Images by Matthew Clowney
“What makes your family special?”
“What does it feel like to spend time with someone you love?”
Though these are not small inquiries, children are encouraged to engage with these and other questions at the Boston Children’s Museum throughout the Gallery exhibit Mimi’s Family, designed for children (in Spanish and English) and featuring photos of a family with a transgender grandparent, Erica (Mimi) Tobias.
The art exhibit, closing December 13, showcases the photographs of artist and Rhode Island School of Design professor Matthew Clowney. An immersive experience, visitors enter the exhibit through a door and are invited to walk through photographs of the various rooms of Erica’s home to learn about how her family spends time together. Following that introduction, visitors can cozy up in a nook full of books about gender and family diversity while ruminating on these questions, and are invited to create versions of their own family with paper and colored pencils at a sharing station.
Narratives of children and their relationship to loved ones who undergo a gender transition remain largely invisible, perhaps assumed too complicated or taboo for younger audiences. Erica, meanwhile, speaks warmly of her coming out to her grandchildren, and in an interview with the Advocate explains, “They don’t have any preconceived notions … The love that they have for me hasn’t changed. And from the first moment that they became aware [I’m trans], we didn’t skip a beat.” Six of her grandchildren participated in the project.
Conscious of the opportunity photography offers to create allies to the trans community among visitors, the curators make it possible to become intimate with Erica’s experience coming out, and also with her experience as a transgender woman later in life. The need for visibility of a transgender grandparent within a relatable and recognizable setting is at the heart of the photography. The project’s mission: for “visitors who see this exhibit [to] feel like they’ve gotten to know Erica and her family,” and for “some visitors [to] recognize themselves or their families in these images.”
Notably interactive, the exhibit space offers a chance for children to explore questions of family, love, and gender. Erica speaks candidly about the importance of people coming up with questions based on the various panels they walk through in touring Mimi’s family life: “I was so afraid of what my parents would think and what the world would think, and you know I think if I thought at the time that I could talk to my parents about it, I wouldn’t have cared so much what the world thought.”
Similarly, activist and author Grace Stevens sees Mimi’s Family as a major opportunity, noting, “I’m sure this exhibit will inspire so many people to have a conversation they didn’t know they could have or were willing to have but they must have.”
Boston Children’s Museum President and CEO Carole Charnow adds that the institution seeks to cultivate a welcoming environment, as the conversation may be difficult for some. “Within the safe and accessible context of a children’s museum, and in a dignified way, Mimi’s Family offers opportunities for discussion, perspective taking, empathy, and understanding in developmentally appropriate ways,” Charnow says.
Even though the journey shared in these images is of a family in Canton, Massachusetts, Erica’s story has the opportunity to connect with families all across the country.
Where will Erica and her family visit next? This remains to be seen.
Visitors and supporters can donate to help sustain the project and bring Clowney’s photographs and Mimi’s Family to more cities.