We chat to E-J Scott about London’s Museum of Transology.
Few would deny the increased visibility of the trans community in the past four years. From household names like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, to the stars of 2015’s ‘Tangerine’ – Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor – and nail queen Charlie Craggs (breaking labels one Nail Transphobia appointment at a time), representation in fashion and the arts is on the up. But as news reports of horrific mistreatment and recent events in America only stress, there’s still a long way to go, both in the industry and beyond.
The arrival of a new exhibition at LCF’s Fashion Space Gallery is perfectly timed then. Curated by dress historian E-J Scott and boasting the largest and boldest collection of trans artefacts – first lipsticks, letters from the Queen and a vast medicine cabinet all feature – the show is a confident display of the day to day aspects of life as a trans person.
Post-preview hysteria, we caught up with Scott to further explore how the museum came to be.
What was the initial concept for the Museum of Transology?
E-J Scott: The Museum of Transology is a proactive attempt to halt the erasure of trans lives from the heritage sector. Trans people are underrepresented in our museums. There are several reasons for this: historically, trans people’s identities have been read solely as expressions of sexuality or as career strategies that allow them to enter fields that have strict gender codes. Few trans people actually work in museums, and this means that our stories can be overlooked, misread or misunderstood.
When I went into hospital for a surgical procedure related to my transition, I collected everything in my hospital room. I took home my pillow case, my towel, my hospital gown, the cups my medicine was administered in, the medical documentation, a balloon my friends brought up for me that said “It’s a Boy!”… The lot. I didn’t want to lose that moment in time, and I’ve always kept souvenirs of important events to help me remember them. I realised I hadn’t seen a collection like this in a museum before, and that modern trans stories continued to be overlooked. It made sense to me to start the Museum of Transology – my own collection of trans artefacts that one day might be accessioned by an established institution and protected for future generations to learn from. This particular moment in time is referred to as the ‘trans tipping point’, but it reflects a shift in the understanding of gender in mainstream society, so is part of the UK’s broader social history. This collection is a marker of that.
Can you tell us about the curating aspect of the exhibition?
E-J Scott: I believe in the power of objects to tell stories, and particularly the way everyday objects can tell stories that have been overlooked because they are so often relatable. Curation is a process that combines research, object handling, design rationale and working with audiences and volunteers. It’s creative, demanding and requires a great deal of critical thinking. Lots of people seem to use the word ‘curation’ very loosely at the moment: to me it is a practice that requires extensive training and a deep understanding of the historical framework within which you are working and upon which you are reflecting.
Why did you decide to crowdsource the objects that feature?
E-J Scott: There has been a great deal of attention paid to trans lives by the mainstream media – but these stories tend to focus on what are pitched as ‘before and after’ ideas of successful lives lived ‘passing’. There are many problems with this. For one, it suggests some people fail. We do not. Our bodies are our own, not some disappointing second-rate copies of cisgendered bodies. Secondly, different people have different trans experiences, and not all seek surgical intervention – this does not make them less trans. The stories also frequently focus on trans people who seek private treatment to have radical surgery that redefines who they are. There is nothing wrong with that. But it is not most trans people’s reality.
More trans stories need to be told: the everyday realities of being trans for everyday people. Crowdsourcing objects opened up the exhibition to everyone who wanted to donate something. It democratised the collection process. The objects are as diverse as the trans experience itself. They are honest, frequently mundane but extraordinary for their ordinariness and ultimately, loaded with meaning and intimate. There was no stipulation as what would be accepted into the collection, and anyone who wanted to donate, could.
” The Museum of Transology is a proactive attempt to halt the erasure of trans lives from the heritage sector”
And why was it important for you to share these personal stories?
E-J Scott: This is an exhibition about real people with real life stories told in their own voices. This helps to normalise the trans experience and community. Everyday objects tell everyday stories – even if some of these stories are deeply meaningful or quite extraordinary, they feel very accessible and close and touching. So this breaks down stereotypes about trans people and helps non-trans people understand that life goes on in mundane ways for us all, though we are still fighting for acceptance and trying to survive violence and oppression.
What kind of space were you hoping to create?
E-J Scott: The interior of the exhibition has been designed as a reworking of a domestic interior that shifts into a medical realm. Historically, furniture has been gendered – women’s and men’s wardrobes, for example. We have sought second-hand and found objects, and repurposed them – cutting them up, reassembling in beautiful new ways. They are metaphoric representations of the trans experience itself, and create the feeling of an intimate and familiar, yet creative and complex space.
How important do you think fashion and art are in challenging the constraints of gender stereotypes?
E-J Scott: The whole Museum of Transology project has been community led. Our Creative Director, Patrick Bullock led teams of trans people and their allies in ‘making’ workshops. The entire set has been handcrafted in these art workshops, providing the opportunity for people to meet each other and share experiences and make new friendships, whilst physically crafting positive responses to represent their lives and stories. It was powerful and healing, and the artistic process in itself has led to the creation of an exhibition that is touching and handmade. This arts and crafts approach makes the things on show feel even more personal, and the stories sing with authenticity. The show is somehow deceptively gentle whilst being high impact. It invites the viewer visually to engage with individual narratives that break down gender stereotypes and promote gender diversity.
Do you feel that we are moving in a positive direction in terms of LGBTQ+ community recognition?
E-J Scott: Whilst we might be celebrating the 50 year anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain and Wales, we are 50 years behind in the progress towards trans rights. This battle has only just begun.
What would you like to see changed in the future?
Attention needs to be paid to the death of trans prisoners in custody, with Jenny Smith committing suicide in January after being refused continuation of her medication and refused transfer to a female prison. This is the fifth inquiry now into trans people killing themselves in custody. The NHS waiting times for entry onto the pathway for medical transitioning are in breach of national guidelines. Schools and universities must offer safe gender neutral toilets. Non-binary genders need to be recognised by law so that people can have the correct passports. Non-consensual genital corrective surgery for young intersex people must be outlawed. The list goes on – we have so much work to do and need government action.
Do you think social media has opened up the trans community?
This project would not have been possible without the strong online trans networks on social media. Our Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts have opened up the possibility for a diverse number of trans people to get in contact, find each other and build the reach of the Museum of Transology. Ultimately, social media has increased the diversity of the collection and what it represents.
What was it like working directly with some of the community’s important figures; Sharon Kilgannon, Buck Angel, Grayson Perry all feature right?
There are so many brave, strong and creative people who are part of the trans community, all using their talents to give their support in unique and expressive ways. But the beauty of this show was really the community spirit amongst ordinary people trying to live their lives just like anyone else. The UK’s trans communities are vibrant, increasingly confident and becoming more empowered as we become more visible, find each other and stand together.
What would you like people to take away from the exhibition?
My wish would be that this exhibition despectacularises what it means to be trans, and helps show the world how confident and ambitious the UK’s trans communities are becoming. I hope that it raises awareness surrounding the increasing violence against trans people in the UK, and communicates the importance of understanding trans lives as being part of a fight for gender equality for all. I hope it makes every visitor think about what their own gender really means to them, and helps free us all from any constraints that limit who we are, who we can be and what we can achieve.