Note: this post reflects the personal opinion and analysis of the author and should not be taken as a public statement from the museum.
While I was a Kress Foundation Interpretive Fellow at the Portland Museum of Art, I had the privilege of working with a wonderful educator and woman, Hana Layson. Hana handles school and teacher relations at the Portland Art Museum, and in 2015, launched the first teen-hosted night at the museum working with LGBTQ school groups around the city. I was lucky enough to be able to play a part in it.
All teens need safe spaces to try on new identities, to be away from parents and teachers, to go on cheap dates and to hang out with their friends. (Note: this is why I think all museums should be free for teens, but that’s another point). But for LGBTQ teens, safe can be harder to find.
Museums can be that place, easily. Unlike in history books and AP English literature, LBGTQ teens can see themselves represented within our contemporary and modern collections. And, whether they know it or not, often in our staff as well: security, admin, curatorial, education. At PAM, this event overtly said what we hoped they already knew: this is a safe place for you. With security guards who don’t care the gender of the person whose hand you’re holding and a nice, true story for parents if you’re not ready to come out: “I was at the museum.” And it’s true.
The event the teens put together, in conjunction with Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945 was called Alternative Identities-Modern Expression. There were tours of the exhibit (and the museum), plus food, The Museum Makeover Project, and activities which invited play with ideas about gender, presentation, and identity. There were resources for local resources and, perhaps most importantly to our participants, a large number of teens that they’d never met before, siloed within their own schools.
A few of my favorites were the all gender presentation welcoming photobooth, which was essentially half of one high school’s theater costume stock!
An opportunity to draw or collage textile pieces to create your own fashion… using not a gendered male or female body, but an image of an articulating wooden artist’s model.
And a wall in our Object Stories gallery that we took over for the night to ask the teens to tell their Clothing Stories using just simple index cards and a question: “Tell the story of something you’re wearing.” The responses were beautiful.
A sweater from a friend is warm and loving and always elicits a story when someone compliments you. It’s like a hug.
I’m wearing coral red pants, a blue and white button-up shirt with bright red buttons and gray shoes. I like to wear bright colors. I like to be noticed.
My clothes say that I will not conform to societies pre-conceived ideas of me. [sic]
Sometimes I think we dismiss the amazing intellectual depth of teens–looping them into K-12 as a whole. Yes, they’re statistically worse drivers and their frontal lobes aren’t fully connected. But they have incredible things to share, if we’re open to listening rather than telling.