Friday January 27, 2017

The Museum of Transology turns everyday objects into artifacts to tell trans peoples' stories

The Museum of Transology collection documents the history of trans peoples' lives through the stories of everyday objects.

The Museum of Transology collection documents the history of trans peoples' lives through the stories of everyday objects. (Katy Davies / Museum of Transology)

Listen 8:20

The Museum of Transology made history when it opened this month at the London College of Fashion in London, England.

Museum of Transology - My Little Pony

Over 100 people donated everyday items related to their lives and trans identity to the Museum of Transology. (Katy Davies / Museum of Transology)

The exhibit features more than 100 deeply personal objects donated by transgender people across the U.K. — everything from hormone patches to a My Little Pony toy and even a letter from the Queen of England.

Every item is affixed with a simple, handwritten brown label that tells its story.

It's the largest collection of items related to trans identity ever displayed in the U.K. And unlike most museum exhibits, the project was created and curated entirely by people who identify as trans.

Museum of Transology Maeve Shoes

Shoes donated to the Museum of Transology by Maeve Devine. (Katy Davies / Museum of Transology)

Museum curator E-J Scott developed the concept for the exhibit after he underwent gender reassignment surgery in his twenties, a process that was both terrifying and liberating.

"It saved me," he says.

E-J Scott Portrait

Museum of Transology curator E-J Scott. (Sharon Kilgannon/ Museum of Transology)

A curator and collector at heart, Scott held on to everything from his hospital room — from his pillowcases and hospital gown to his actual breast tissue, preserved in formaldehyde upon removal.

"For me, these weren't just objects. These were absolutely symbols of the start of my new life. And they spoke to me about, on one end, trauma but on the other end, freedom."

Museum of Transology / E-J Scott Surgery 2

More items from E-J Scott's surgery, on display at the Museum of Transology. (Katy Davies / Museum of Transology)

             

Making trans narratives visible

Museum of Transology - E-J Scott Breasts

Museum of Transology curator E-J Scott kept his breasts after surgery and has placed them on display in the collection, both as historical artifacts and a symbol of his own personal story. (Katy Davies / Museum of Transology)

Scott, who works in the heritage sector, wanted to find a way to preserve these artifacts for future generations. So he put out a call for other trans people to share their stories and donate their own personal, everyday objects — and the Museum of Transology was born.

"Trans peoples' histories and lives deserve to be collected and catalogued and preserved for future generations just like everyone else's lives," says Scott. 

"So it's really important that we start collecting people's objects and stories so that they become visible within the museum."

Museum of Transology - Kate's T-Shirt

A T-shirt donated to the Museum of Transology by author and performer Kate O'Donnell. (Katy Davies / Museum of Transology)

For LGBT mental health worker Maeve Devine, who contributed to the project, it was empowering to see so many familiar objects displayed in a museum space.

Maeve Devine

Musician and LGBT mental health worker Maeve Devine. (Sharon Kilgannon/ Museum of Transology)

"Those items and artifacts are so important to the people that own them," she says. "They're about forming identity; they're about narrative; they're about being.

"That's what I was struck with when I went into the exhibition — that I could be standing in a room full of so many things that were normal to so many people who were like me, and so many people I socialize with. I did find that awe-inspiring. I think it's beautiful; I think it's wonderful for that space to exist."

       

Personal stories in everyday objects

17-year-old Colin Lievens donated his chest binder, a constrictive garment used for flattening breasts, to the collection. Lievens began wearing chest binders around age 14, and sees them as a symbol of gender expression. But his relationship with the garment is not simple.

Museum of Transology - Colin's chest binder

An old chest binder, donated to the Museum of Transology by Colin Lievens. When Lievens outgrew this binder, he used its material to modify another one so that it would fit him properly. (Katy Davies / Museum of Transology)

"Chest binders are really, really uncomfortable. They really hurt my back and stop me from breathing properly. But for me, it's about deciding whether the physical pain or the mental pain is greater that day. Most days, I decide that it hurts more in my own head than it does hurt my chest."

For Scott, the many personal objects and stories on display at the Museum of Transology represent a small, but important, step toward greater rights and recognition for trans people.

Colin Lievens

Colin Lievens, youth president of the Brighton trans support group "Transformers." (Sharon Kilgannon/ Museum of Transology)

"Violence against trans people has doubled in the last five years in the U.K.," he says. "However, I think that we have never seen such a vibrant, confident trans community. People are coming out; they're being brave; and they're telling their stories."

"That's empowering, and we have to really focus on the idea that there is so much further to go rather than just writing it off as being done."

To hear E-J Scott, Maeve Devine and Colin Lievens share the stories behind the everyday objects they donated to the Museum of Transology, click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.

Museum of Transology - Silicon Breasts

A pair of silicon breasts donated to the Museum of Transology. (Katy Davies / Museum of Transology)