The Schwules Museum is a critically important institution. It was the first museum in the world dedicated to the promotion and exhibition of LGBT-related art and artifacts. It holds an extensive archive of photographs, videos, films, sound recordings, autographs, art works, and ephemera dating back to 1896, much of which plays an invaluable role in the researching and documentation of queer history in Germany and abroad. Its necessity as a bastion of visibility in today’s increasingly heated political environment is undeniable, and its recent move from the Mehringdamm in Kreuzberg to a brand new facility in Berlin’s Tiergarten district promised to provide the Museum with an expanded platform for discourse and dialogue.
I was excited to attend the re-opening party, held on an especially brisk spring evening in mid-May. The festivities began with a languid cocktail gathering under a cropping of linden trees in a park across the street. Drag queens mingled with suits-and-ties while young boys in tight jeans lounged in the grass sipping white wine spritzers. Inside a small building at the center of the park, Klaus Wowereit, the Mayor of Berlin, spoke to a room full of VIPs while the rest of us watched on a projection screen in the adjacent room.
I was anxious to see the inaugural exhibition and before I knew it a grand procession led by a man in a bedazzled suit and a befeathered headdress drew the audience across the street as the new museum opened its doors. It was a sight to behold as the sun set on Lützowstraße: the street was filled with queers of all colors and sizes and various forms of fashion. I was anticipating an exhibition reflecting this crowd. I was anticipating a marker of diversity showcasing what queer life in Berlin has become and the potential of what it can be. I was sorely mistaken in my anticipations.
Transformation, Unknown Studio: Bearded Woman, photo, around 1890; ©Schwules Museum
Before I begin my critique, I should mention that the new exhibition hall is gorgeous. It is spacious and airy with a comfortable café to promote conversation and numerous rooms which, if utilized properly, can display multiple and dynamic themed exhibitions simultaneously. Unfortunately, this was not the case for the grand re-opening exhibition, aptly titled Transformation. As I perused the various galleries one thought kept undermining my enjoyment: I was distracted by the lack of diversity, the lack of originality, and the blatant lack of representations for people of color and female or transgendered identified bodies. This was an exhibition for, by, and about white gay men. At times it felt as if I was walking through a hallway of repeatedly similar images of bearded Caucasian males holding hands or embracing. This is 2013. This dialogue is tired. New voices and bodies need to be seen and need to be heard.
In terms of execution: overhung. The works were cramped and on top of each other, without space to breathe. It was difficult to contemplate the importance of one work of art without being distracted by the next. The most recognizable piece in the collection, Chance Meeting by American conceptual photographer Duane Michals, was shoved in a back corner and poorly lit. The hanging had no flow, no fluid connection between different sections. In the museum’s defense, the holdings of the archive are comparatively large given the subject matter and the need to showcase a broad selection is obviously paramount for the institution’s curators. As a plus, there was specific attention placed on a historical representation of artifacts from Germany and Western Europe that proved to be informative and entertaining.
Transformation, Exhibition View, © Schwules Museum, Berlin; Photo: Tobias Wille.
Overall the evening was enjoyable, but the exhibition was unfortunately not. I will not hold this against the Schwules Museum, of course, because I believe in its mission and trust that it will adapt to the changing cultural landscape of queer identity. Hopefully, it can use this misstep as a springboard for future exhibitions, ones that can showcase our diversity, rather than our assimilation.
(Image on top: Transformation, Unkown artist: self-portrait, around 1830; © Schwules Museum.)