In Lilli Vincenz’s papers, a trove of gay rights history

History is written by the victors, but also by the scrapbookers, the collectors, the keepers, the pack rats. By those who show up, at the beginnings of things and with the right technology. History sometimes comes in pieces. It needs to be reassembled. Pasted and coaxed. Sometimes the finished product still has holes.


In one corner of the climate-controlled manuscript division, on a series of otherwise empty shelves, sits Lilli Vincenz’s unprocessed collection. …


Twelve boxes. Cream-colored. Heavy. Inside: meticulous fragments of the gay rights movement of the latter half of the 20th century. Political pamphlets, sociological surveys, photographs and obituaries. Diaries of a young woman who was nervous about going into her first gay bar but whose Arlington living room later became the default place for gay women to feel at home.
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The History Of Driving While Black

I’ve written before about why I don’t collect Black Americana; as a white chick, I don’t feel I have the right to document such history. (I’ll stick with documenting women’s lives with my collecting, thank you.) But since collecting the history of oppressed people intrigues me, I really enjoyed this article about David Pilgrim’s collection which will soon be on display at the grand opening of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia on April 26th at Michigan’s Ferris University.

I love a good story about collecting, and Pilgrim’s begins thus:

David Pilgrim was 12 years old when he bought his first racist object at a flea market: a saltshaker in the shape of a Mammy. As a young black boy growing up in Mobile, Alabama, he’d seen similar knick-knacks in the homes of friends and neighbors, and he instinctively hated them. As soon as he handed over his money, he threw his purchase to the ground and shattered it into pieces.

But it get’s really interesting when Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, an Atlantic senior editor who wrote the piece and interviewed the collector, asked Pilgrim about his progression from destroying the objects to collecting them:

I went to a historically black college, Jarvis Christian College in Texas, and in addition to teaching the usual math and science, our professors would tell us stories of Jim Crow. One day, one of my professors came into the classroom with a chauffer’s cap. He set the hat down and asked what historical significance it had.

Now, the obvious answer was that blacks were denied many opportunities, and chauffeuring was one of the few jobs open to them. But that was not right answer. He told us that a lot of professional middle-class blacks in those days always traveled with a chauffer’s hat. The reason: If they were driving a nice new car through a small southern town, they didn’t want police officers, or any other whites, to know the car belonged to them.

I remember that story so vividly. No object has any meaning other than what we assign to it. But that was an incredible meaning to assign to an object that, on the surface, had little to do with racism.

This is not only proof of my theory about using collectibles to teach, but it shows just how old the problem of Driving While Black really is.

Combining My Love Of Vintage Fashions With My Feminist Notions To Create An Intoxicating Confusion

At Here’s Looking Like You, Kid, Jaynie shares a feature on Christian Dior’s New Look fashions published in the February 2012 issue of Harper’s Bazaar. Here’s the most lovely conflicting passage I wish to direct your attention to:

“Dior said that the forward thrust of the hips was a way for women to advertise their childrearing abilities, so he was certainly tapping into the emergence of the baby boom,” says Timothy Long, the costume curator at the Chicago History Museum. “But there’s no surprise that that whole idea of hyperfemininity is going to continue.” Long is the force behind the current exhibition Charles James: Genius Deconstructed which sheds new light on the unique way that the American couturier-said to have influenced Dior- crafted his dresses.

Does this mean that those 1950s-1960s New Look fashions we find so sexy are indeed incredibly sexist — by design? Or is our fertile femininity to be acknowledged, even celebrated, without judgement? It’s nearly impossible to say… History teaches us just how limited and controlled women were in those times. And the return of such looks — can it be completely coincidental in terms of the current assault on women?

The Charles James exhibit is at the Chicago History Museum through April 16, 2012. Maybe if I can get there, I can figure some of this out.

Cheap Thrills Thursday: Of Storks In My Collection & Contraception

shoo-vintage-stork-postcardA few months ago, a gentleman contacted me about one of the items in my “vintage stork” collection. The antique postcard, postmarked 1908, depicts a couple shoo-ing away a baby-delivering stork; the gentleman was James M. Edmonson, Ph.D., Chief Curator of the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum at the Case Western Reserve University; and he was asking if I could get him a larger high resolution scan of the postcard for inclusion in a new gallery the museum was working on.

Could I? Would I? Um, this is exactly the sort of stuff that floats my boat! Not only is my object connecting me with others, with history, but the gallery is for Virtue, Vice, and Contraband: A History of Contraception in America — a new exhibit at the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum that examines 200 years of the history of contraception in the United States.

So, naturally I did whatever I could to get the chief curator the graphic. And here it is, on the left-hand side of the display designed by guest curator Jimmy Wilkinson Meyer from The College of Wooster:


The exhibit (launched September 17, with Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, author of Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in the 19th Century America, at the Zverina Lecture), depicts the social and cultural climate that influenced birth control decisions in this country, says James Edmonson, chief curator at the Dittrick:

The exhibit reveals a longstanding ignorance of essential facts of human conception. For example, that a woman’s ovulation time was not discovered until the 1930s by two doctors, Kyusaku Ogino in Japan and Hermann Knaus in Austria. Before and after this finding, desperate women went to great length to prevent pregnancies. The exhibit explores less well known (and dangerous) methods such as douching with Lysol or eating poisonous herbs like pennyroyal, as well as conventional means such as the IUD or the Pill.

“A remarkable body of literature was available to assist newly married couples and others,” says Edmonson. “These books were not displayed publicly, on the coffee table, but hidden in a private place.”

He cites examples such as Charles Knowlton’s Fruits of Philosophy, or the Private Companion of Young Married People (1832) and the popular 18th century book on anatomy, reproduction, and childbirth, Aristotle’s Masterpiece.

In addition to literature, the exhibit draws upon and incorporates the vast collection of contraception devices donated to the university in 2005 by Percy Skuy. The Canadian collector had amassed the world’s largest collections of such devices over the course of four decades.

The exhibit starts in the early 1800s, before Anthony Comstock, lobbied Congress to pass the Comstock Act of 1873, responding to what he viewed as a moral decline after the Civil War.

“It was a watershed year. The Comstock Act made it illegal to sell contraceptives or literature about contraception through the mail,” says Edmonson.

While Congress legally barred contraception, a black market for such products and literature flourished. Comstock went undercover to search out and turn in violators of his law in his crusade to stamp out what he defined as smut and obscenity.

In the early 20th century, women’s advocate Margaret Sanger opened a birth control clinic and research institute, flaunting the Comstock Law. Eventually her efforts evolved into the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

The exhibition highlights some ancient methods of birth control and presents information about the influence of religion on contraception.

“We wanted to have a multi-faceted look at the topic of contraception,” Edmonson says.

Future plans are to expand this exhibit with a companion book, a kiosk where additional information can be accessed on the birth control collection, and an extensive online site available worldwide.

I love that my old postcard is hanging out with Margaret Sanger — well, it does that here at home, but now it’s part of the larger public story. And that’s cool.

Now I must get myself to Cleveland, Ohio to see it!

Hip-Hip Hooray — Museums Not “Low Priority!”

From the Mountain-Plains Museums Association, this update on museum funding:

Brief from American Association of Museums

Amendment Targeting Museums Defeated; Field-wide advocacy efforts credited with victory over Sen. Coburn’s latest effort!

Sept. 16, 2009- Congratulations, museum advocates! Thanks to your efforts, the Coburn/McCain amendment (S. Amdt. 2372) – which would have prohibited ANY funding from the Transportation Appropriations bill (H.R. 3288) from going to ANY museum – was defeated on the Senate floor today. The amendment, which states, “None of the funds made available by this Act may be used for a museum,” was rejected by a vote of 41-57!

An additional amendment offered by Senators Tom Coburn (R-OK) and John McCain (R-AZ) – (S. Amdt. 2371) which would have waived a requirement that states set aside 10% of their overall funding for Transportation Enhancements (including historic preservation and museums, among other programs) – was also defeated by a vote of 39-59. Sen. Coburn had initially offered another amendment (S. Amdt. 2370) that would have prohibited funding from going to transportation museums and other TE projects, but later withdrew it.

Since 1992, the Transportation Enhancement Program has provided at least $110.6 million to support museums.

During Senate floor debate yesterday and today, Senator Coburn repeatedly referred to museums as “low-priority” entities that did not deserve federal transportation funds in these difficult economic times.

In response, Senators Tom Carper (D-DE) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) defended Transportation Enhancement (TE) projects and highlighted their value to communities.

Sen. Carper highlighted the impact of TE funds on Wilmington, DE where they are being used to revitalize the waterfront district, including a science and trail center that will engage and educate thousands.

Sen. Boxer noted that TE programs and projects, “put hundreds of thousands of Americans to work” and “improve the quality of life for millions of Americans.”

“This is a great victory for the museum field and I want to thank each and every advocate who contacted their Senators to urge a No vote on these amendments,” said AAM President Ford W. Bell. “To have Senators Barbara Boxer and Tom Carper speak on the Senate floor about the many ways in which museums create jobs, revitalize communities, and preserve our national heritage is very heartening. But the fact that these amendments continue to come up and are supported by more than a third of the Senate reflects that we need to strengthen our field-wide advocacy efforts.”

Please take a moment to THANK the U.S. Senators who voted NO on these harmful amendments.

You can reach any of them by calling the Senate switchboard at 202-224-3121:

Akaka (D-HI)
Alexander (R-TN)
Baucus (D-MT)
Begich (D-AK)
Bennet (D-CO)
Bennett (R-UT)
Bingaman (D-NM)
Bond (R-MO)
Boxer (D-CA)
Brown (D-OH)
Burris (D-IL)
Cantwell (D-WA)
Cardin (D-MD)
Carper (D-DE)
Casey (D-PA)
Cochran (R-MS)
Dodd (D-CT)
Dorgan (D-ND)
Durbin (D-IL)
Feinstein (D-CA)
Franken (D-MN)
Gillibrand (D-NY)
Hagan (D-NC)
Harkin (D-IA)
Inouye (D-HI)
Johnson (D-SD)
Kaufman (D-DE)
Kerry (D-MA)
Landrieu (D-LA)
Lautenberg (D-NJ)
Leahy (D-VT)
Levin (D-MI)
Lieberman (ID-CT)
Lincoln (D-AR)
Menendez (D-NJ)
Merkley (D-OR)
Mikulski (D-MD)
Murray (D-WA)
Nelson (D-FL)
Nelson (D-NE)
Pryor (D-AR)
Reed (D-RI)
Reid (D-NV)
Rockefeller (D-WV)
Sanders (I-VT)
Schumer (D-NY)
Shaheen (D-NH)
Shelby (R-AL)
Specter (D-PA)
Stabenow (D-MI)
Tester (D-MT)
Udall (D-NM)
Warner (D-VA)
Webb (D-VA)
Whitehouse (D-RI)
Wicker (R-MS)
Wyden (D-OR)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sen. Coburn has targeted funding for museums before. Earlier this year Sen. Coburn attempted to prohibit museums from competing for or receiving any funds from H.R. 1, the economic stimulus bill. While the prohibition on museums was not included in the final version of the bill, Sen. Coburn’s amendment to prohibit museums was approved on the Senate floor by a 73-24 vote. In the end, the word “museum” was dropped from the final prohibition, but zoos and aquariums remained barred from competing for economic stimulus funding.

If your representative was a good boy or girl, please do call and them them; like the MPMA says, thanking is part of advocating. I will. (And after my ranting at Senator Dorgan yesterday, he and his staff would likely enjoy me calling with happy sentiments!)

Museums Need Your Help!

Did you know that the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) provided $210.5 million to libraries in 2006, while museums received only $36.5 million? Why the difference? Federal formula grants given from IMLS directly to the states accounted for $163.7 million of IMLS’ library authorization.

As a member of the Mountain-Plains Museums Association (MPMA), I was shocked to discover this through my most recent member newsletter. Hey, I’m all in favor of the libraries getting money — but I want museums to get funds too.

August is recess time for elected officials — and that means it’s a great time for you to contact your members of Congress to tell them to support comprehensive reauthorization of IMLS for museums; remaining silent is to communicate complacency.

What we — you & I — have to do is persuade Congress about a new appropriation for museums. We need to convince our Congressional leaders to support a new grant program for museums when IMLS is reauthorized (which could happen as early as this fall). The new grant program, called Federal-State Partnership Grants, would allow IMLS to provide grants to each state which would then distribute funds based on needs determined by individual states.

But museums can’t get these funds until Congress has included the Federal-State Partnership Grants in IMLS’ reauthorization. That’s why it’s important that you tell your Congressional leaders to support IMLS reauthorization and the Federal-State Partnership Grants.

If you ‘get it’ and agree, all you have to do is go here, fill out your information, and then click either “edit/print your letters” or “edit/send email” (editing is optional). Simple! And needed.

If you’re still confused, then keep reading…

I know this post is long; I wish I could just link to all this information, but, possibly because they are grossly under-funded, museums are sorely lacking in text web pages (opting, instead, for PDFs & files most people are too lazy to open & read). So, doing my bit for museums across the USA… Here’s what museums want:

Reauthorization Congress reauthorizes the Office of Museum Services (OMS) at the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) every five years. The Federal-State Partnerships Coalition supports an incremental increase in OMS reauthorization to the level of $95 million (from current $38.6 million) over the next 5-year reauthorization period, scheduled to begin FY 2010. The Office of Museum Services at IMLS is the primary source of federal support for America’s 18,000 museums. With nearly flat growth at OMS over time, attendance has increased and museum services to school and communities are needed and wanted more than ever. The Federal-State Partnerships Coalition supports growth at IMLS through:

  • Strengthen Existing National Program to provide a significant increase (minimum of $45 million) for existing programs that have been insufficiently funded for years.
  • State Needs Assessments—Once appropriations exceed $45 million, up to $2 million per year appropriated for states to conduct needs assessments with museums. The needs assessments are an important first step toward establishing a federal-state partnership program through federal formula grants to the states.
  • Conservation, Traveling Exhibits, and Helping Smaller Museums as appropriations rise above $47 million to $72 million, establishing new grants for conservation and traveling exhibitions, as well as programs that will make it easier for small museums to compete in the national grant pool at IMLS.
  • Federal-State Partnership Grants to States, a federal-state partnership to be appropriated once OMS exceeds $72 million. The IMLS Director would have discretion to provide up to $20 million of any annual appropriation in excess of the $72 million mentioned above. Once appropriations reach $92 million, the IMLS Director would have discretion to provide up to 50% of all excess funds toward the federal-state partnership.

Appropriations for FY 2010 – The Federal-State Partnerships Coalition supports the Office of Museum Services at IMLS at the level of $50 million for FY 2010 – a $15 million increase over FY09 and provided through the Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill.

For more information, see the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH); the AASLH serves as the Coalition Administrator for a network of state, regional, and national organizations — the Federal-State Partnerships Coalition.

Now, send those letters!

For more on this issue, see also:

Representatives Paul Tonko (NY-21) and Louise Slaughter (NY-28) circulated a “Dear Colleague” letter on this issue, prompting Whoa! A Letter Reveals The Need to Cultivate Congress at

The IMLS’ Connecting to Collections developed a video to underscore the importance of collections held in museums, libraries and archives throughout the U.S., and to inspire communities to take action.

Have You Been… To The Smithsonian?

The Smithsonian Institution was founded on this date (August 10th) in 1846. Named for British scientist James Smithson, who willed his fortune to the U.S. to establish the institution, today the Smithsonian is made up of 19 museums (including the National Air and Space Museum — the most visited museum in the U.S.), the National Zoo, and nine research centers. The Smithsonian houses more than 136 million items in its collections, earning it the nickname of “the nation’s attic.”


Museum of Broken Relationships

Did you know there was a Museum of Broken Relationships? Me neither.

The museum, founded in Croatia, was an art concept by Olinka Vištica and Drazen Grubišić who decided to set up the museum dedicated to broken hearts after consoling friends over their failed romances.

The Museum of Broken Relationships is an art concept which proceeds from the assumption that objects possess integrated fields – holograms of memories and emotions – and intends with its layout to create a space of secure memory or protected remembrance in order to preserve the material and nonmaterial heritage of broken relationships.

Unlike the destructive self-help instructions for recovery from failed loves, the Museum offers every individual the chance to overcome the emotional collapse through creation, i.e., by contributing to the holdings of the Museum. The individual gets rid of controversial objects , triggers of momentarily undesirable emotions, by turning them into museum exhibits, i.e., artefacts and thereby participating in the creation of a preserved collective emotional history.

One of the most interesting & unusual object in the museum is this prosthetic limb:

In a Zagreb hospital I met a beautiful, young and ambitious social worker from the Ministry of Defense. When she helped me to get certain materials, which I, as a war invalid, needed for my under-knee prosthesis, the love was born. The prosthesis endured longer than our love. It was made of better material!