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BRIGHTON, UK — A humble object first catches my eye when I enter the upstairs galleries at the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery: a small cosmetics tube with a handwritten label stating, “This lipstick was from my wonderful sister who was the first family member to accept and support my transition.” In front of me are medicine cabinet mock-ups, behind are racks and racks of binders, underwear (including a sports bra bearing Genesis P-Orridge’s signature), and T-shirts with trans pride messages (for example, “Nice gender, did your mum pick it out for you?”). Down the hall is a rainbow-colored fidget spinner, a pair of slingback silver heels, a My Little Pony doll, a kippah, and a letter from the queen. The header of one of the wall texts says “Welcome Home.” This is the Museum of Transology.
The roots of the collection — curated by E-J Scott, a dress historian and LGBTIQ rights activist — lie in a project Scott was involved in to record the oral histories of a small group of trans people living in Brighton, which has long had a reputation as a haven for queer culture in the UK. That project eventually became a book, which inspired a series of art installations throughout the city during Trans Pride. One of these, a cabinet to which participants donated an object of personal significance, was installed in the corner of the Marlborough Pub, the starting point for the Trans Pride march. “It was so popular that you couldn’t get through the pub to the bar because so many people were looking in,” Scott recalled, “and I realized that was a very interesting approach.”
Inspired by the success of the pub installation, Scott decided to open up donations for a larger project. “And as soon as we did the call-out,” he said with pride, “people came out of the woodwork.” The resulting collection, dubbed the Museum of Transology, was now ready for its first long-term run at London’s Fashion Space Gallery (FSG), part of the London College of Fashion and a venue that had major implications for the shape of the exhibition. “It’s not an accredited museum space, it’s more an art space,” Scott explained, “and so there was a curatorial freedom given there because it meant that we could push boundaries.” Inclusions that might be rejected in a more traditional venue — like body parts removed and preserved after gender-affirmation surgery, Scott’s own contribution to the show — were accepted at the FSG.
The same spirit was preserved when the exhibition moved to its current home, the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. Originally slated for a one-year run, the Museum of Transology’s stay has since been extended to three years. In that time, Scott said, it’s had a major impact on museum patronage: “It’s increased footfall, it’s changed the demographic of the museum visitors because younger people are coming for the first time in a long time, it’s opened up a new queer audience,” he stated. The feedback has likewise been extremely positive: “I’ve got a whole page of comments of people who’ve said they’ve been brought to tears by the exhibition.”
When I asked Scott about how he decided what to include and what not to, he was quick to correct me: every single piece sent in is on display. “I was very clear that the collecting policy was that the trans people who had chosen to donate an object had the autonomy to make that decision,” he told me. “For too long they’d had their lives overwritten or misrepresented.” The process of weaving over 250 objects into a cohesive story — as well as convincing the museum that such a major installation would be logistically possible within the timeframe allotted — was a serious undertaking; still, Scott said, as the submissions rolled in, the objects did “start talking to each other.” Indeed, viewing the exhibition for the first time, it struck me that the kind of repetition other curators might have edited out adds a new dimension to the show: the frequency with which certain kinds of objects — binders, packers (genital prosthetics worn by transmen), dresses, hormones — creates a sense of tacit community while also compelling viewers to tease out individual differences and look closer to find the stories that set each piece apart. These stories are conveyed via tags submitted by donors and accessioned along with the items they describe “so that the voices,” Scott explained, “can never be separated from the objects.”
Such a democratic style of exhibition creation — what Scott calls “crowd-sourced collecting” — gets to the heart of his approach to curation, which both recognizes the power inherent in the construction of a narrative and subverts the kinds of exclusive, top-down curatorial decision-making that has often shut out marginalized voices. “To be erased from the walls of museums, to not see yourself on the walls of museum, is to be rendered historically homeless, is to be told your life’s not worth remembering,” he said. “It should be an obligation that museums that engage with their trans communities start collecting from their trans communities to halt this erasure of trans lives.”
But the museum sector’s trans representation problem isn’t confined to the content of display cases and chat labels — it’s also present in the makeup of many museum staffs. The paucity of trans professionals in the heritage and museum sector, Scott argues, accounts in part for the fact that the last few decades’ major strides in trans awareness, acceptance, and recognition are not reflected in the collections of most cultural institutions. “We didn’t see a response from museums to collect and save this moment in time,” he said, meaning that without deliberate interventions, “the only evidence we would have of what we would refer to as the trans tipping point in a century’s time would be evidence that is based on the media’s spectacularization of trans lives or the medical and criminal institutions that medicalize and criminalize trans lives.”
With its focus on the quotidian, the Museum of Transology is in many ways the antithesis of the media spectacle Scott so criticizes: simple objects like train tickets, socks, and swimming goggles are offered up as portals into affecting personal histories. Having a trans person at the exhibition’s helm engenders a high level of trust between the curator and the donors, as evidenced by the emotional openness of the labels. “After a few months I started to recognize myself,” says one attached to a packet of hormones; another, on a painful chest binder, states: “This thing didn’t just crush me, it crushed my soul.”
Scott is still trying to figure out the next steps for the Museum of Transology once it comes to a close in Brighton this December. After three years on display in Brighton, the collection’s more delicate objects — which include paper, textiles, latex, and even human remains — may require time in storage to be preserved for generations to come. On the other hand, Scott feels very strongly that the social importance of the collection demands that it tour and expand. As he spoke about weighing conservation exigencies against social needs, what came through strongly was a deep sense of duty toward the individuals who had entrusted their memories to him in the first place. “It was a different time and place when we began building [the collection] in 2014 — the people who gave these precious objects were brave […] What this collection exposed is that there was already a culture within the trans community of people collecting and saving their own material culture to represent their lives — if museums don’t do it, that doesn’t mean that people don’t.”
The Museum of Transology continues at the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery (Royal Pavilion Gardens, Brighton, UK) through October 2019.