Prying Open the Museum Closet
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Published in: March-April 2022 issue.


YOU COULD go through almost any one of the world’s great art museums, reading the labels of all their thousands of artworks, without seeing a single reference to anything LGBT. There would be no mentions of artists’ or subjects’ sexual identities or the LGBT themes in artworks. I don’t want to portray museums as singularly homophobic; you would find very little information about other contextual issues or minorities either. Art museums mostly want to tell you only about art—about artistic techniques and stylistic progressions—not about social history or “human interest.” Just as one example, in a U.S. museum there is a Golden Age Dutch scene of a prostitute cheating a man at cards in a brothel. How does the museum identify the painting? “Elegant Figures Playing Cards in an Interior.” What kind of interior? That’s for them to know and you to find out.

            So it’s not just LGBT people that are blocked from making a human connection to the art in the museums’ collections; it’s everyone. But the problem is that much more acute for people who are already left out of their culture’s historical narrative much of the time, and thus unsure of their place in history. What’s more, this policy of omission is especially glaring in the case at hand, because museums are in fact full of artworks with various LGBT connections.

            To make this point, I am going to talk about three artworks in one museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. They are only three of the many artworks in the museum with LGBT elements, but they are good examples for a couple of reasons. First, they cover the LGBT waterfront: One is by a gay male artist and about his lover and/or love; one, though by a straight male artist, is on a lesbian theme; and one centers on a person with a complex gender identity. In addition, they’re all artworks with relatively subtle LGBT themes such that a naïve viewer would be unlikely to notice them.


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Andrew Lear, an expert on same-sex relations in ancient Greece, is the founder of Oscar Wilde Tours and We Were There, a nonprofit organization focused on LGBT history.