The Museum of Everyday Objects That Makes Transgender Lives Visible
The Museum of Transology is the largest collection of trans-related objects in the UK. Curator E-J Scott tells us why trans people need to assert their place in museums everywhere.
All photos by Katy Davies courtesy of Fashion Space Gallery
When trans curator and fashion historian E-J Scott went into hospital for surgery, he kept everything from his room: the hospital gown from one of his procedures, the needle used for his morphine prescription, the pillowcase off his bed, and even the cups that nurses gave medicine in. "I'm a collector," he says. "I always have been."
Fifteen years on, his personal collection has grown into the Museum of Transology, the largest collection of trans artefacts and photographic portraiture ever to be displayed in the UK. Over a hundred transgender people have contributed their own deeply personal objects to the crowdsourced exhibition, which opens this monthat the Fashion Space Gallery in London College of Fashion.
"It's been the most complex thing I've ever done curatorially in my whole life," Scott says. "There are objects in there that are over 20 years old."
When the call for contributions went out, Scott says, people happily gave decades-old belongings laden with sentimental value. Some possessions—hormone patches, chest binders, and packers—are more immediately identifiable with the trans experience. Others, like a My Little Pony toy or a pair of swimming goggles, are given context by the handwritten label provided by their owners. Some deliberately have no label at all.
Scott says that the Museum of Transology is an effort to "de-spectacularize" transgender issues—to get away from the glamorous, Hollywood-approved before and after transformations of those like Caitlin Jenner; to remove the cisgender gaze entirely and allow trans people to present their own, everyday experiences on their own terms.
In a museum and heritage sector dominated by cisgender people, it is also an act of self-love and an assertion of existence—a way of pointing out that trans people's histories deserve to be catalogued and archived, just like everyone else's. Scott hopes that a museum with a social history remit will eventually take on the collection and preserve it for future generations, "to make trans lives visible within the historic space."
We talked to Scott about the importance of museums and the power of testimony. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did this exhibition come about and what inspired you to set it up?
The exhibition grew out of a collection that I had been saving from my own personal experience of being trans, when I collected all the objects that were in the hospital room when I had surgery. Everything from my hospital gown to the cups they gave me medicine in, etc. What I realized is that trans lives are invisible in museums. Trans people typically throughout history have been looked at; the whole trans experience has been looked at as an expression of alternate sexuality, for example. We don't exist in museums, there's no visibility, and yet we're at this moment of time where trans visibility is at the tipping point. Awareness is increasing in society about gender diversity.... and yet the museums in the UK aren't collecting trans artefacts proactively. This exhibition is a challenge to those museums to take on board this collection, and to make trans lives visible within the historic space.
Why do you think it's important that museums start collecting these objects?
Museums give people a sense of their space in the world. Trans people quite often are disassociated from communities that they grew up in; they might come out and not be in contact with their families or school friends, they might lose their marriages, or access to their children. So finding a space in the world for them is very important. We need to recreate our sense of space in history. If you don't exist on the historical timeline, it's another form of displacement.
What do you find frustrating about the way that trans people are presented in the mainstream, especially in the last couple of years?
Violence has increased against trans people in the last five years. In actual fact, this visibility has not necessarily been helpful. We have been misrepresented in the media through this spectacularization with the cis gaze. It's all about befores and afters, and success stories. This is not the reality of most trans people's lives. There's a lot more to be said about who we are as everyday people.
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It's interesting you use the word "spectacularization." What does that word mean to you?
We're all familiar with the idea of the male gaze, but [spectacularization is] the cis gaze looking down on us as abnormal, and as an object of interest, fascination, and titillation. It's the idea that we're absolutely under a spotlight and people are allowed to gaze into our personal lives and bodies.
The lovely thing about the show is how everyday the objects are. You have everything from ballet shoes to concealer and an ugly pair of pants...
That was the whole intent of this exhibition. It was to de-spectacularize trans-ness. To collect everyday objects that belong to real people. It's been a very deliberate curatorial strategy to have people attach handwritten stories to their object. It's their voice, it's not overwritten by a cisgender curator. These are real people's lives; real people's experiences; real people's things.
How did you go about sourcing these pieces?
Trans networks are very strong, and once word got out, people came from everywhere. It shows the appetite that trans people have to have real stories told, and to be part of the museum sector, and to have those stories in museums. We were just overwhelmed with contributions. It's become a huge community project. It's not autobiographical for any one person. It's about multiple voices and multiple stories; diverse stories that are as diverse as the trans experience itself.
The show is at the Fashion Space Gallery, and some of it is comprised of fashion objects, like bras and pants. But some of them also are very mundane objects—the bras aren't something you might see in the V&A Museum underwear show.
In a way, it challenges the remit of museums. It's important we don't only tell the top end of stories. In the case of trans people, that is the Caitlin Jenners. It's important that we don't just collect her dresses. These everyday objects are absolutely loaded with meaning and experience. They're loaded with people's heartfelt testimonies.
Where would you like this collection to end up? Do you plan to keep adding to it? Or would you prefer a museum or another institution to come in and preserve it as is?
I think that this is a particular exhibition that needs preserving, but the ongoing collection of trans artefacts is very important. We're going through social change; the community itself is very much developing and growing. This collection needs to keep growing into the future and forever more. We need trans people working in the museum and heritage sector as well, just like we need women and BAME (black and minority ethnic) people working in museums. Without trans people in museums, people can't identify trans history when it's there. It gets written out through neglect and overlooking of it. We need people in museums employed who are trans who can continue the proper identification and collection of trans narratives.
The Museum of Transology is on at Fashion Space Gallery in London from January 20 to April 22.