First GLBT History Museum in the US

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Internationally renowned as a center for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender culture, San Francisco soon will welcome yet another groundbreaking queer institution: The GLBT History Museum. A project of the GLBT Historical Society, an archives and research center established in 1985, the new museum will be the first of its kind in the United States—and only the second in the world. The grand opening is set for the evening of Jan. 13, 2011.

“The GLBT History Museum is in the heart of the Castro, a neighborhood visited not only by locals, but also by tens of thousands of tourists every year who come in search of queer culture,” said Paul Boneberg, executive director of the Historical Society. “At our museum, they’ll discover treasures from our archives that reflect fascinating stories spanning nearly a century of GLBT life. We have gone all out to create a museum as rich, diverse and surprising as the GLBT community itself.”

Located at 4127 18th St., just a few doors from Castro Street, the space includes two galleries, a reception area and a museum store. With assistance from Bevan Dufty, who was then the member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for the district, the Historical Society negotiated an agreement under which the master tenant for the storefront, Walgreen Company, constructed the 1,600-square-foot space to the society’s specifications. Funding from Levi’s, the City of San Francisco, Castro district merchants, and numerous other sponsors and donors covered the cost of custom fixtures and display cases, lighting and multimedia installations.

According to, Scott Wiener, the newly elected supervisor for the district once represented by Harvey Milk, “The opening of the GLBT History Museum marks a milestone for the Castro, for the city of San Francisco and for the country as a whole. This innovative new institution will bring the history of LGBT people alive in the very neighborhood where so much of that history has happened…. I’m proud to welcome this vital addition to the neighborhood and look forward to helping ensure its ongoing success.”

The museum will offer two debut exhibitions. In the smaller front gallery, “Great Collections of the GLBT Historical Society Archives” provides an overview of the range and depth of collections the society has gathered during its 25-year history. The sections focus on periodicals, ephemera, photographs, textiles, film and video, oral histories and other types of material in the collection, with each represented by a few examples. The show gives visitors a snapshot of how the archives work, why they’re important for GLBT people and what’s distinctive about the Historical Society. Exhibitions in this gallery will change approximately once a quarter.

In the main gallery, “Our Vast Queer Past: Celebrating GLBT History” traces nearly a century of San Francisco GLBT life through more than 20 key themes. The show brings together some 450 objects, photographs and documents, along with historic film and video shown on vintage televisions sets and a large overhead screen. All of the materials come from the collections of the Historical Society—and most have never before been displayed publicly.

I served as one of the lead curators for the exhibition, along with Don Romesburg, who is an assistant professor of women’s and gender studies at Sonoma State University, Sonoma, Calif., and Amy Sueyoshi, an associate professor of race and resistance studies and sexuality studies at San Francisco State University. Seven associate curators provided crucial assistance in researching the themes and identifying the objects we included in the show.

As we note in the introduction posted at the gallery entrance, we set out to honor the GLBT Historical Society’s 25th anniversary by burrowing “into every corner of the society’s extraordinary archives. To spark the topics for the show, we picked an inspirational object from virtually every year the society has been acquiring collections. Our objectives: raising new questions about familiar gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender stories and evoking largely untold stories that speak eloquently about our diversity.”

Curator Amy Sueyoshi adds that visitors to the exhibition “will witness how the most private parts of our lives can create public change. Items preserved and collected from the GLBT community tell a vibrant story of struggle, strength and self-determination in our new museum. ‘Our Vast Queer Past’ inspires hope for a world free of judgment and persecution for all.” The show will remain on display through 2011.

The GLBT History Museum joins the Schwules Museum, the queer museum founded 25 years ago in Berlin, as one of only two stand-alone, full-scale museums devoted to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history. A number of other LGBT archives and libraries also offer periodic exhibitions in the same location as their research collections or in space borrowed on an occasional basis from other organizations.

The grand opening of the GLBT History Museum on Jan. 13, 2011, will include a preview for sponsors, donors and special guests, followed by a ribbon-cutting and free reception open to the public from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Regular hours for the museum will be Wednesday through Saturday, 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., and Sundays, noon to 5:00 p.m. Admission: $5.00; free for members.

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About The Author

I'm a San Francisco-based editor, writer, historian and antiquarian book dealer. In addition, I'm a founding member of the GLBT Historical Society and a co-curator of the debut exhibition at the society's new GLBT History Museum in the Castro. I also am a member of the board of directors of the Mémorial de la Déportation Homosexuelle, the French national organization that works to commemorate the queer victims of the Nazis.

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