Florida LGBTQ Museum Launches Major Digital Exhibit

by JW Arnold

Visitors to the Stonewall National Museum and Archives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, one of the nation’s largest LGBTQ libraries and loan collections, have fallen by nearly two-thirds due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, after months of research, SNMA recently launched a major digital exhibit just in time for LGBTQ History Month in October.

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

Visitors slowly returned as vaccines became available and donors rallied to bolster hard-hit finances. The federal Shuttered Venue Operator Grant program offered a newer lifeline to the hardest hit organizations this summer, covering the types of overhead costs that Paycheck Protection Program grants couldn’t, officials said.

Meanwhile, trustees and board members looked for ways to fulfill their missions in a future where capacity restrictions, social distancing, mask mandates, and tighter sanitation procedures would become the norm.

Institutions have explored creative ways to pivot during the pandemic, moving lectures and performances outside, reinventing activities and exhibits, and more often than not, leveraging technology and the global reach of the internet.

Stonewall, a nearly 50-year-old museum, had already started an ambitious venture to digitize its collection of more than 28,000 volumes and 6 million pages of historical documents, but director Hunter O’Hanian knew there was plenty more work to be done during this critical time.

The result is “In Plain Sight”, a digital timeline that highlights key LGBTQ figures and achievements with over 800 entries in 10 categories: AIDS / HIV, Arts, Business, Film / TV, Literature, Memorials, Milestones, Music , Sports, and Theater / Dance.

Much more than an interactive exhibit, SNMA’s team of researchers, programmers and designers have created an engaging program that provides in-depth education and opportunities to interact with existing material from the archival collection available at Museum.

“For years, a static LGBT timeline displayed on a wall has become one of the most popular areas of the museum. We wanted to expand its reach to the online public at a time when visits to cultural institutions are limited due to the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19), while making it more timely and inclusive with respect to gender and race, ”said O’Hanian, a gay man.

That timeline in the gallery ended with 1999, and O’Hanian pointed out that researchers acknowledged that LGBTQ milestones actually rose exponentially in the decades that followed, citing major victories in the Supreme Court of Canada. United States legalizing marriage equality and workplace protections, prominent celebrities and professional athletes coming out, and transgender visibility advances.

“In Plain Sight” is already a valuable learning resource for students around the world who can read these stories in their classrooms or even on their phones, museum officials said.

“For centuries, there was a huge stigma associated with being gay. … Over the past few decades, students and proponents of gay studies and gay rights have examined the history of LGBT people. to understand where the prejudice comes from and how people have worked to overcome this stigma. This work is done to improve people today and future generations, “said O’Hanian.

Beyond young people, the exhibit is also available to others who may come out in their 30s, 40s or later, he said. And understanding the history of LGBTQ is also essential for 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’s important for anyone who cares about breaking down barriers and creating an inclusive society,” O’Hanian said.


The Stonewall National Museum and Archives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Photo: Stonewall National Museum and Archives

Other programs
“In Plain Sight” isn’t the only innovative program to emerge from the museum’s COVID hub. More than 31,000 visitors have attended a series of lectures and lectures hosted by prominent historians, authors and thought leaders via Zoom since the initial closure in 2020.

More than three dozen of these 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 Boldness of a Kiss”; and Adam Zmith, author of “Deep Sniff: A History of Poppers and Queer Futures”.

Even if patrons and school groups are slowly returning to the museum, digital outreach will continue, officials said. A two-year, $ 50,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has accelerated efforts to complete the digitization project, and O’Hanian expects constant updates from “In Plain Sight” and continued. the streaming lecture series. The museum’s budget is approximately $ 800,000, according to its 2019 IRS Form 990.

“It has become kind of a cliché, but it is one of the silver liners of the pandemic,” he concluded.

To visit “In Plain Sight”, watch the conferences organized or explore the SNMA archives, click here.

JW Arnold has been the Arts and Entertainment Editor-in-Chief for South Florida Gay News for 10 years. He is a member of the American Theater Critics Association, NLGJA: Association of LGBTQ Journalists, GALECA: Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics and Military Veteran Journalism. Arnold is a past president of the South Florida International Press Club.

Help the Bay Area Reporter keep going through these trying times. To support local, independent and LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.


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