Matt Smith is an artist, curator and Honorary Visiting Fellow in the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester.
In his keynote speech he took us through an overview of his inspiring work, making artworks and interventions in museum spaces, from 2010 to the present day.
Starting with ‘Queering the Museum’ at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (2010), Matt reinterprets existing objects and makes new ones, and uses juxtapositions between objects in order to reveal and tell, often but not exclusively, LGBT narratives.
More recently, Matt has set up an organisation with others – Unravel – in order to explore how craft can be used to reinterpret historic houses and highlight queer histories and personal stories.
In his latest work, as artist in residence at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Matt has explored several different strategies for putting personal narratives centre stage in museum contexts. In order to reflect on the reality of life in The Potteries – the closure of ceramic factories, their redevelopment into accommodation – Matt has recast objects from moulds from the now closed Spode factory in Stoke-on-Trent. He is working with a composer to produce an aural response to the closure of the factories to accompany this visual work.
The second part of Matt’s residency has seen him explore empty plinths in the V&A collection – how they operate as a means of elevating or creating status, but also as supports for objects – vulnerable objects – that can’t stand up on their own. He has ‘elevated’ finds from charity shops, placing them on plinths to explore and play with accepted museal and public sculpture-related hierarchies.
Matt has also undertaken two redisplays of cases at the V&A, with objects that, in juxtaposition and interpretation, explore the way in which museums operate. In the first display, he ordered ceramic figurines in a hierarchy, by country and from the most ‘manly’ to the most ‘camp’. He then correlated the campest with the historical success of each country at producing Eurovision Song Contest winners!
In the second display, Matt looked at how museum collections are often skewed by what was historically seen as important to collect and collect from. Using the racist slogan ‘No dogs, no blacks, no Irish’ as a starting point, he explored how, as attitudes in society have changed, the objects that museums need to talk about society have had to change.
Outreach has been a core part of the V&A residency. Matt wanted to see how the museum would deal with working with the LGBT community, and so he organised family trails, workshops and ‘alternative’ family portraits in order to explore less excluding ways of talking about families in museum interpretation. These activities also considered the emotional pull between objects and people and how this can be used in the interpretation of objects. Although the museum puts on alternative tours, LGBT narratives are not included in museum interpretation and have to be overlain on objects or are reliant on visitors’ prior knowledge. As a case in point, the V&A currently has (only) two object labels that deal directly with LGBT narratives – many LGBT people and diverse narratives are not made visible. In the V&A’s recent Alexander McQueen blockbuster exhibition, Matt notes that there was no mention of McQueen’s sexuality. And yet the museum does ‘talk’ about heterosexuality. Not least, this is implicit in its name, which references a straight married couple.
While the V&A has identified around 250 LGBT-related objects in its collection, there is a huge disconnect between this and interpretation. And Matt notes that there are no references to the LGBT community in the Museum’s diversity policy.
This leaves one to question, argues Matt, how welcome LGBT people are in the Museum?
Heritage Consultant, Tricolor Ltd.
University Teacher, School of the Arts, Loughborough University
Honorary Visiting Fellow, School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester.