By CHRIS KANE
There is an abundance of artifacts that represent the history and culture of the LGBT communities. Items like the walking stick that once belonged to gay civil rights pioneer Bayard Rustin, or foundational documents that established the first gay rights organization, the Mattachine Society, are scattered throughout the country.
Many of these artifacts have already been discarded, lost or destroyed. But the National LGBT Museum, which is making strides toward acquiring a building to house the first national historical institution for the community, was created to redress this problem—and also to celebrate, showcase and share our history through these artifacts. The museum has reached a milestone by completing the preliminary work of establishing a business model, creating a fundraising/development plan, collecting market research, and assembling a team of experts who comprise the board and leadership councils.
So far, the museum has collected nearly 5,000 artifacts from figures such as Greg Louganis, Bayard Rustin, Tyler Clementi, and Frank Kameny. These objects (many of which were destined for the landfill) will have the platform afforded by a cultural institution in our nation’s capital, because they document episodic moments in LGBT history. For example, when Greg Louganis’ head collided with the diving platform during the 1988 Seoul Olympics, misinformation about HIV led to concern over whether other divers risked infection by the virus. This story, told through artifacts donated by the diver, is an integral part of LGBT history, and Louganis’ two gold medal-winning dives were a momentous Olympic victory for the United States.
The value of artifacts owned by LGBT figures or organizations is incalculable. The National LGBT Museum is in the process of collecting artifacts from all over the country in order to preserve and share them with the public. Its Collections Committee, comprised of museum professionals who have worked for institutions like the Smithsonian and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, emphasizes the importance of collaborating as a community to preserve objects that represent our history and culture. And because the project is national in scope, the museum aims to represent, with these objects, stories and narratives from cities and small towns alike—including, especially, those which involve women, people of color, and other constituencies that are often neglected or underrepresented within the community and political movements.
The museum provides another corollary reason for which it is important to collect and safeguard artifacts: to contend with the political and social forces that seek to set the community back. One function of cultural institutions is to protect and showcase the difficult aspects of history respective to politically disenfranchised communities to guard against oppression, marginalization, intolerance and prejudice in the future. Contributions from individuals and organizations play an integral part in helping the National LGBT Museum accomplish this objective. An institution that elucidates our country’s history of homophobia can reach both those who have lived this history and those who have not.
It is often the case that people undervalue the items they own or do not understand their contextual significance. For this reason, the National LGBT Museum is looking for any and all artifacts, and its permanent collection includes a breadth of objects ranging from letters/correspondence to musical instruments and protest signs. All materials are housed in a professional museum storage facility in Forestville, MD. Questions regarding the Museum’s collections and artifact storage/handling procedures can be directed to Jarrett Zeman at 616-717-2441 and donations can be shipped to Ely, Inc. at: 4110 Forestville Road, Forestville, MD 20747 (c/o National LGBT Museum).
Chris Kane is project coordinator for the Velvet Foundation. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.