Doing It in Public: Presenting Historical Sources on LGBT History in a Public Exhibition

Thursday, January 4, 2018: 2:10 PM
Washington Room 2 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Cornelia King, Library Company of Philadelphia
In late 2012, I started work on an exhibition of 100 items related to LGBT history from the collections of the Library Company of Philadelphia (LCP). The work raised many evidentiary and methodological concerns that required significant curatorial decisions. In this presentation, I will focus on these specific challenges and consider the broader challenge of doing LGBT history for a public audience.

The collections of the LCP mainly comprise printed sources from before the twentieth century. Predictably, there are a dearth of references to sexual behavior, which prompted me to focus on specific same-sex relationships. But a number of problems resulted from this choice. For one, I necessarily excluded many individuals highlighted in popular LGBT histories. Similarly, this approach downplayed the significance of both sexuality and gender non-conformity. Equally so, the exhibit did not satisfactorily engage with questions of race—the dearth of material on the experiences of LGBT African Americans was especially disappointing, given the collection’s broad strengths in this area. Finally, my approach did not include much in the way of legal history or Philadelphia-area history.

After I had assembled the evidence, I next faced the challenge of choosing a title and attracting the public to visit the exhibit. I hoped to avoid both a conservative backlash and radical critiques from the LGBTQA+ communities—I even composed a three-hundred-word statement that I dubbed “A Short Dissertation on Intergenerational Relationships,” in case I needed to defend Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, Horatio Alger, Charlotte Cushman, and Frances Willard from an angry public. In the actual event, the exhibit, which opened on February 14, 2014, as “That’s So Gay: Outing Early America,” broke all previous attendance records and attracted widespread public attention. I welcome the opportunity to consider anew its contributions to LGBT public history.

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