BY DANA RUDOLPH
May is National Museum Month, and LGBTQ families have a growing source of support in museums — including ones aimed at children — that have been reaching out to welcome all kinds of families. Margaret Middleton, a Boston-based designer, speaker and consultant, has been a leader in helping to make this happen.
Middleton, who has spoken at numerous museum conferences and been profiled on NPR, has been doing museum work for about 10 years and family inclusion work for half of that. She told me in an e-mail interview that the latter “began as a melding of my queer activism with my museum practice. But I quickly realized that it wasn’t just queer families who were being left out in museums: single parents, adoptive families, foster families and families with divorced parents weren’t taken into consideration.”
She recently collaborated with photographer Matthew Clowney on a show at the Boston Children’s Museum titled “Mimi’s Family,” about the everyday life of transgender grandparent Erica (aka Mimi) Tobias and her family. (While it is no longer on view, those interested in renting it or sponsoring its travel should contact the museum.)
And in 2012, she worked with curator Lisa Ellsworth at the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose on an exhibit inspired by San Jose Pride. It showcased a selection of photographs of a Bay Area family with two moms and two kids, chosen from Courteney Coolidge’s collection “American Families: Beyond the White Picket Fence.” Both Mimi’s Family and American Family “were challenging sells to the museums that ran them,” she said. At first, some senior staff “were concerned about offending visitors who may be morally or religiously opposed to all things queer.” Ultimately, however, “both institutions realized that the exhibits were on mission and important opportunities for representation and education.”
Middleton said that when she talked with visitors in the exhibitions, “the response was overwhelmingly positive. Both shows had sharing stations where families could draw or write a response to the prompt, ‘Tell us about your family.’ We got so many wonderful little family portraits and stories. I consider that a success.” While the exhibits felt like risks to the museums, “I applaud them for taking the risk because I think both exhibits had a very positive effect on our visitors.”
Apart from Middleton’s work, other museums have been including LGBTQ families, too. As part of LGBT History Month in the U.K., the Museum of London partnered with Schools OUT UK to hold a free day of talks and workshops for families and teachers, including a performance by the London Gay Men’s Chorus and a reading of several LGBTQ-inclusive kids’ books by actor Sir Derek Jacobi.
The Chicago Children’s Museum launched an All Families Matter initiative in 2009 to welcome the LGBTQ community, and has partnered with the Family Equality Council for several years on events and activities for International Family Equality Day, including a giant rainbow staircase and a community chalkboard where visitors can share ideas on what makes a family.
And as far back as 1991, the Boston Museum of Science included a page about a family with “Two Moms” in a book that was part of its “How Your Life Began” exhibit. Coming up, it is hosting a talk on May 25 with transgender advocate Nicole Maines and her identical twin Jonas, who will discuss their family journey as Nicole transitioned. Also speaking will be Dr. Norman Spack, co-founder of the nation’s first clinic for transgender children.
Middleton herself is also working on inclusion beyond just LGBTQ families. For example, she says, “While children’s museums and some science centers have a history of being welcoming to breastfeeding parents, traditional art and history museums do not. I’m interested in helping museums update their policies and improve their facilities to better accommodate visitors with infants.”
Generally speaking, museums can better welcome diverse families, she suggests, by “updating membership policies, representing all kinds of families in exhibits, providing all-gender restrooms, and consciously choosing language that is inclusive of families of all kinds.” To help with the latter, she has created a helpful poster on Family-Inclusive Language, available at zazzle.com/magmidd.
While there has been some progress, more remains to be done. “Some museum associations have been encouraging museums to be more inclusive and have made suggestions for welcoming queer visitors,” she said. “However, I have not seen them take on family inclusion.” They could do so, she suggested, by “hosting workshops, helping museums find funding for new programming and facility upgrades, and making recommendations for family-inclusive practice.”
While she noted that it is not visitors’ responsibility to help museums improve their practice, those who wish to do so should remember: “Museums tend to respond better to being called in than being called out. Instead of penning an open letter or tweeting the museum, set up an appointment with a museum staff member and bring concrete action items.”
She also advises, “Museum workers are often overworked and underpaid so be prepared to be asked to volunteer your time to help implement these changes. Have an idea for a possible donor if your changes require funds. Change is hard for museums and every museum will respond to criticism differently, but hearing from visitors (especially members!) in person can be powerful.”
And these changes can have a widespread impact. Middleton observed, “Family is an intersection where people of so many different identities meet. Incorporating family inclusion across all aspects of museum practice can improve the visitor experience for everyone.”
Find out more about Middleton and her work at margaretmiddleton.com or @magmidd on Twitter.