Panel discusses need for LGBTQ museum
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Those interested in exploring a new LGBTQ history museum recently discussed a series of questions that need to be addressed before such a project becomes a reality.
Queer historians and others gathered at the GLBT History Museum to talk about the project, which has been a priority of the GLBT Historical Society in recent years.
The goal of the July 25 panel discussion, "The Making of a Queer Museum," was to offer a multigenerational conversation about the role of museums in preserving and presenting the history and culture of marginalized communities.
Having occupied the 4127 18th Street address in the Castro since 2010, the GLBT History Museum lease is set to expire in 2020. Historical society officials, who oversee the museum, don't know where it will go next, but Terry Beswick, the society's executive director, wants a larger space.
The panelists' remarks, plus observations and comments from those who attended, will also contribute to San Francisco's Citywide LGBTQ Cultural Heritage Strategy, part of the San Francisco Planning Commission's project to preserve and promote LGBTQ cultural heritage in San Francisco. The final report will be sent to the Board of Supervisors to guide the city in its budgeting and determine what buildings, programs, and services should be protected.
Queer independent museum consultant Paul Gabriel laid out a series of questions that need to be addressed before a new queer museum could become reality, though he said there were no definite answers.
"Are we going to be an identity-based museum, a challenge considering how diverse our community is, or are we going to be a general access institution?" he asked.
Gabriel said that when he started thinking about the possibility of an LGBTQ museum in the late 1990s, he was shocked to discover there was no dedicated exhibition space for anything queer in the city. The historical society opened its Castro museum in 2011.
Queer public historian Gerard Koskovich, a founding member of the historical society, noted how only 50 years ago, museums were places where masterpieces of the culture were displayed for the edification of visitors. The authority of the museum itself established which narratives of the past would be rendered legitimate and which would be disregarded, he said.
"The result was that certain groups were left out, especially LGBTQ people," Koskovich said. "Since then, we've had to queer museums in at least two ways. First, we had to take apart the concept of museums and reimagine such places as something other than cavernous halls full of displays where the dominant culture forms the task of who belongs and who does not, to transform them into more open flexible enterprises.
"Secondly, we had to queer the content of the museum by connecting the institution to alternative networks of production and transmission of critical knowledge the LGBTQ communities have developed in the many decades during which our stories were excluded from traditional museums," he said.
Preserving LGBTQ stories
Despite LGBTQ people and community-based organizations being vulnerable to displacement having to pay high rents for space and activities, "we must still come together to make sure our stories are not forgotten," Koskovich said.
Alfredo Pedroza, a gay man and a board member of the Mexican Museum, which is preparing for the completion of its permanent home in downtown San Francisco's Yerba Buena arts district, stressed the idea of intersectionality, where marginalized communities' stories are made relevant to other people. Pedroza gave an example of intersectionality in an exhibit being planned on synagogues in Mexico.
"You look at the cross sections of the types of stories you can tell so you can establish bridges between communities. How many people understood there was such a huge community of Jewish people in Mexico, but now they will," he said.
Connie Wolf is a lesbian and board member of the Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture. She focused more on the nuts and bolts of running a museum.
"To build a museum takes a village and it always takes longer than expected," Wolf said. "When you physically build a museum, it's not racing to the finish line to get the doors open, but only a starting line. Once you open the doors, a new set of concerns are raised, such as keeping the museum's mission strong, as everyone will come up to you asking how you can do it differently."
She gave an example of wanting to start a youth program for high school students when she was director of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, similar to a successful one she had begun during her tenure at the Whitney Museum. A donor came forward saying it was a great idea and they would underwrite it as long as all the kids were Jewish. But Wolf went to the board chair and said that she had envisioned a dialogue that crossed boundaries. The museum declined full funding for that program, believing it should be open to everyone.
Wolf also cautioned, "making a museum relevant to younger generations is harder than you think and it never stops."
The Contemporary Jewish Museum was not just interested in preserving the past, but making ideas of the past relevant for today.
Pedroza pointed out that the historical society wouldn't be starting from scratch due to the years of archival material it has already collected. He also noted that no one has told the full LGBTQ story.
Gabriel reminded the audience that the historical society began as a rescue operation because, especially during the height of the AIDS epidemic, archival-worthy material was being thrown away or destroyed.
"Historical silence is complete death," he said. "If we don't preserve our history ourselves, we are dead."
He referenced an experience of going to the National Portrait Gallery and seeing Gertrude Stein's portrait, but no mention that "she was a dyke."
"In that gallery there is not one openly out gay person," Gabriel said. "We are invisible. We have no face in our national capital. LGBTQ people need to be mainstreamed at every level, hiring, fundraising, membership, curation, etc. We have to be more than gay night during an Andy Warhol exhibit. It is a difficult conversation to have and museums are afraid of fucking it up, excuse my language, and creating anger. So we have to take a leadership role."
Gabriel also said that a majority of visitors to the GLBT History Museum are from outside of the Bay Area, mostly beyond the U.S., and that half are non-LGBTQ.
Wolf stated another role the historical society can play is one of collaboration.
"A few years ago, the Contemporary Jewish Museum was working on a show about Gertrude Stein and heard SFMOMA was going to do one on the Stein family collections. So we sat down and said, what if we did both shows at the same time. Go to SFMOMA to see the Picassos and Matisses and come to us to hear the stories behind the paintings and collecting, especially about Gertrude and Alice [Toklas]. It wound up being a great moment because we each did what we were great at doing, which helps you find out who you are as an institution."
Koskovich said that the historical society is taken for granted, but that community members must take responsibility to sustain, nurture, and help it grow. Its existence has a national and international footprint, he added.
Pedroza observed that all these identity-based museums exist because the "community came together saying we want it, we demand it, we deserve it, so they rallied, fought, and brought together the resources to collaborate with local government."
People interested in taking the 10-minute LGBTQ Cultural Heritage Strategy survey can do so at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/LGBTQCulturalHeritage.