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Thursday, March 19, 2015

GLBT History Museum Will Be Around Another Five Years — At Least

Posted By on Thu, Mar 19, 2015 at 9:48 AM

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The GLBT History Museum on 18th Street in the Castro began in 2011 as “an experiment,” in the words of Executive Director Paul Boneberg. It was the first of its kind in the United States, and the project’s principals weren’t entirely sure a full-scale, stand-alone queer history museum would succeed. But it has, and the institution has now signed another lease with the pharmacy next door, extending the experiment until at least 2020.

While the Museum itself is only four years old (preceded by a pop-up timed with the 2008 release of the film Milk), the larger GLBT Historical Society of which it is a part has been around for decades, chiefly as an archive for researchers. And now that this particular wrinkle has been ironed out, the archive will be hunting for a larger, permanent space of its own in 2016.

“It’s a big relief to know we’ll have the museum until 2020 and the rent’s the same,” Boneberg told me by phone. “It’s really generous of Walgreen’s to continue the lease at a discounted rate for us.”

A great deal has changed about LGBT history as a scholarly discipline in the last 30 years, but the past four years have seen an equally dramatic shift in a less lofty area.

“California changed its law so that queer history has to be taught in schools now, so there’s much more demand,” Boneberg said. “People have a reason to use this unique resource, and we want to help them. Queer history is now viewed as American history, and Harvey Milk is now viewed as an American hero, not a queer community hero.” With attendance running at 15-20,000 per year, “the interest has grown tremendously. We were surprised at how many non-gay people through. Overwhelming numbers of tourists, and that surprised us, too.”

On top of that, Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) have been visiting the museum at the rate of about 50 per year, without any outreach, and “no real mechanism to handle” any more, Boneberg said. As the docent program is run entirely on volunteers, it’s going to require substantial investments in professional training to keep up, which is possibly the happiest problem for a cultural destination to have. Boneberg also hopes to have more materials online for teachers to use in the classroom before and after the visit (although several previous exhibitions are already on the site).

In case you’re wondering, the Main Gallery is currently showing “Queer Past Becomes Present,” the first entirely new exhibition since the museum’s opening. It’s a sprawling, multimedia experience that touches on Jose Sarria, both the first Empress of the Imperial Court and the first openly gay electoral candidate in American history, as well as same-sex intimacy in Japanese-American internment camps during WWII.

Boneberg isn’t sure if the GLBT Museum’s mission has been replicated elsewhere, although venerable institutions with sizable endowments (the main branch of the New York Public Library, for instance) have done exhibits on HIV/AIDS and Stonewall that he considers “spectacular.”

“But that’s temporary. We’re the first standalone institution with multiple galleries,” Boneberg said. “I don’t know of any others, but hopefully people are going home and saying to their local history museum, ‘How come I’m not seeing LGBT stuff?’”

The GLBT History Museum
, 4127 18th St., 621-1107.
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Pete Kane

Pete Kane

Pete Kane is a total gaylord who is trying to get to every national park before age 40


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