Public History master’s students Jacob Boucher, Emma Winter Zeig, Amelia Zurcher, Kendall Taivalkoski, and LJ Woolcock met and reflected on the panel “Getting Sexy At Historic Sites”, a panel that took place at this year’s Association for State and Local History (AASLH) annual meeting. UMass students took advantage of our program membership to attend six “hot-topic” sessions, broadcast live at the Kansas City meeting.
The topic of sexuality is not commonly discussed in historic sites and museums, despite its rising importance in academic history. Some sites consider sex & sexuality to be “too sensitive” for a broad public audience; others may take it to be akin to sharing “gossip.” However, the history of sexuality provides us with powerful tools for understanding the lives of the people who inhabited our sites, and to unpack the structures of power which shape society and culture.
For these reasons, we were thrilled to watch and discuss “Getting Sexy at Historic Sites.” The panel focused on how to bring the topic of sexuality into the museum, and especially within historic house museums, where these types of stories are particularly relevant but often go unaddressed. We were expecting to hear about the interpretation of LGBTQ history within historic houses, and looked forward to hearing about interpretive techniques that have been successful in incorporating sexual narratives into museum exhibits and tours.
To open the panel, Susan Ferentino (author of Interpreting LGBT History in Museums & Historic Sites (2015)–winner of the National Council on Public History prize for best book in the field that year) presented an overview of the scholarly study of sexuality, and how it views sexuality as much more than just sex acts. The history of sexuality, she observed, encompasses diverse areas such as childbirth, marriage, love, cultural assumptions and anxieties, gender, and race, all of which are already being interpreted at many sites. She then moved on to discuss why sexuality should be interpreted within the context of the historic house museum. Scholars often look to sexual narratives to discuss power dynamics – how standards of sexuality enforce behavior in men and women, who has access to sex with whom, and how race, class, and gender intersect in matters of sex and sexuality. She pointed out that historic house museums provide wonderful opportunities for the public to experience the intersection between personal intimacy and the broader topics of race, class, the family, and policing. They are the locus of sexuality in people’s lives, and were also the site of a lot of sexual education before that subject was taught in public schools.
Angela Smith of North Dakota State University then presented on the ongoing research on Melvina Massey, a African American Madam in Fargo, North Dakota, in the late 19th century. She discussed the discovery of Massey in archival sources, the process of research on her life over the course of five years, and the various ways that she and her students interpreted Massey to the community of Fargo, including museum exhibits and documentaries. Smith focused less on Massey herself than how she brought Massey’s story into the college classroom. A good deal of the research was done by her students, and Smith described her undergraduate students’ enthusiasm for uncovering Massey’s life through public records and archives.
Kaci Lynn Johnson, another member of the panel, was among the students in Smith’s class; she has since become the curator at the Cass County Historical Society, whichhas continued to display exhibits on Melvina Massey. Johnson spoke about the different historic sites in Cass County that are beginning to interpret sexuality, including historic houses, a saloon, and a school.
Ferentino’s analysis of historic house museums made us think about the importance of bringing sexuality into museums and engaging our audience with the stories and questions it brings up. However, we noticed a change between Ferentino’s introduction and the rest of the panel — namely, a difference between the academic definition of the history of sexuality and the one that most visitors carry in their minds. Ferentino described a broad historical purview, while the latter two speakers focused more on the aspects that visitors to their sites would be interested in learning about: how often did people have sex? How do historians know something like that? And how did LGBTQ identities play into the sexual lives of historical figures?
Angela Smith’s project showed the potential to bring sex and sexuality into a historic landscape by trying to find the present day locations of historic brothels. Her students used mapping and historical archaeology to uncover the site of Massey’s brothel. More than just illuminating the landscape of the town, this investigation shows how brothels and sexual desire fit into the town’s life and social structure. Johnson’s work built on this initiative, as she showed how the sites run by the Cass County Historical Society provided the opportunity to break down scholarly conceptions underlying the history of sexuality for a broader audience. Further, by interpreting multiple sites in conversation with one another, we can bring together multiple narratives of sexuality in the same geographic area. The home, the saloon, and the brothel speak to different sexual experiences, but exist simultaneously and in relation to one another.
While this panel raised many possibilities for implementing stories of sex and sexuality in historic houses, we found one important narrative largely missing from the discussion: LGBTQ history. None of the panelists directly addressed the unique questions that come with interpreting LGBTQ narratives in a public context, which was concerning, considering the dire need for these stories to become a part of the larger historical landscape. However, it underscored the difficulty of interpreting LGBTQ stories in domestic spaces, and in particular historic house museums. Much of LGBT history took place in the streets, in bars, clubs, cafeterias, and other public spaces, which are not represented by the home. Some attempts to interpret LGBTQ history came up in the discussion that followed the panel, as members of the audience shared their institutions’ attempts to interpret LGBTQ history for a broad audience. Examples include the Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, and Parkeology’s “Queen’s Circle” exhibit on cruising in San Diego.
Together we wondered what strategies for interpretation were employed, and the individual stories that these institutions had found and presented to the public. We heard about many different types of interpretation–museum exhibits, documentaries, house tours, and more–but presenters did not go into detail about the individual storie they told, or how these broke down the topic of sexuality to a broad audience. For example, how do we address complex topics such as power structures along with the stories of individuals within our sites? Integrating these two together seems to us to be essential to bridging the gap between scholars and museum professionals’ ideas of sexuality, and the ideas that the public brings with them to our institutions.
Sexuality is an essential topic that all historic sites, not just historic house museums, need to begin to address. Sex and sexuality are powerful tools of interpretation, as they are closely linked to our own lives and experiences. The question remains, how can we provide complex and inclusive interpretation that reflects the historical contingency of sexuality, breaks down big concepts, and brings our visitors stories that they will find meaningful and memorable?