“The present is not enough.” – José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia 
In the summer of 2009 Copenhagen was crowned LGBT capital of Europe. Or, at least, so it seemed. For an extended week, from July 25 to August 2, Copenhagen hosted World Outgames 2009, “an international sports, cultural and human rights event highlighting and celebrating the vitality in the global LGBT environment.” Thousands of participants and tourists filled the streets of Copenhagen during these days, in a city literally draped in rainbow flags. For a researcher on gender and sexual political art and activism this was obviously a good time to be in town. Not only were lots of LGBT events, actions, and exhibitions on, but the visitors from all over the world also changed the face and sound of the city to the better. Copenhagen was quite sexy this week, no doubt.
Out of the many events happening, I was especially eager to see the exhibition at the Copenhagen City Museum included in the Outgames cultural program, Som jeg er: homo/bi/trans i Kbh – As I Am: LGBT in CPH. This was the first major exhibition about LGBT life to be presented in any Danish historical museum, and I must admit that I had quite high expectations to the show. This was not only due to the fact that the exhibition was well funded by the municipality, but also because of the ambitious curators who had created quite some stir in advance of the show. In October 2008 the City Museum and Outgames arranged a seminar in relation to As I Am entitled, “That which is not visible, does not exist. That which does not exist does not have any rights.” The seminar included a number of museums directors and curators from major public institutions in Copenhagen who had been invited to discuss why LGBT perspectives and histories are absent from their collections. Suffice to say it was a rather sad seminar. The museum directors delivered a series of well-known excuses. The curator of the Medical Museion, for instance, explained how she did not think the museum had anything relevant in their archives. Others said the same. They all, of course, wanted to include LGBT histories in their museums, but they did not have any stories to tell. While LGBT history seemed to be lost, so was the imagination and curiosity of the museum directors.
In contrast, the curators of the As I Am exhibition had a different perspective and will to change: Inger Wiene, the inspector at the City Museum, and anthropologist Jens Pedersen were eager to create a different exhibition, based on a critical perspective on how alternative histories could be told. At the seminar they talked about the demanding archival work they had undertaken and their upcoming plans of interviewing the local LBGT community, whose opinions and stories they wanted to include in the show.
I was curious to see the result of the curators’ vision for As I Am, and went for a visit shortly after the opening. The museum’s façade was decorated with rainbow flags on golden flagpoles, but once inside it was quite difficult to know where the exhibition started. It turned out that it took place on both floors of the museum – with smaller interventions in the main collection, and a large exhibition in the banquet hall on the museum’s first floor.
After wandering for quite some time through the rooms of the permanent exhibition on the story of Copenhagen, I finally found some evidence of As I Am: Small purple placards with text, glued on to the walls and window displays. The first pieces I found were placards with quotes on homosexuality from the Bible. The quotes were presented without any explanation or context, and while obviously functioning as a general reminder of the long tradition of Christian homonegativism, it was difficult to understand what they were meant to tell us about LGBT life in Copenhagen in the past. The placement of the placards around an old map of Zealand didn’t make the intention any clearer.
Fortunately, some of the other texts were more motivated and informative, especially the few placards with fascinating stories of “sodomites” and “criminals” of the past. Mainly based on prison reports, one of these placards included a brief account of Gotfried Jacob Eichstedt – a tailor apprentice who was arrested in 1784 after his “real” name was revealed to be Maria Stokkenbech. Unfortunately, these stories were not integrated in the permanent displays, and quite a few of them appeared to be early drafts rather than thoroughly worked-out texts.
The stories of Copenhageners of the past raised the difficult questions of names, identities, and labels in history writing. As the exhibition was said to cover LBGT in CPH, one started to wonder how to understand the identity categories in this context. For instance, was the tailor apprentice Gotfried Jacob Eichstedt to be seen as a trans man? transvestite? or (butch) lesbian? Given that a term such as “transsexuality” is a fairly recent construction, dating back to the last two decades of the 19th century – and the current meanings of the LGB categories are even younger – categorizing historically on the basis of these modern terms is obviously problematic. Of course, the fact that these terms did not exist does not mean that homo- and bisexual acts did not happen, or that trans people did not exist – but how are we to categorize such actions of the past in the present? Reflections on historical identification and anachronism were absent in this part of the show, underlining the presentist attitude suggested by the exhibition’s title As I Am. But it would have been interesting to know how the problems and challenges of the politics of identity, central to the archival logic of LGBT history, had influenced the curators’ selection on which subjects and histories to include in the exhibition.
In spite of the few captivating stories, it was difficult not to be disappointed by the fact that these placards were the only interventions in the museum’s permanent exhibition. I can hardly think of a more traditional way of interfering in a major collection than adding small notes with extra LGBT information. The few placards left the structure of the exhibition untouched, and the intervention did nothing to challenge the heteronormative construction of the city’s history represented in the museum – centered, as it is, on family, church, (male) workers, (male) army officers, etc. As I Am could have disrupted this narrative by for instance highlighting the exclusionary logic behind these straight stories, or by visualizing the absence of alternative lives and bodies in the window displays of the City Museum. Instead the placards seemed to want to “repair” the current heteronormative story by including some extra information. The result of this restoration process seemed anything but successful.
Those of us working with LGBT and queer histories are familiar with the difficult archival politics of state museums and archives when it comes to alternative storytelling. Many of us have realized, as historian Peter Hegarty poignantly puts it, how “the recovery of gay and lesbian pasts is impeded by the lack of a coherent lesbian and gay archive, the deliberate destruction of personal letters, and the withholding of access to archives for gay and lesbian scholars.” There are endless stories of archives lost or destroyed due to historical or contemporary homophobia, and researchers on gender and sexuality have often met fierce resistance. When not destroyed, material on non-normative sexuality has also been excluded from official archives on a “moral” basis, related to the fact that homosexuality and other “perversions” have been criminalized and/or pathologized until fairly recently in the West. In institutional archives, traces of LGBT people of the past are usually only to be found in the registers of the criminal and sick.
While the curators of As I Am used some of these “negative” presences in the archives of criminals to tell the short stories of non-normative lives in Copenhagen in the past, the exhibition did not reflect upon these important archival and historiographical issues. This despite the fact that the problem of a seemingly “empty” archive was one of the reasons why this exhibition was necessary in the first place. In my opinion this represented a loss of opportunity, as the heteronormative structure of archives and history production would be an important and relevant theme to communicate to the visiting public, and not only a few notes with “facts” of LGBT life in Copenhagen of the past.
If the first part of the exhibition was difficult to find, the main section of As I Am was far more visible and engaging. The elegant banquet hall had been filled with temporary walls, built into an over-all structure of gold-painted wooden beams. The show did not have any clear trajectory, but the different colors on the walls seemed to create some thematic connections: The blue walls included texts and material pertaining to how lesbian and gays have been treated by the juridical system and the police; the purple walls focused on lesbian and gay activism and communities in the 70s; the turquoise walls thematized a somewhat confused mixture of transsexuality and transvestitism, while the red and pink walls touched upon everything from same-sex dancing, AIDS, Dykes on Bikes, SM culture, and male cruising.
The themes addressed were many and different, as it should be in an exhibition on LGBT life in a city as diverse as Copenhagen. This part of the show also used placards as the main communicative strategy. The walls were filled with short texts, supplemented with photographs, screens with film clips, clothes, posters, and other forms of “ephemera.” It was obvious that the curators had tried to include as much material as possible, prioritizing quantity over structure, aesthetics, and communication. Some walls were somewhat confusingly structured, and as a visitor one really needed quite some time to be able to understand the connections between the objects, images, and texts.
But there were many fantastic objects on show, for instance the framed hand-made board game on a wall on lesbian communities. Structured around two women’s symbols the players move around in two circles – one entitled “Women’s commune” (Kvindekommune), the other “Capitalist male society” (Kapitalistisk mandssamfund). The circles were divided into spaces with texts reading, “Perhaps you are bisexual and not a lesbian. Think about it, and wait for your next turn,” or, “You give an evil eye to a male chauvinist, throw the dice again.” This fascinating board game enhanced my curiosity: Who made this beautiful game? Who played it? Who saved it and framed it? Unfortunately, no information was provided that could place the game in a specific context, and it was therefore impossible to know whether these questions could be answered or not.
A similar “anonymous” presentation could be found in the display of gay and lesbian pornography. On a blue wall, a charming series of lesbian erotica from what looked like the 1960s or 1970s was mounted. In six photographs we see two women moving from sitting awkwardly on a couch to starting to caress each other, ending up undressed, kissing, and touching each other’s breasts. The presentation did not contain any reference to where these images came from. The wall text only included some paragraphs on disparate themes such as “Engendered sickness,” “Sex education,” in addition to the one on pornography:
Among “French postcards” and “nature studies,” it always seems to have been a niche for images of homosexuality and transgender persons. The legalization of pornography in 1967 (text) and 1969 (images) made Denmark famous and infamous across the world, and Copenhagen became almost synonymous with everything that was daring and lewd – “and that which is even worse.”
The text is quite typical for the wall text in the show. While it provides us with some superficial information on the theme “pornography in Denmark,” it is anything but enlightening for the photographs on show. Rather, it turns the visual material into curious illustrations. The series of lesbian pornography is indeed peculiar, but it is also more than this. The photographs are historical sources with a potential of telling us something about lesbian desire and politics in Copenhagen. When dealing with pornography as historical sources the imagery is not always the most interesting aspect. Often it is the context of its production, use, and circulation that can rouse our historical imagination: Who took these pictures? Who are the models? Who desired these depicted women? Who masturbated to them? And, not the least, who cared to save them as precious objects? Do they come from the City Museum’s archive? Or have they been donated to the show from a private person or collector? As no information is provided, it is hard to know whether the curators would know the answer to this or not. But even though the material might have been anonymous from the start, this un-knowing could in itself have been an interesting point of departure if stated, telling us something about the archival legacies of illicit historical sources such as pornography.
Since pornography has also been a matter of heated debates in different feminist and lesbian feminist circles for years, this material, moreover, could have been used as an opening for addressing conflicts and discussions within the lesbian scene in Copenhagen. But disputes and differences are not taken up in the show. By de-contextualizing the pictures and presenting them as illustrations of pornography in general, such nuances are lost.
While As I Am was filled with fascinating visual material like these photographs, the material was unfortunately only presented as silent illustrations to the textual “facts” on the placards. This reduction of visual and cultural material left out several important perspectives and histories. When I am interested in the context surrounding for instance the board game and erotic photographs, it is not because I think texts are better sources than images or object, but rather that context is important for how images and visual material function as sources. If the curators had invited us into the relationships that these photographs and objects were part of before they where presented in this show, many different perspectives could have been raised. Detached from the emotional, personal, archival, and other contextual relations in the museum’s unidentified presentation, alternative stories are lost. Quite paradoxically for an exhibition filled with images and objects, it is the textual placards that stand out as the main communicatory strategy – while the visual material functions as illustrative entertainment. Hence, As I Am unfortunately repeats the dominating prioritizing of text for the understanding of history, excluding the visual, tactile, and performative from the realm of historical sources.
The textual authority in the exhibition is not an exception in the context of history exhibitions. The prioritizing of text has for long also dominated the theoretical and methodological traditions in the humanities in general. But in relation to LGBT histories in particular, where traditional written archival records are scarce, one could ask whether it would not have been especially pertinent to think beyond the realm of the textual in structuring the exhibition. Recent queer-theoretical discussions on archives might have provided some inspiration to address these issues. As performance theorist José Esteban Muñoz has pointed out in the article “Ephemera as Evidence” (1996), the un-documentable and ephemeral are central to any understanding of queer history. In an attempt to outline the specific temporality of queer acts and performance, Muñoz writes:
Queerness is often transmitted covertly. This has everything to do with the fact that leaving too much of a trace has often meant that the queer subject has left herself open for attack. Instead of being clearly available as visible evidence, queerness has instead existed as innuendo, gossip, fleeting moments, and performances that are meant to be interacted with by those within its epistemological sphere – while evaporating at the touch of those who would eliminate queer possibility.
Muñoz reminds us that the lack of queer presence in official archives and histories are related to the performative and ephemeral quality of queer acts. Destructing traces that could confirm queerness have been important to survive in a heteronormative world. Focusing on the “invisible evidence” of queerness, Muñoz shows the necessity of rethinking the archive when writing and presenting queer history.
Muñoz’s call for thinking beyond the textual document in queer storytelling is also echoed in cultural theorist Ann Cvetkovich’s seminal book An Archive of Feelings (2003). Here she points out that “[l]esbian and gay history demands a radical archive of emotion in order to document intimacy, sexuality, love, and activism – all areas of experience that are difficult to chronicle through the materials of a traditional archive.”
Cvetkovich’s reminder of the importance of affect and emotions in LGBT history could have been a fruitful perspective for the presentation of objects and visual material in the As I Am exhibition. Especially since it is apparent that many of the objects and images on show have been preserved and included because they have had an emotional importance to someone, either as a trace or token reminding of love, sex, friendships, or untimely deaths. But in As I Am, little has been done to communicate such affective attachments and queer kinds of valuations. Only a few statements from persons who have donated material have been included in the show. These short personal stories on the felt value of things are effective and touching, creating rare moments of intimacy in an otherwise dispassionate exhibition.
A space was reserved on the entrance to the main exhibition for visitors’ comments. Several people voiced their disappointment with the way the exhibition presented Copenhagen’s LGBT history as something that ended long ago. It was difficult to disagree with these observations. As I Am did not address or actualize current issues and political struggles, and unenlightened visitors could easily think that Copenhagen did not have an active LGBT community or a queer activist scene at present. Except for a brief reference to events such as the annual activist gathering Copenhagen Queer Festival, the exhibition historicized political struggles that are still being fought. Thus, As I Am seemed to present LGBT life in “the twilight of equality” – consolidating the dominant view that there is nothing left to fight for.
This tale of uniform historical progression was further underlined by the fact that the most “up-to-date” wall in the exhibition thematized rainbow families and the so-called lesbian baby boom – as if the story of LGBT life in Copenhagen started with radical resistance and ended in assimilated family life. In this sense, As I Am seemed to fit perfectly into the picture of Copenhagen as the most gay-friendly city in the world. But what had to be forgotten for this story to be told? What bodies, laws, prejudices, struggles, beatings, sex acts, dirty queers, and others were left out of this image?
The narrative of development offered in As I Am takes part in a wider tendency to present LGBT history as a linear movement from a negative past to a positive present; from repression to openness; from shame to pride. Literary theorist Heather Love describes the structure of this specific story with reference to the development of an analogue photographic print. In this “darkroom of liberation,” she writes, “gay pride is a reverse or mirror image of gay shame, … the ‘negative’ of the closet case or the isolated protogay child is developed into a photograph of an out, proud gay man.” The problem with the development of this black-and-white picture is that this representation of progress frames the past in a certain way, as something we have left behind. This leaves no room for shades of grey; for continuing experiences of inequality and shame; for feelings of anger and rage.
My belief in the importance of interrupting and dismantling this story of progression should not be taken as an attempt to deny that advancement has been made. I am indeed grateful to, and have benefitted tremendously from, the important work by LGBT activists in carving out a space for non-normative lives and sexual cultures in a vastly heteronormative world. But even though laws have changed and possibilities are greater, we must not forget that the quality of some of these advances is disputable and the distribution highly uneven, with the result that many so-called problems of the past live on in the present.
The Danish political culture is influenced by a neoliberal agenda of pragmatics and consensus, where LGBT issues are frequently being presented and perceived as a question of consumerist lifestyle diversification. In this seemingly geopolitical deadlock we must never cease to imagine different social worlds. “The present is not enough,” as José Esteban Muñoz passionately reminds us in Cruising Utopia (2009), his recent book on queer futurity, “[i]t is impoverished and toxic for queers and other people who do not feel the privilege of majoritarian belonging, normative tastes, and ‘rational’ expectations.” In other words, we must return to the darkroom and redo the printing of the picture of the perfect present. I believe that the history-producing darkroom is capable of more than developing “positive” images useful for upholding the status quo. This darkroom is a place to fuck and fuck things up, to twist and to queer, to work and have fun. In this queer darkroom of history-making we can scratch the negatives and create alternative visions, showing the non-linear connections between the past, the present, and the future.
It is not often one finds ambitious and well-financed historical exhibitions with a LGBT perspective in Copenhagen. Initially getting up my hopes and expectations the exhibition made my disappointment all the more severe. I find little satisfaction in critiquing an exhibition such as As I Am, being aware of the uniqueness of its scope and the hard work of the curators in putting the show together. But it is because of the importance of this form of historical projects that I find it necessary to address the shortcomings of the show, as a hope that it may trigger or engender new interventions into queer history.
As I Am reminded me of the need for new and more diverse ways of approaching the writing and presentation of LGBT and queer history – ways that question progression as a main trajectory. We need to develop a “politics of the past,” as Heather Love formulates it, that can account for the many ways in which the “past continues to structure queer experience in the present.” An inspiration for such a historical approach can be found in the writings of the German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin. In an attempt to make a distinction between historical commentary and criticism in the seminal text “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin suggests that “every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.” Insisting on the importance of re-working of the past in and from the present, Benjamin shows that any historical project which attempts to “reconstruct the past ‘as it really was’ is impossible – if desirable at all.” Instead, Benjamin delineates a different approach to history – a preposterous one, as Mieke Bal has described it – moving from the present to the past, not from past to present. While all histories are written in the present, not all are written in present tense. As I Am is an example of the latter, as the exhibition tells a story of the past detached from the present’s concerns, with the result that the existing LGBT history seems to “disappear irretrievably.”
Some people might find my call for an engaged historical practice to represent a radical politicization of history that sidesteps the scope of academic work as well as official “objective” institutions such as the City Museum. But a detached history of progression is also abundantly ideological, inscribing itself – intentionally or not – into a political narrative maintaining the status quo. Instead of leaving politicized history aside, we should learn to “‘look forward’ while we are ‘feeling backward’” – as Heather Love so beautifully phrases it – in order to use history more productively in the service of imagining better futures.