Jeremy Eaton: I'm so thrilled to have the opportunity to talk about your 2003 project The Gay Museum, shown at the Museum of Western Australia. In recent years there has been a proliferation of exhibitions that speak to queer history, and The Gay Museum, which was shown nearly twenty years ago has become an important precedent for how people navigate queer history in institutional contexts. Your project was cited in QUEER: Stores from the NGV exhibition catalogue by Maura Riley and the 2020 publication Queering the Museum by Nikki Sullivan and Craig Middleton, where it was a central case study. It is remarkable to think how strategies you were using twenty years ago are only now being adopted by institutions and cited in academic contexts.
Jo Darbyshire: I'm thrilled that there are more exhibitions about queer, gay and lesbian history now. But it is even more exciting that QUEER at the NGV employed some strategies from the visual arts, which arose from projects like mine. These strategies open-up discussions and allow institutions to be critical of their own curatorial strategies. I think that is important when considering the omission of LGBT+ history from their collections and past exhibitions. It was equally important to me twenty years ago to do research into gay and lesbian history in WA, but also to critique the museum, the way that they operated and the default assumptions that meant gay and lesbian history was just non-existent at the time.
JE: Speaking of that time, even though twenty years doesn't sound that long ago, it was a very different period for LGBT+ people, legally, socially and culturally. I wonder if you could talk about the social and political culture in WA in 2002 and 2003 and how that gave shape to The Gay Museum?
JB: Oh man, when I think about it, gay marriage was not even a concept. It was so far into the future of a wish list that there was no idea of it. We were still illegal in WA around that time. We had a very conservative government over here and had about twenty-five years of the Court family—Margaret Court, Richard Court and Charles Court—impeding gay and lesbian rights in many ways. But in 1996, even though we had this incredibly conservative government, we also had an amazing opportunity. The balance of power was held by the Greens and the Democrats, and we also had the first openly lesbian politician Giz Watson. She pushed forward Gay Law Reform and so in February 2002 we finally got rid of the final pieces of legal discrimination.
It seems so easy now, but at that time government institutions in WA, like the Art Gallery and the Museum, could not legally put on exhibitions that were seen to 'promote gay and lesbian lifestyles', so it was extremely hard to even have an exhibition or talk about these experiences in an institutional context. So, as soon as we got the Reform in 2002, it allowed people like me to say, ‘I want to do something in the Museum.’
I was really influenced by other artists who had worked in different institutions. And the main one was Joseph Kosuth, who did an amazing exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum about censorship. He went into that museum with visual art strategies to make whole new meanings about censored objects. And I was very inspired by that. I was also inspired by Peter Emmett at the Museum of Sydney and his work with artists there, particularly Narelle Jubelin. There was also a work by Brook Andrew, at the Australian Museum. His show Menthen...queue here! (1999) at Djamu Gallery was an incredible show and engaged with the way Aboriginal objects were stored in museums, completely changing the way that cultural objects could be presented. There were a few museums that allowed artists in to work as curators, not to just work as artists. That was very inspirational to me, so I approached the WA Museum and there were a few barriers at the time. They were very suspicious of artists and they said ‘you can only come and do this if you are a student and you have a supervisor at Uni’. In a way, some of the impediments they put in place helped me make a better exhibition. Artists love to know what the rules are so that we can break them, not just for the sake of being controversial, but to open-up other meanings.
I went to the Cultural Heritage Unit, at Curtin Uni, which operated at that time under an amazing man, Professor David Dolan (dec.) and an amazing woman, Andrea Witcomb who is now at Deakin University. They were dying for an opportunity to use new museological processes at the WA museum. They helped me, gave me a lot of valuable background information and the courage to go for it, with the caveat that I need to do it in a way that was respectful of the museum and the museum’s culture. Also, within the museum I was lucky to have two people that I could not have done without, Mat Trinca who was at that time a Curator of History and Nikki King Smith who was a Conservator. Nikki was gay and said to me, 'I will help you'. Conservators at that time (and likely still) have the final say in whether objects can be used or not. So, I was very lucky that I had someone who opened the door and just said ‘yes, I will help you’.
JE: You say in the catalogue, presenting and discussing gay and lesbian history does not denigrate Western Australian history. Instead, it actually adds to the richness and texture of place by looking at the politics of sexuality that have shaped it. Even though you had assistance, it was unprecedented to stage an exhibition like this at the time and I can imagine you faced obstructions in the Museum. Not only because of the content but because you moved between an array of departments, from Natural History, Biology, Fashion, Textiles and even used marginalised objects in their holdings. What were some of the barriers that you came up against?
JD: There were people in the museum who were quite obstructionist. They didn't understand the project or think that this could bring in new audiences. There were people worried about 'family values' at the time who were asking what kind of audience would we be bringing in if we had this gay exhibition? You know, as if gay and lesbian people weren’t already coming to the museum... The idea of having an audience see themselves represented was so remote from the thinking at the time. It was very radical to say ‘hey, you're assuming your audience is hetero’, and that assumption itself guides so much of history.
I really wanted to use something from every different department. And of course, that was seen as unusual and that I should just stick to history. But I wanted to question every department and say there's gay and lesbian history embedded in every single aspect of the past. And one of the aspects of this was questioning the assumptions of biology. Surprisingly, the curators in the Biology Department (Aquatic Zoology) were incredibly open to me. The cover of The Gay Museum catalogue had these mussels, which were every artist's dream. The curator Diana Jones said to me, ‘go through, have a look at everything, choose whatever you want’. So, she was very open as opposed to some of the other curators. When I came to look at these mussels, I immediately realised that they were symbolic and very sexual. One of the oldest curators talked to me about how they were named, and many of them have the word 'vagina' in them or are named after vulvas. And so, my initial assumption that the old-fashioned curators were avoiding sexuality was wrong. They were quite open about it. It was the prudish younger generations that did not like to talk about this at the museum.
I made mistakes sometimes. You know I'd get a bit pissed off that I was being blocked, and the geology department seemed to be blocking me. I finally cornered one of the geologists in the corridor and I said ‘look, I really want something from your department, please, you must have something that I can look at’ and he said, ‘well, do you have any ideas’? And I said, ‘I've heard about something called an Igneous Dike/Dyke’, which I was interested in because I was looking at text a lot. And he laughed and said, ‘Jo, do you know what an igneous dike is?’ And I said ‘yes, it's a rock, isn't it?’ And he said, ‘it's a rock formation. We can't give you one for the exhibition because it's a huge red mountain.’ So, you know it was a learning curve for me and I had to keep a sense of humour, but I mostly got something from every department, which was fantastic in the end.
JE: It's a remarkable process that you went through, challenging and rethinking the way institutions approach objects and their display. You added into the mix creative and speculative approach to objects, through juxtapositions with text definitions and oral histories from people in the community. It is a museological approach that is still quite unusual, but was especially so in 2003. I’m curious about your process, and how narratives and their relationships to the different objects emerged, what came first, how did the project find shape?
JD: I had a lot of help from Ivan King who runs the Museum of Performing Arts (His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth), and he gave me the names of older gentleman and I did a few oral histories with these older men, which was very interesting because they were able to talk to me about what life was like in the 50s and 60s. Homosexuality was still considered vice so even at that point someone said to me ‘I can't give you the names of these people because my own community would be angry with me for doing that’. There was still a lot of protection and self-censorship going on, and I could understand that.
I had to promise a lot of people that I would be careful with their information. For example, I was really trying to find lesbians in the Defence Forces during World War II. I came across a woman, and I did a phone interview with her and that was gold. It's so difficult to get the history of lesbians. The woman still had her uniform from WWII. And I asked her if I could put that in the exhibition. One week before the exhibition opened, she rang me and said, ‘I can't give you my uniform, you have to take everything about me out of the show’. I said ‘oh, what's happened?’ And she said, ‘my son has found out that I'm part of this exhibition and has said that if I don't remove myself from it that he will never let me see my grandchildren again’. This is in 2002, right? And so, I had to remove all of that information. That was happening all the time during my research. Some people were very happy for this information to come out, yet it was still a period where it wasn't that easy for this information to become public.
I still think that research into the history of lesbians is something that really needs to be done. I notice that in the QUEER catalogue that the NGV talked about the lack of lesbian representation. They were honest about that, which was great, but what are they going to do about it? Because as each generation dies that information continues to be lost.
It was a very interesting project working with the community and bringing things from their collections into conversation with the collections of the WA Museum. But it was also very interesting at the end of the exhibition, when I said to the Museum 'do you want to collect any of this? 'The answer was 'no'. It was seen as a temporary exhibition, which is sad.
JE: I was going to ask about whether or not they acquired any of the objects... It is disappointing that they didn’t, even though their collection already held plenty of unusual and seemingly insignificant things that you unearthed. That is why discussions like this are really important for charting LGBT+ histories, as many of these queer exhibitions are fleeting, or sexuality is only discussed in queer specific shows, rather than as a part of a broader history. And you interrogated many sides of history, which would have been quite confronting even for the lesbian and gay community. You didn't shy away from bringing shame to the fore, challenging heterosexual assumptions or recounting harrowing colonial stories either.
JD: Yes! They had a lot of unused and unusual objects in their collection, which will likely never again be shown how I showed them. For instance, I looked at a lot of text definitions, and one was the definition of 'poofter', which was derived from an object, the powder puff. I was able to use a powder puff in the museum collection and that was fantastic. That object reading was quite obvious, but then I was quite cheeky as well.
I decided to include the definition of 'heterosexuality' too, as the connection between the two, homosexuality and heterosexuality, is so strong you can't have one without the other. I was trying to make people aware of that rather than thinking of 'homosexual' as different or other. I approached that quite cheekily and put a straitjacket next to the text definition. I think that was quite confronting for a straight audience because I was turning the term into a derogatory statement, which happens all the time for gay people, so I just wanted to flip that.
I didn't want to sanitise the exhibition at all because that is one of the things that often happens in museums. All the interesting things are taken out. For instance, I wanted to talk about beats and I approached the history department and asked if they had any bathers (swimming costume). Because of course, many of the beats in Perth were at the beach. I asked if they had any men's bathers from the 30s, 40s or 50s and they did. But then, just by accident, one of the curators said to me, ‘we've got these woollen bathers that have come in. But we're not going to collect them’, and I said, ‘oh, why not?’ And she said, ‘well, look, there's a big stain right at the front there. We can't use that’. And I went ‘oh, that's perfect’.
It was perfect, you know, because what could that stain represent? And they were horrified that I would put that in the show. Sadly, I don't know how many people got the connection I was making because you couldn't really see the stain very well. It's very interesting the sanitisation that goes on, and I think I was very lucky to get away with everything in that exhibition because I don't think people realised how cheeky I was being.
JE: It was probably so fresh that it gave you a level of license? More recently you worked with some institutional holdings at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery with your work in HERE & NOW20: Perfectly Queer (2020) curated by Brent Harrison. In that process you came up against some institutional challenges and censorship, what do you think has changed across this period when engaging with queer history?
JD: Nowadays with a certain level of acceptance it can also be a lot harder. And in some ways I think museums are even more straight. I mean, they don't seem to be able to be naughty. And I think that is also coming from our own community, with levels of political correctness and the desire to shut things down. In the exhibition you mentioned, I was looking at what is not said by art curators about a whole lot of Australian artists and how their homosexuality or queerness is just never discussed. And there's so many of them. As a part of that work, I put up an image of Donald Friend as he he had been a very out homosexual and I had a quote underneath about him being the ‘most celebrated pedophile in Australia’. In response, a young woman from the queer community made a big fuss and complained that I had put this work in the show. When we spoke to her, basically, she said 'he should not be there, he's not part of the gay community anymore because he's a pedophile and you shouldn't be celebrating him now'. I wasn't celebrating him, and I disagree that gay, lesbian and queer exhibitions are just about celebrating being queer. I think that's ridiculous. Like every other group in Australia, we have a complex history and that complexity should be spoken about, not just celebrated.
JE: Yes! I think about how a lot of the artists that you spoke about in Perfectly Queer are also incredibly prominent in Australian art history, and many of them held significant institutional positions in their time, such as James Gleeson. There are a lot of complex social and contextual conditions to be thought about and discussed. Such as how some people had relative freedoms to be open about their sexuality whilst others were vilified. Also, as you highlighted with Donald Friend, some actions, which were known to many in the artworld, were seemingly glazed over, and that’s also worth discussing and questioning.
JD: That's right, there is good, bad and complexity in every community. To pretend there isn't takes away our rich history, our ability to question ourselves as human beings and understand the consequences of the political history that happened. Sexual freedom is only really available when we have political freedom. And so, we need to be able to look at why people were in the closet and question why they had hidden histories or hidden lives to ask how that impacted their work? You know, if a gay artist came out or even hinted that they were gay in the 50s, that was the end of their commissions. Now that's something that we can look back on and ask why did they do that? I think there needs to be a richer questioning beyond that, especially in art museums.
JE: That’s also apart of the sanitisation of queer, gay and lesbian content in museums, which is often about appealing to the broadest audience and making it family friendly or whatever. People are not as inhibited by that when they are making shows with and for a specific community as much.
JD: Sure, I think bespoke exhibitions, just for a community are fantastic, but I think the role of these bigger institutions needs to be bigger in scope and to they need to recognise that these smaller groups are actually, and always have been, part of the bigger community of Australian society. I know that in England there's been a little bit of work in war memorials and war museums to embed these histories within their displays, including more information about gay and lesbians that were involved in the Defence Force. These people have been silenced and it's not talked about, yet they did contribute. We have contributed to the history of the world and it's about time that we were included within general history, rather than, ‘oh, just talk about the drag shows at Connections you know’.
And unfortunately, that's what's happened at the WA Museum at the moment. They've just had a complete refit of the Museum, which is a great museum, but the work on the gay and lesbian history is abysmal. Like, really bad. They have a video about Connections, which is the oldest queer nightclub in the Southern Hemisphere and all the display talks about are the costumes worn there. It doesn't talk about how important that place was for people coming from the country to the city to network, or how during the AIDS crisis people came together at Connections to grieve. There's so many things they could have talked about. No, it's just the costumes and the drag Queens, it's like come on, there's not even a mention of the word 'lesbian' in the WA Museum.
And as far as I know, they didn't really engage a lesbian curator. I think they had a male, gay curator from the eastern States and as far as I can tell, he didn't really engage that much with the local community. I think it is important to have gay and lesbian curators who are local as they have an embeddedness that can be expressed in an exhibition. Otherwise, it's just an add-on. I think we need more truth telling by curators and also more research.
JE: Yes, especially into lesbian history.
JD: And bisexual history.
But now everyone uses the word queer. The term is fantastically liberating on one level and I know Miranda Johnson has said 'that at its heart, queerness is a refusal to be bounded by definition'. So it's a verb as well as an adjective. But while it's liberating, I think the lack of rules in some way and the lack of definitions is leading us all into some kind of void. We've got nothing to fight against, we've got no rules and there's a strange lack of engagement with history. It is like five years ago we got same sex marriage and it's like all the history of queer is just starting from that point. Do you think that is happening?
JE: I think there is a level of cultural amnesia about even relatively recent gay/queer history. Just prior to the plebiscite seemed like a period of comparative comfort for gay and lesbian people. I even think back to 2002, and I remember how openly homophobic everybody was. And quite rapidly, within about ten years, that had dissipated substantially, in urban centres at least. And then we had the plebiscite and everyone felt the homophobia come out again, and people had seemed to forget that it had been like that on the regular twenty years ago. I don’t think there's enough of an eye being cast back even to that period, let alone to the 30s, 40s and 50s, which your project looked at. A period that progressively becomes more and more unimaginable for people. You almost can't fathom what the experience was for people through those times.
I'm really interested in thinking through many of the things that you have been talking about in terms of cultural memory, what museums show or don’t show, what's invisible, what isn't and what is even being repressed by art history. Even the domestic reality of a lot of gay and lesbian artists and how that feeds into their practice. It is cultural memory that needs to be discussed to provide context, but it is also not easy.
JD: There's a lot of protection going on of older artists, and I think you can understand why it is happening. Curators think they are protecting known artists reputation, especially if that person is now dead. Curators don't seem to feel comfortable to say 'this person had relationships with men and women', they think it's private information and is not their place. But then who is going to say it?
The thing is all these older curators have all of this information. It's all gossip, they know it. Unless they write it down, unless they start sharing it, we're going to lose that knowledge and whereas people may not think that's important, there's already such a lack of empirical research about gay, lesbian, homosexual, bisexual, queer, intersectional lives and transgender lives that in Australia in particular, we don't need to lose any more. It doesn't have to be controversially put out there, it can be very cleverly done. I think curators can be cleverer. I also think a lot of this stuff has changed because of the work of artists, whether that be from drama, film, music, dance or the visual arts. If curators and institutions can let the artist in, then a lot more of these stories can come out and we can be the ones telling them and it doesn't have to be the institution.