REPORT

Everyday Narratives

London

26 January 2017

The writer Juliet Jacques’ memoir Trans (2015) concludes with the completion of her gender reassignment surgery. After an underwhelming visit to a pub in a half-hearted attempt to celebrate, she returns home to check her emails and scan the Guardian website for fresh content. “People might have expected me to leave the clinic and jump in the air,” Jacques explains in the epilogue, “and a film might have finished by freezing on that moment, but life just went on.” A trans life is a life like any other, as remarkable and as quotidian.

Trans is one of the 120 or so artefacts on display at the Museum of Transology, a touring exhibition that has alighted this month at London’s Fashion Space Gallery. It is the largest collection of objects pertaining to transgender people ever gathered in the UK, each of which has been donated by the trans community. Although inaugurated, curated and co-ordinated by the fashion historian E-J Scott, it is interactive and inclusive, and constitutes more than a single exhibition. “It’s been a community-driven project," explains Scott. "We’ve had trans people involved all along in building and painting workshops, so the project itself has grown to be a space that has provided dialogue and meeting spaces. It’s turned into something much bigger than simply submitting an object to a museum.”

Although now a collective project, The Museum of Transology began when Scott decided to keep the objects associated with his own reassignment surgery. These include papers, a towel, a hospital gown, paper medicine cups and a set of used needles, along with a balloon bearing the message “It’s a Boy”. Standing alone on a plinth are two jars containing Scott’s breast tissue, preserved in formaldehyde. On the wall adjacent, there is a portrait by photographer Bharat Sikka that shows Scott holding them.

For Scott, the presentation of such personal items was initially difficult. “To have autobiographical content in the show,” he says, “is something that I initially found quite confrontational.” Scott decided to offer them for display when he became convinced by the importance of such objects in representing trans lives. “Coming out, opening up and being honest about our stories is what’s going to break down the stereotypes and cisgendered narratives that surround the trans condition," an idea borne out by the recent proliferation of trans autobiographies.

When Scott put out an open call for the donation of items, he was inundated with responses. “We’re still hearing from people asking to be part of the exhibition.” The objects displayed at the Fashion Space Gallery are broadly sorted into the rooms of a house, with an additional area to stand for the hospital. The wardrobe section contains clothes, for instance, which have held some sort of importance for their donor. In the bathroom, there are objects pertaining to hygiene and beauty: lipsticks, eyelash curlers, hair removal strips and Lynx deodorant, all unremarkable objects of everyday life.

Many of the exhibits come with paper tags attached, upon which the donor has written a short text. “This lipstick,” reads one, “was from my wonderful sister, who was the first family member to accept and support my transition <3". It is a message that has a sort of equal relationship with the lipstick, not turning the object into an illustration of text but neither serving as a simple caption. “I think,” says Scott, “that authenticity is embedded both in the object and in the hand-written story.” Placing them together reaffirms that sense of authenticity.

A belief that ordinary objects provide the most authentic document of lives and communities underpins the Museum of Transology, which seeks to offer an antidote to what Scott calls the “cisgendered hyper-spectacularisation of the trans condition” found in mainstream media. The image of the trans person in contemporary society indeed often hinges around spectacle and performance. Putting aside the tacitly transphobic depictions present in much contemporary comedy, cultural representations of trans people often focus on sensational narratives centered on either transition (such as Xavier Dolan's 2012 film Laurence Anyways), tragedy (the Oscar-winning 1999 drama Boys Don’t Cry) or a combination of both (2015's The Danish Girl, a biopic of artist Lili Elbe, the first person to undergo male-to-female reassignment surgery). Whatever the merits of such features, they rarely depict the trans figure as ingrained into the rhythms of daily life, and so seldom show them as the real, varied people that they are.

The Museum of Transology’s title is both a description and a campaign. Whilst the exhibition serves as a sort of travelling museum itself, Scott’s ultimate aim is to have the items taken up by a public museum. “I would argue,” Scott explains, “that we need to proactively collect trans materials, and place them in the heritage sector. Museums allow everyday lives to be visible, and given their place in history.” Being part of a major institution would provide conservation and reach, and serve as a seal of importance; the acquisition of the Transology collection might also prompt further investigation into materials from historic and international communities, and allow for comprehensive studies of trans objects.

This sort of absorption might diffuse the makeshift intimacy and aggregate intensity of the Museum of Transology, it would mark a major event in Western society’s acceptance of transgender individuals – something especially important at a time when basic rights of LGBT are are under threat in the US and transphobic hate crime statistics have risen in the UK. Scott is confident of success. “It happened very quickly,” he says “and it's still building and still growing. It's certainly not finished. This is something that's the start of something much, much bigger.”