by Paige Wilcox (MA, 2019)
During much of my time as a Summer 2019 intern in the archive at the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Historical Society (GLBTHS), I organized and inventoried a portion of their existing collection, a large and varied assortment of material all filed under the umbrella of “Art and Artifact.” One-of-a-kind handmade art pieces mingle with co-opted mass-produced items in a collection that is as eclectic and diverse as the community of individuals that produced it.
It has been remarkable to come face-to-face with collection pieces that exude a kind of “star power”: a pair of novelty sunglasses once worn by Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the state, or a stage costume designed by disco diva Sylvester, for instance; but just as powerful have been the peeks taken into the lives of unknown, everyday people. Cataloging a massive collection of enamel pins commemorating the events and organizations that made up San Francisco’s gay community in the 1970s and 80’s was one of my summer’s greatest delights. Their sheer number and the length of time they spanned made handling the pins feel like a window not only into another era, but to the life of the man who curated his own collection.
It is, as is most work dealing with objects from the past, replete with mysteries big and small. The person who collected the myriad of pins is unknown to me and to the public at large; as are the people who hand-painted picket signs and protest posters, the activists who proudly wore early rainbow-themed merchandise, and the drag queens whose elaborate costumes are now meticulously conserved but unidentified. In the absence of their words, their stories are told to us through their things; their collections, their creations, what they chose to keep and what they chose to give to us.
Particularly in the case of a marginalized and frequently forgotten community, history and the tangible traces it has left behind are truly important. Preserving these materials and making them available for public view and research is not only fascinating on a personal level, but also rewarding on a larger scale. The individuals who created and collected the pieces in the archive, be they artist or appreciator, celebrity or anonymous donor, have each helped to paint a vibrant picture of San Francisco’s LGBTQ past; the Historical Society, in turn, uses that picture to help pave the way for the community’s future.
In addition to artifacts and ephemera, the GLBTHS Archive also hosts thousands of personal papers, publications, and photographs. Explore the collection here.
To learn more about University of San Francisco’s graduate Museum Studies program, click here.