By Stephen Welsh, Independent Curator
As cultural organisations begin to intensify equality, diversity and inclusion work, Stephen Welsh reflects on his own experiences as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community and a curator, and considers how gender based stereotypes are embedded in museums and reproduced through colonial collections.
[Image: “Charles Bronson” by Lisandro Peralta is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. View a copy of this license].
As a kid I had big hair, a high voice and wasn’t interested in football. This often attracted the attention, and more often than not the ire, of those in my peer group who were intrigued by my seemingly unconventional representation of maleness. I was labelled queer and repeatedly fielded pejorative questions about my gender. Unsurprisingly, I found refuge in art, amateur dramatics and X-Men comics, and did my best to avoid confrontation, not always successfully so. You’d imagine that once I came out the need to negotiate masculinity would’ve ended, but as a gay man I was expected to rank myself on the butch-femme scale. This preoccupation with gender, and manliness in particular, was brought into acute focus once I became a curator. Through a museum lens it was clear how a colonial Victorian gender binary, one that was predicated on European heteronormativity, remains in place and continues to reproduce gender based stereotypes which in turn affirm ableist, misogynistic, racist, homophobic and transphobic perceptions.
I grew up in the 1980s, a testosterone fuelled decade famous for He-Man, Crocodile Dundee and Sinitta’s ode to masculinity ‘So Macho’. It was also a time when an increasing number of gender non-conforming pop stars began to emerge, the likes of Annie Lennox, Boy George and Sylvester. Despite these flamboyant attempts to subvert the heteropatriarchy it remained firmly in place inspiring a nuclear arms race, neoliberal economic policies and Charles Bronson movies. To measure this spike in machismo two US phycologists, Donald Mosher and Mark Sirkin, developed the Hypermasculinity Inventory (HMI) in 1984. They would use it to analyse macho personality types which they described as having an affection for danger, a sexual disregard for women and a commitment to the idea that violence was inherently manly. I didn’t find the HMI it found me during an afternoon spent Googling the terms masculinity, museums and weapons, needless to say it was one of the least risqué results to bounce back. It struck me almost immediately that the hypermasculine traits described by Mosher and Sirkin were virtually indistinguishable from those exhibited by elite white male Victorian collectors.
In late 19th century Britain there was panic about the presumed drop in levels of manliness caused by the growing industrial and military muscle of imperial rivals Germany and the US, women assuming control of their educational, political and reproductive rights, and the Decadent movement. A number of solutions were proposed, with one of the most enduring being Muscular Christianity. It’s still a popular philosophy in parts of the US today but it emerged in mid 19th England courtesy of Charles Kingsley, an Anglican priest and writer. Kingsley was a fan of moral fitness, physical strength and God, combining all three in Muscular Christianity to remedy the ‘poison of effeminacy’ as he saw it. Although Kingsley died in 1875 Muscular Christianity continued to gain traction after his death. Across the English Channel it might have even influenced Max Nordau, physician and writer, who popularised Muscular Judaism and accused Oscar Wilde and the Decadent movement of a ‘megalomaniacal contempt for men’.
This dogged determination to assert a form of masculinity that Mosher and Sirkin would have been immediately familiar with, had profound and damaging consequences for the treatment and depiction of BIPOC people in museums. Inspired by Kingsley, British men were urged to escape the presumed emasculating effects of Aesthetes and suffragettes, and flee ‘domesticity and female incursions into traditionally male educational and professional provinces’ as Anne Windholz describes in her 1999 paper ‘An Emigrant and a Gentleman: Imperial Masculinity, British Magazines, and the Colony That Got Away’. They were encouraged to defend the borders of the British Empire, with some opting to support the territorial expansion of the US towards the Pacific Coast. These so-called frontiers, as popularised by the likes of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, were considered dangerous places where British men could affirm their manhood. In his 1901 book ‘Our Public Schools: Their Influence on English History’ author J G Cotton commended the ‘Englishman going through the world with rifle in one hand and Bible in the other’ and stated that if asked what Muscular Christianity had achieved ‘we point to the British Empire’.
Virtually indistinguishable from the hypermasculine world view as described by Mosher and Sirkin in their 1988 paper ‘Scripting the Macho Man: Hypermasculine Socialization and Enculturation’, those British men in pursuit of confrontation hoped to encounter ‘adversarial warriors competing for scarce resources (including women as chattel)’. They cast BIPOC men in an enduring racist role, that of the so called ‘savage’ predisposed to violence and in need of subduing. Like 1980s US TV news networks, museums were part of a colonial system that promoted and maintained these racial stereotypes. They did this by exaggerating the ‘threat’ posed by BIPOC men through the collection and display of a disproportionate amount of weapons. Displays were crammed with swords, spears and shields, and still are in some cases, and were accompanied by images intended to project, as Margaret Maynard in her 2009 paper ‘Staging Masculinity: Late Nineteenth Century Photographs of Indigenous Men’ describes, a ‘stage-managed excess of ‘savage’ manliness through the carrying of weapons’ and an ‘almost theatrical hyper-masculinity’. To crank the testosterone levels up even further, curators confined BIPOC women to domestic roles alone and anything remotely non-heteronormative was condemned or concealed.
Such harmful ideas don’t simply just disappear, like Mistique in the X-Men comics they can morph, in this case into toxic masculinity, or they can be allowed to linger under the misapprehension that they’re inactive. Me Too and Black Lives Matter amongst other movements have recently exposed just how devastatingly active they are. Museums need to confront how hypermasculinity, alongside the equally as pernicious benevolent paternalism and white supremacy, is embedded and how it has excluded or extinguished anything to the contrary. This needs to be done in collaboration with disabled, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ and women’s groups to fully appreciate the impact on their lives and determine what needs to change. Attempts to plant sparse co-produced projects, like a transient LGBTQIA+ object trail, over a mountainous hypermasculine spoil heap will have negligible impact. Only a committed cultural relandscaping will result in a flourishing of equitability and inclusion. Museums need to co-create spaces like DJ, fashion icon and fan of Sylvester, Honey Dijon creates her music videos:
“I’ve always believed that queer people, their narratives are always told by heteronormative society, we’re always a reaction to that. So I really wanted to create a video that was speaking to queer people, wanting to tell their own story and celebrating sexuality, trans sexuality, nonbinary sexuality and what really happens in these queer spaces.”Honey Dijon Premieres Sex Positive ‘La Femme Fantastique’ Video, ‘Paper’, August, 2020.
Stephen Welsh is an independent curator and consultant with over 15 years of experience working in museums. He was the Curator of Living Cultures, The University of Manchester, from 2007 until 2020. Previously he was Project Curator at the International Slavery Museum, National Museums Liverpool, from 2005 to 2007.