3 min

A museum of us

Why BC's archives need a public storefront home

I stumbled upon the converted laundromat by accident.

I was strolling through The Castro, making my first pilgrimage there in more than a decade, when I found Harvey Milk’s old camera store.

Have you seen the mural above the shop? “You gotta give ’em hope!” the old slogan says, emblazoned on Milk’s T-shirt as he leans out his former window.

Embedded in the sidewalk below, the tribute begins: “Harvey Milk made history… when he won election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in November 1977. His camera store and campaign headquarters at 575 Castro St and his apartment upstairs were centers of community activism…”

Adjacent, another tribute, in his own words: “Burst down those closet doors once and for all and stand up and start to fight.”

And on the door to his old shop, yet another tribute, this one referring to Milk as the Mayor of Castro St.

This is not the slightly disappointing village I found on my last visit in 2000. This is a gay village proud of its place in history and ready to commemorate it.

It’s a commitment I’d like to see us share here.

Milk’s old camera store is now home to the Human Rights Campaign, at the invitation of the building’s owner. It was while I was browsing the campaign’s merchandise, and wondering what Milk would think of marketing equality, that I overheard something about a gay history museum.

“It’s on 18th St,” the cashier told me. “But I think it closes at five.”

I looked at my watch. I had 20 minutes to find the place and soak up our history. Not going to be easy, especially since navigation isn’t always my strength.

By the time I found it, I was prepared to be turned away. But the curator on duty firmly informed me that he was planning to stay late anyway and insisted that I stay. That was my introduction to our museum. I say “our” because, even though it’s dedicated to the Bay Area’s gay history, it really belongs to all of us.

There was Harvey Milk memorabilia, of course, including his old bullhorn and a copy of the original Castro Camera sign.

There were old books and placards with slogans such as “Stop the moral majority,” matchbooks from now-defunct gay bars, recordings of oral histories, an early drag gown, and a tribute to bathhouses. One case proudly displayed Willie Walker’s Dildo Collection. Another featured the outfits that Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, the “original lesbian power couple,” wore to their wedding.

It took a quarter of a million dollars “to turn an empty laundromat into a museum,” executive director Paul Boneberg later tells me. But with the right support it can be done, he emphasizes.

“The city helped us get a favourable deal” on the space and the permits, he says, adding, “the community stepped up, businesses stepped up.”

I tell Boneberg about BC’s archives, lovingly tended but nonetheless housed in archivist Ron Dutton’s bedroom.

“As were ours,” Boneberg quickly says, explaining that, over the years, the GLBT Historical Society moved its collection to bigger and bigger rooms before it finally got a storefront in January 2011.

Dutton is all for getting a storefront museum someday. Still dedicated, after more than 30 years, to preserving our stories, Dutton just bought new shelves for the archives. But some day he will run out of space. Already he has to turn away artifacts because he has no place to put them, he tells me, as the keynote speaker on the importance of archiving is introduced at the We Demand conference.

Archives are not only a repository to safeguard our stories but can bring them to life — and help direct our next steps, Ann Cvetkovich tells a room full of history-makers, past, present and future.

“We say it’s a museum, but it’s us,” Boneberg says. “It’s us in all our diversity, in all our glory.”

What better way to celebrate and nurture our continued glory than to walk through it in a public space easily accessible to all? Isn’t it time Vancouver got a gay museum of its own?