Homewares: A decanter and a figure of dolls from the Charlotte Museum.
The collection and exhibitions at Charlotte Museum have a wide range of homeware on display. These objects were once a part of someone’s life and came with personalized memories. Being the new home of these objects, the museum plays the essential role of being its caretaker and storyteller. The domesticity of these objects sheds light on the themes of home. Home is much more than the four walls that surround it. Home is dynamic and changes according to the people living within those four walls. We design and decorate our homes according to our likes and dislikes. Home reflects our consumption, purchasing, acquisition, which is a part of our identity. We are safe, comfortable, and are expressive at home. The things in my current home reflect my choices, expression, identity, and character. They also hold my deepest secrets and my fondest memories.
As a little girl who spent most of her time in a church community, I was told that home comprises a female mother and a male father. Anything other than the norm was considered a sin and frowned upon. Society has been fostering the ideals of a heterosexual home via media, governments, and religion. The man was the breadwinner, and women were expected to fulfill the role of a wife and a mother. Women were forced to live in abusive households while suppressing their identities. Home for them then was designed according to the wishes of the man. The 1960s’ saw the rise of feminist activism here in Aotearoa and the rest of the world. Women were fighting for equal opportunities and ending discrimination within the patriarchy. They were concerned about their safety in a community that marginalized them. Lesbians, too, joined this activism to raise awareness about their situation in society. The term “lesbian” was still an unpopular vocabulary.
Meanwhile, society also had trends of a homophobic culture evolving. Lesbians were more likely to get attacked and abused than gay men. Hence the need for a safe space outside the public realm was considered ideal. This seemed impossible with the inequalities in employment and wages and more outlandish with the rising cases of abuse and harassment from men.
In her article “Lesbian living spaces,” Sarah Elwood discusses that lesbian spaces have multiple meanings for those who live in them. While lesbians may feel safe and liberated at home, the neighborhood could be unsafe. She concluded by saying that as long as heterosexual discourses are prevalent, lesbian spaces remain socially marginalized. Home is so crucial for character development. As much of lesbian history remain unrecorded, objects from lesbian homes and oral stories are what’s left. Iris Young says that “Homemaking is a process and gives material support to the identity of those whose home it is.” The objects in their homes were a display of who they were. They have witnessed things that the outside world has overlooked. They didn’t have to hide their true self at home. The houseware in lesbian homes is a reflection of their personal and social identity.
With the literature out there and reading through Broadsheet magazine, one realizes that familial homes were a point of oppression in the lives of many young lesbians. Women had to create separate spaces for themselves to be free, appreciated, and loved. They had to work and struggle twice as hard to make a living for themselves. The opportunities available were carved out from male identities and expectations, leaving women to fend for themselves or be at the mercy of men. Something interesting that I came across while reading an article named “From Kamp Girls to Political Dykes,” by Alison Laurie, mentions a rule from their subculture- “And most importantly, learn to lead a double life if you want to hold down a job. Dresses at work (pants were totally unacceptable for any job then) and high heels. Learn to tell lies, to monitor yourself constantly, to always hold back. Lesbians get fired, kicked out of flats — always, if “they” find out.” The belief that things would socially change and eventually get better kept these women going.
The female community has always looked to help out each other. Since getting a job wasn’t easy as a female, small businesses were started by these women to make ends meet. Bookshops and galleries featuring second-hand books on feminism and women’s arts and crafts enabled the community to share and support each other. Broadsheet had a bookstore in Auckland of second-hand books and sold handicrafts and jewelry made by women. Writers like Sarah Buxton and Harriett Winn write about the scene here in Auckland, and social places were vital in building connections with people who share a common sexual identity. There was still a cloud of discomfort around the LGBTQ community within heterosexual discourse. Though there were public spaces like clubs and pubs for intermingling within the community, private homes were a preferred social meeting space before the 1990’s.
I love the concept of home due to the range of emotions and values that it can hold. While homes can be dysfunctional and toxic, homes can also be solitude and refuge. The spaces that lesbians created were spaces that reflected their struggles and lifestyles—a non heterosexualized space, a space of hope and endurance. So why does homeware belong in a museum? As a museum studies student, I believe that not everything should be in a museum. However, I appreciate the museum’s efforts to save these objects as a remembrance of all the sisters who fought their fights to be where they are today. I believe that the museum tells a story using this houseware, which I can’t put down in words—a story that travels through time and resonates with love.
Annaida Varghese is a student at the University of Auckland and is currently working at the Charlotte Museum as part of our internship programme through the Museum and Cultural Heritage course.