Where is the Queer? A case study of LGBTQ representation in Aotearoa New Zealand exhibitions
Modern museums and galleries are cultural spaces that often participate in human rights advocacy and social activism. Exhibitions within these spaces are the physical manifestations of these ideologies, the way that institutions connect with their audiences and with the communities they purport to represent. ‘Where is the Queer?’ explores the ways that museums and galleries in Aotearoa represent queerness within their exhibitions, in various stages of the development process. This dissertation addresses a key gap in the literature by critically re-engaging with queerness, exploring the intersections between queer theory and museum theory in an area under-examined in New Zealand practice. This research was exploratory in nature, utilizing a credible multi-method case study approach to retrieve data from an ephemeral process, exhibition production. Archival documentary research provided the necessary background to the exhibitions’ development, as well as supporting evidence for various curatorial choices. Interviews with curators then established key areas of interest, including curatorial strategies, conceptual goals, tailored public programming, and their perspectives on issues with LGBTQ representation. The findings of this research show that exhibiting queerness is difficult terrain to negotiate, although museums and galleries generally aim to present and include a diversity of perspectives in a balanced way. However, the ways that queerness is represented also tend to rely on now outdated ideologies, such as an emphasis on gay men’s perspectives, reductive ‘coming-out’ narratives, and a neutral stance on the messages the exhibitions put forward. The comparative analysis of the cases points to the need for museums and galleries to engage more critically with queer history, theory and the community more broadly. In practice, this means greater levels of collaboration with the communities they hope to serve, taking a more activist approach that gives authority to queer voices throughout development. This is significant as queer communities become increasingly visible and celebrated in New Zealand society; representing these communities in public spaces needs to be a process in line with current ideas and not rely on defunct, overly simple, or potentially damaging modes of representation. This research therefore has applicability for both museum curatorial practice and a broader human rights movement, by challenging the sector within New Zealand and internationally to engage effectively with queer content.