Mimi's Family: Photography by Matthew Clowney
Topic: Art Subtopic: General
of an Exhibition
Published on January 17, 2016, Modified on January 17, 2016
Museum: Boston Children's Museum Focus: Children
Collaborating Organization(s): Family Equality Council, GLAD, Mass Trans Political Coalition, The Network / La Red
My role: I conceived of and designed the exhibit. I reached out to photographer Matthew Clowney and introduced him to the subject of the exhibit, transgender grandparent Erica Tobias, called "Mimi" by her grandchildren. I coordinated the exhibit's debut at the Provincetown Library in Provincetown, MA.
Description and goals
Mimi’s Family: Photography by Matthew Clowney is an art exhibit for children featuring photographs of Erica Tobias, a transgender grandparent, and her family. Photographer Matthew Clowney and I worked closely with Erica, her children, and grandchildren to tell their story in a way that is meant to celebrate the experiences of gender variant individuals and inspire allies.
It’s estimated that only 9% of Americans know someone who is transgender. Our hope was that visitors would feel like they got to know Erica and her family. We also hoped that some visitors recognize themselves or their own families in these images.
The exhibit team did not want to perpetuate the harmful notion that there is one singular transgender experience, so we specifically chose to feature a single family instead of several families. By making the exhibit a deeply personal window into the lives of a single family, we are communicating to our audience that they are viewing one family’s unique experience. And Matthew’s reportage-style images strike that personal note beautifully by capturing moments between family members that showcase their relationships with one another.
Because dialogue is so important to successful family learning, we wrote the interpretation in the form of questions to spark conversation between family members. Questions like, “What does it feel like to spend time with someone you love?” and “How does your family play together?” help keep visitors’ dialogue focused on their own experiences. This technique was effective in another exhibit I designed, American Family.
We were also inspired by American Family to include a sharing station, another opportunity for visitors to reflect on their own families’ unique qualities. The sharing station consists of a child-sized table and chairs and a display space. Visitors can use provided colored pencils and paper to respond to the prompt, “Tell us about your family.” Then they can display their responses for other visitors to see. For families who want to linger in the exhibit a little longer together, there is a cozy book nook with a loveseat and a basket full of child-appropriate fiction and non-fiction books about family diversity and gender expression.
Development process and challenges
To ensure the exhibit was as accurate and respectful as possible, we worked closely with a group of advisers from local organizations including Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, GLAD, and Family Equality Council. The adviser group reviewed all exhibit text. Additionally, I worked with Leslie Swartz and Jessie Kravette to create a handout that we made available in the exhibit with a list of resources and a glossary of terms.
Alicia Greene, Community Engagement and Culture Coordinator, was diligent about contacting local queer organizations about the exhibit and connected the Museum with an educator from The Network / La Red to conduct a Trans 101 cultural competence training. This training was so popular we actually hired the educator to come back for staff who missed it.
Lessons learned, mistakes we made (and what we did about them)
The family the exhibit development team chose to feature in the exhibit is white. In a time and place where representation of people of color is sorely lacking in museums and the media at large, this is problematic.
The set of criteria we chose for our potential photography subject was very narrow. We wanted a Boston-local transgender person who was enthusiastic about being photographed and being identified publicly as transgender. To help connect with our young visitors, we also chose to prioritize someone who had a loving family with children.
The fact that it was easier for us to find a more privileged woman to feature is not surprising. Trans women of color face discrimination and violence at appalling rates. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Trans women of color … are almost certainly the group most victimized by hate violence in America.”
Because of this, we prioritized hiring a trans person of color to conduct our Trans 101 staff training and hired a genderqueer Latinx educator for the Spanish translations.
Exhibition Opened: October 2015
Traveling Exhibition: Yes
Location: Boston, MA, United States
Estimated Cost: Less than $100,000 (US)
Size: Less than 1,000 sq ft.
Other funding source(s): Indiegogo Crowdfunding Campaign