- Queering the Archive
The Archives Center at the National Museum of American History (NMAH), Smithsonian Institution, was created in 1983; it serves the Smithsonian community and is open by appointment for outside researchers. In fiscal year 2012 (ending October 2013), the Archives Center serviced over 500 registered researchers from thirty-eight states, the District of Columbia, and eighteen countries. They spent 835 research days and examined 4,726 boxes from 477 collections. There were 6,044 remote reference and service requests.1
As of October 2013, there were 1,300 collections, occupying 16,378 cubic feet. Subject strengths include the history of radio, television, telegraphy, computing, and other aspects of the history of technology with a special interest in the history of invention; advertising, marketing, and entrepreneurship; commercial visual ephemera (e.g., trade cards, post cards, and greeting cards); American music (e.g., original music manuscripts, sheet music, jazz, and popular music); and musical instruments. These and a wide range of other subjects are documented in business records and personal papers, along with extensive holdings of motion picture film, video and sound recordings, historical photographs, and oral histories.2
Approximately 68 cubic feet (roughly 204 linear feet) represent collections directly related to the LGBTQ community, and that number grows annually. Collections donated during 2013 include: the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) Records; Helping People with AIDS Records and a full run of The Empty Closet donated by the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley (located in Rochester, New York); posters collected from Defense of Marriage Act protesters at the Supreme Court in the spring of 2013; DC Cowboys Dance Company [End Page 195] Records; posters associated with the Westboro Baptist Church protest of Ford’s Theatre’s (Washington, DC) production of The Laramie Project in the fall of 2013; and material from the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore (GLCCB). Through these collections and their accessibility, the researcher and the general public are provided “entrances, exits, unsystematized lines of acquaintance, projected horizons, typifying examples, alternate routes, blockages, incommensurate geographies” of the LGBTQ experience within the United States.3
A significant challenge for the archivist is determining how to communicate the importance of saving documents of the LGBTQ community across generations to potential donors, documents that sometimes do not portray events or persons in a favorable light. How does one convince potential donors that ephemeral things such as advertisements, newsletters, unused drink tickets from the local gay bar, or personal photographs of the 1971 Pride Parade are, indeed, historical? How does one convince donors that such materials, in addition to documenting local and national queer history, add to the documentation of the larger social history of the United States? How to convince them to give up the stuff? The answers to these queries vary depending on the donor, the generation, and the situation. Amid such variations and contingencies, experience shows that two specific arguments are routinely persuasive: personal history will make broader history compelling because it will wear a human face; and unless we leave behind a full range of primary documentation in publicly accessible archives and libraries from which LGBTQ history can be written, the history will not be written, or not written accurately and in context.
These arguments and others like them are necessary in the face of what I have termed the “archival closet.” On many occasions during meetings with potential donors, people who are otherwise out and proud in their everyday life may balk when asked about the future disposition of their papers, memorabilia, or photographs, greeting the archivist with pursed lips and a vague, “oh, I don’t think there’s anything in those of interest to anyone.” They may not be convinced that the full archival record, warts and all, is preferable to no record. And so a wealth of primary source materials—the stuff from which history is written—remains in their closet. The archival record of LGBTQ generations who negotiated their way through decades of a more regulated and restricted society every day of their lives—one-of-a-kind documents, be they letters, diaries, photographs, or film—perhaps gets shoved into someone else’s closet, pitched...