In February 2017, the French edition of Vogue featured the twenty-two-year-old transgender woman Valentina Sampaio on its cover, referring to her as a “femme fatale” who happened to have been born a boy. A sultry image was created by positioning Sampaio under dark purple and blue lights and publishing the photo with the title “Transgender Beauty” and a subtitle reading “How they are shaking up the world.” The same year, L’Oréal Paris chose the twenty-four-year-old transgender model and actress Hari Nef to represent its latest foundation cream for a global campaign. Although this is a significant step for the visibility of the transgender community, it is also an indication of commercial capital’s objectification of trans bodies. Such representations are often constructed images of sterile and aesthetic bodies, conforming to the beauty ideal of the consumer market, ultimately to satisfy the hetero- and cis-normative gaze. This politics of objectification goes both ways. It not only gives the audience a singular and patronizing view of trans bodies but also cultivates an acceptable trans image in society. The plural voices and experiences of a heterogeneous community are diminished by the glossy appearance of the few.
At the opening of the exhibition The Museum of Transology, which was on view at the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery for nearly three years, curator E. J. Scott emphasized that Stonewall’s 2018 Trans Report, based on the experiences of more than eight hundred LGBT people in Britain, revealed how hate crimes went up 80 percent between 2014 and 2018. For Scott, increased visibility could also be translated as increased vulnerability. Scott, a dress historian, is the creator of the exhibition, which aimed to register agency and create a historiography for the trans experiences that he calls “transestery.”1 Scott first collected everything in the hospital room after the surgical procedure related to his transition, including his hospital gown, the medicine cups, and the balloon his friends brought that said: “It’s a Boy!” He knew he did not want to lose that moment and later realized that he had never seen a collection like this in a museum. In 2014 Scott decided to amass a larger collection to be shown in an established institution and be protected for future generations to learn from. The Museum of Transology consists of more than 250 objects donated by 117 trans people in Britain—the world’s largest collection of material culture relating to trans lives. Attached to each object is a luggage tag with a handwritten explanation from the donor explaining its significance in the donor’s gender journey—ordinary objects made extraordinary. With this exhibition, Scott decisively broke with the consensual way in which certain objects have been presented as works of art in the institutional art world and how they have constituted a hetero-normative ground in collecting and exhibiting.
The exhibition space was carefully designed to support the audience’s ability to engage with complex and unfamiliar material and experiences. Text panels explained the terminology used; provided statistics; and unraveled common myths, misinformation, and stereotypes surrounding the trans community. Brave and intimate, the deeply moving stories were told through objects of social history, dress, and medicine as well as beauty products, portraiture, and personal ephemera. Brought together, these individual experiences provided a revelatory account of how the politics of gender has evolved in the UK and the increasing shift in social consciousness toward mainstream acceptance of trans people as well as their legislative equality. The collection and exhibition were initiated by Scott as a way of empowering trans people to curate their own lives in an effort to combat the hyper-spectacularization of their experiences and bodies. Scott told me that the
trans movement is now a liberation movement. To ignore trans lives and politics in the museum is to ignore the most significant moment in gender politics since third-wave feminism. This is social history—not to be simplistically denigrated as ideological identity politics—and belongs on permanent display in the museum.2
He further explained that to build trust in such a project within the marginalized community, a series of workshops had to take place outside the institutional spaces that have traditionally neglected and erased trans history. Those collecting workshops in queer community spaces ensured the integrity of the project and the growth of the collection.
The Museum of Transology was as diverse as the trans experience itself, yet offered universal themes of hope, despair, ambition, confidence, and desire. Personal items were accompanied by photographs and diary notes written by the donors, triggering empathetic responses in the viewer through familiarity while complicating the viewers’ ability to be able to dismiss these trans objects as that of the Other. Bloody hospital bracelets from gender transformation surgery, boxes of hormone treatment pills, and hair extensions could stand as grotesque displays at first, but handwritten notes telling the stories of these objects gave them an unusual humanistic aesthetic: a painful memory that transforms a person.
Other objects such as first-worn lipstick, first-worn jewelry, first-worn stilettos, or first-worn dress highlighted an experience that most cisgender people take for granted. Those objects were kept as a reminder of the happy moment of self-expression. The Museum of Transology’s collection celebrated the aesthetic value of these utilitarian objects that had been owned, used, and appreciated in daily life by transgender people. The stories linked to them ignited a curiosity toward a process of discovery of the objects’ lived life and the viewers’ continuous self-reflection about those uncensored visual stories. This sensorial discovery had the possibility to end up being a disturbing encounter with a viewer’s rigid beliefs or to evolve into a unique experience that challenged the established norms in their minds.
The radicalism of The Museum of Transology could be located not just in its archival potential but also in the very act of creating a trans subjectivity in a public institution such as Brighton Museum and Art Gallery. The criticism that this exhibition put forward went beyond the visibility/invisibility dichotomies and addressed the very foundation of Western museology and curatorial practice. In postmodern literature, the issue of “visibility” resonates with a varied set of perspectives from subalternity to decolonization, from low/high art dichotomies to identity discourses that all question the privilege of those who retain the cultural capital and institutional power to create knowledge. The Museum of Transology took those discussions a step forward: it targeted the very practice of collecting and displaying to forge democratic and participatory museology. As such, it purported a multilayered challenge to the hierarchical and mono-vocal structure of both knowledge and image creation.
The visual culture surrounding us is very much related to the racialized and heteronormative demographics of our society, determining who is differentially included, who is excluded, and who is exalted. States, supranational organizations, hegemonic ideologies, and sometimes even solidarity movements, scholars, and artists engage in a hetero-normative projection of culture. At best, embraced as the extraordinary “other,” at worst deemed as an outsider, the dominant visual representational codes of transsexuality oscillate between fetishization and victimization.
Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, a part of the Royal Pavilion, perhaps the quintessential manifestation of early nineteenth-century eclecticism, housed The Museum of Transology for its duration. The exhibition was immensely important, not only for exposing the methodological heteronormativity in museology and in mainstream culture that often silences the non-normative forms of embodied and social experience, but also for enacting trans visibility and audibility in a recognized art institution and for a record amount of time. In the institutional art world, trans people have been historical untouchables. The Museum of Transology encouraged trans communities to tell and conserve their own stories and to combat heritage erasure by using research and curation as a form of direct action that continues the queer movement’s legacy of radical protest for equal rights for all people regardless of ethnicity, ability, gender, or sexuality.
E. J. Scott, interview by author, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, April 9, 2019.
E. J. Scott, interview by author.