompassed within that, like, why is that the default. It just is kind of baffling that people will find a way to twist things into cisnormativity.
AS: There’s a great article by Mary Weissman top in the transgender studies reader volume, two called toward a transgender archeology. And in it, she really goes after this idea, this, cisnormativity where assumptions will just be made of the past, looking at archeology and just assuming that the family structure is the same as what we have today and that barely ever going questioned. And yeah, like this sort of work, this sort of unravelling of privilege is necessary because those assumptions have been so baked into everything we do that once you start unravelling that it reveals more and more and more.
TP: Do you have any final comments that you’d maybe like to share about, visions or, or hopes for the future of the museum gallery heritage sector?
AS: I definitely like to see more done by the glam sector. I think that for one thing, we’re in a very precarious moment where trans existence is threatened. Texas, for example, has been threatening to investigate parents of trans kids simply for affirming their gender. And this has not been addressed nearly as often as it should be, because this is bad. I cannot stress that enough, that this is a bad, awful things going on for the amount of attention that Florida’s, don’t say gay bill has gotten is shocking and disappointing. That things like Texas and elsewhere are not getting seen. There were about 200 anti-trans bills introduced in the U S in the last year. And these things are not going to stay in the US. Museums, have the opportunity to get ahead of the game and play a role in helping trans people actually be able to live their lives.
So I’d like to see that. I don’t have much hope that I will, unfortunately. But I’ve got some, I guess. Additionally, I’d like to see a trans and museum field really be taken on its own, somewhat separate, but also connected to queer because I feel like oftentimes trans just gets read under a queer lens and not really given the space to speak for itself.
I would say that those are the two main things that I hope to see from the field. Both more activism, more advocacy and reflections on where trans people exist in museum spaces.
DH: I think that’s such an important point. Just the power of the museum to help push back against some of these things that are happening. Right.
TP: Thank you so much, Amelia for taking the time today and for sharing all of your experience and your insights. We’ve been really grateful to have you on today and we’ll link, Amelia’s blog portfolio and digital exhibitions that you do have on your blog.
On www dot, not your average cistory dot com, as well as your twitter at and N T Y R average cistory which will also be linked.
AS: Thank you very much for having me.