Written by Christopher Leitch
History - that deliberate recording of human activity - is interesting for what it tells us, but should not be thought of as the independent, scientific record of what actually happened. Oscar Wilde said that “history is merely gossip, made tedious by morality.” Similarly, we understand that histories can be falsified or altered thus excluding whole segments of society. Being included in history – having been and done – is validation of existence; being removed from history is one of the most egregious actions. Personal experience tells us that the past must have been more richly textured than the abbreviated digest presented in majority institutions. However, if the evidence is edited or absent, owing to racism, homophobia or other prejudices, how will we know?
Because history collections are often incomplete or don’t provide deep evidence of minority and marginalized communities, the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America (GLAMA) was founded. GLAMA is a collecting partnership of the Kansas City Museum, the Jackson County Historical Society and the University of Missouri Kansas City Library’s LaBudde Special Collections Department. GLAMA’s mission is to collect, preserve, and make accessible evidence of the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered Kansas Citians throughout the city’s history.
The 2-year old collection is deep and diverse and includes photo albums from the KC Co-ed Sports Association; oral histories with LGBT senior citizens; political papers and memorabilia from ACT-UP KC and the Condom Crusaders; and costumes and archival materials documenting the career of Melinda Ryder, a well-known KC female impersonator. Actions to date have included publications and lectures, tours of collections and a very popular Gay and Lesbian History Trolley Tour that visits urban sites of interest to LGBT history. The trolley tour visits residential neighborhoods where our “places that matter” have not always survived. It offers a powerful historical lesson about the secrecy of social and political gatherings in private homes before a time when LGBT persons could gather publicly without fear of harassment or living in fear for their lives.
GLAMA reinforces the notion that when something is absent from history – our public record – we cannot participate in it, remember it, reflect on it, learn from it. As such, we see various efforts to re-insert characters and people and activities into histories – like Women’s Studies programs and Black history departments – to build a complete story of the past. Similarly, we live in a society that insists on branding citizens with a sexuality-based identity, which can easily translate into marginalization, particularly of the LGBT community.
History museums are often imagined - and frequently behave - as warehouses of the records of previous generations. We remember, reflect upon and learn from the past in order to make sense of our continually-evolving present. What physical evidences of today will we remember 50 years in the future? A fundamental starting point for a museum is the decision to actively collect history as-it-happens. Museums are highly valued in our society and are well-placed to capture local history as it’s made. By building a picture of the community as it grows and changes, we can be poised to present accurate stories to future generations. The GLAMA project seeks to do just that.
Christopher Leitch is the Director of the Kansas City Museum, the city’s history museum. He founded GLAMA in 2009 with Stuart Hinds of the University of Missouri Kansas City and David Jackson of the Jackson County Historical Society. Christopher attended the 2010 National Preservation Conference as a Diversity Scholar.