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2021 LGBTQ History Project: Pandemic pivot: museum launches major digital exhibit for LGBTQ History Month

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The Stonewall National Museum and Archives (SNMA) in Fort Lauderdale. — Photo courtesy of SNMA
The Stonewall National Museum and Archives (SNMA) in Fort Lauderdale. — Photo courtesy of SNMA

After months of research, the Stonewall National Museum and Archives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida recently launched a major digital exhibit just in time for LGBTQ History Month in October.

Visitors to the Stonewall National Museum and Archives (SNMA) in Fort Lauderdale, one of the largest LGBTQ lending libraries and collections in the country, dropped by nearly two-thirds because of the pandemic.

Stonewall, like other museums and other cultural institutions across the country, the Stonewall has been still struggling to resume operations.

Visitors slowly returned as vaccines became available and donors stepped up to bolster hard-hit finances. The federal Shuttered Venue Operator Grant program offered a more recent lifeline this summer to the hardest hit organizations, covering the sorts of overhead that Paycheck Protection Program grants couldn't.

During this trying time, administrators and board members searched for ways to fulfill their missions in a future where in which capacity restrictions, social distancing, mask mandates, and heightened sanitation procedures would become the norm.

Institutions explored creative ways to "pivot" during the pandemic, moving lectures and performances outdoors, reinventing activities and exhibits and, most commonly, leveraging technology and the global reach of the internet.

Stonewall, a nearly 50-year-old museum, had already begun an ambitious undertaking to digitize its collection of more than 28,000 volumes and six million pages of historical documents, but director Hunter O'Hanian knew there was much more work to be done during this critical moment. The SNMA team of researchers, programmers, and designers went to work creating "In Plain Sight," a digital LGBTQ timeline.

The tablet version of the "In Plain Sight" virtual exhibit — Photo courtesy of South Florida Gay News  

Bringing LGBTQ history to the people
"In Plain Sight" is a digital timeline that highlights pivotal LGBTQ figures and achievements with more than 800 entries across ten categories: AIDS/HIV, arts, business, film/TV, literature, memorials, milestones, music, sports, and theater/dance.

Far more than an interactive display, "In Plain Sight" is the SNMA team of researchers, programmers and designers created an engaging curriculum that provides in-depth education and opportunities to interact with existing material from the archival collection available at the museum.

"For years, a static LGBTQ timeline showcased on a wall became one of the museum's most popular areas. We wanted to expand its reach to online audiences at a time when visits to cultural institutions are restricted due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, while making it timelier and more inclusive regarding gender and race," explained O'Hanian.

That timeline in the gallery stopped with 1999, and O'Hanian pointed out that scholars have recognized that LGBTQ milestones have actually increased exponentially in the decades since, citing major wins in the Supreme Court legalizing marriage equality and workplace protections, high profile celebrities and professional athletes coming out, and advances in transgender visibility.

Reaching audiences of all ages
"In Plain Sight" is already a valuable learning resource for students around the world who can pull these stories up in their classrooms or even their phones.

"For centuries, there was a tremendous stigma associated with being gay... Over the past few decades, student and proponents of gay studies and gay rights have looked at LGBTQ history to understand where the bias comes from and how people have worked to overcome that stigma. This work is done to improve the people today and future generations," O'Hanian said.

Beyond young people, the exhibit is also available to others who may be coming out in their 30s, 40s or later, he emphasized. And understanding LGBTQ history is also key to anyone concerned with racism, sexism, ageism, or any form of systemic discrimination in society. Funding for the project was provided by the Florida Humanities Council.

"It is important to anyone who cares about breaking down barriers and creating an inclusive society," O'Hanian said.

The mobile version of the "In Plain Sight" virtual exhibit — Photo courtesy of SNMA  

Reaching out about coming out
"In Plain Sight" is not the only innovative program to arise from the museum's COVID-19 pivot. More than 31,000 visitors have attended a series of lectures and curated talks from leading historians, authors, and thought leaders via Zoom since the initial shutdown.

More than three dozen of those conversations are archived on the SNMA website, and future speakers include John Catania and Charles Ignacio, producers of the groundbreaking PBS magazine series In the Life; colorful storyteller and podcaster Mike Balaban ("BAMMER and Me"); Leslie Cohen, author of The Audacity of a Kiss; and Adam Zmith, author of Deep Sniff: A History of Poppers and Queer Futures.

Even as patrons and school groups slowly return to the museum, digital outreach will continue. A grant from the Mellon Foundation has expedited efforts to complete the digitization project, and O'Hanian expects anticipates constant updates to "In Plain Sight" and the continuation of the streaming lecture series.

"It's become sort of cliché, but that's one of the silver linings of the pandemic," he concluded.

To visit "In Plain Sight," watch the curated talks or explore the SNMA archives, go to https://www.Stonewall-Museum.org/.