LGBTQ+ in the MSK | MSK Gent
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LGBTQ+ in the MSK

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LGBTQ+ topics are just as much part of daily life as any others. Popular culture is becoming ever more inclusive, yet at the same time, recent years have seen anti-LGBTQ+ legislation being ratified in multiple countries. In the hope of encouraging discourse, the MSK launched Belgium’s first LGBTQ+ museum tour in the spring of 2022. During the tour, the guide reveals some of the untold stories that have remained hidden for too long - despite being on full view in the galleries.

International developments

In recent years museums have looked for ways to open up their collections to a wider range of perspectives: the so-called 'queering' of their collections. And as they have begun to illuminate the hidden and forgotten stories that are present in their art, they have also helped to show how the experience of gender, sexual orientation and sexuality has evolved over history.

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Amsterdam Museum have both rolled out successful projects for this purpose, and so the Museum for Fine Arts Ghent (MSK) consulted them to find out how they did it. Armed with fresh insights, the MSK’s department of public relations called on historian Jonas Roelens and art historian Thijs Dekeukeleire to help reveal the untold stories hidden in the works in the museum galleries.

There was plenty of material to work with, and soon enough the team created the first LGBTQ+ tour to be offered in a Belgian fine art museum.

Untold stories

A 17th-century family portrait in which the boys wear long dresses; a major painting showing the transformation of Hermaphroditus; scenes of the goddess Artemis accompanied by her female companions; the Ghent collection’s oldest portrait of a man in love with another man: these are just a few highlights in this brand-new tour which comprises c. 10 stops.

Some of the works directly reference LGBTQ+ history, while others are less obvious in their implications. In one large painting, the Last Judgement is handed down to gay men and lesbians in the setting of Mediaeval Europe. In another, a portrait of a gynaecologist suggests a medical approach to sexuality. Looking at the tour as a whole, it is clear just how divergent people’s opinions on gender and sexual orientation have always been, and visitors are encouraged to think about our diverse views on the same issues today.

Lifting the veil

LGBTQ+ people have both curated and weighed in on the tour. Its message is clear: while LGBTQ+ themes abound in the galleries, they have also remained hidden from view for years. In the opinion of the museum, it is high time to lift the veil and reveal them. Involving as many different voices as possible was an absolute prerequisite as well as an added value: during two intensive testing sessions, a series of concerns emerged and thanks to this feedback, a more nuanced story could be told.

Whatever their own identities, visitors are encouraged to open their minds to ideas that they may never have thought about before. And while LGBTQ+ visitors may find direct connections to their own experience for the first time ever in a museum, the tour can also serve as an ideal starting point for wider discussions of its various themes.

A great success

It soon became clear that the museum was filling an important need with this new offer: the tour made the press and in no time received dozens of bookings. Parents come with children, schools use the tour to discuss these topics with the class, and museum visitors look at the Ghent collection in a completely different way.

The diversity of participants also confirmed what the museum had hoped for: that this is a tour 'by the queer community' but certainly not just 'for the queer community'.

For the MSK, the tour is a major step towards opening up new perspectives that both enrich the works in its collections and enable people to look at them with fresh eyes. The works included in the tour are not a definitive selection: others may be added in the future, and it is also possible that visitors will be inspired to express their own views and share their stories.

The tour can be booked for groups. The MSK plans even more queer programming in the future.