New York’s oldest museum will soon expand to incorporate a museum dedicated to LGBTQ history.
Representatives for the New-York Historical Society, established in 1804, announced earlier this month that the museum will expand by 70,000 square feet to include space for The American LGBTQ+ Museum.
The new museum is slated to open its doors in 2024 — though it has already begun hosting digital programs — and will be New York City’s first museum dedicated to global, national and local LGBTQ history and culture. Museum leaders hope to begin staging physical exhibitions next year, in partnership with the Historical Society and other cultural institutions throughout the city, according to Richard Burns, The American LGBTQ+ Museum’s board chair.
Through exhibitions, contributions from scholars, public programming and collaborations with other LGBTQ institutions, the museum will aim to act as a “school for activists” by highlighting “the lives of queer people who are not ordinarily reflected in our cultural institutions today,” Burns said. That means spotlighting the stories of those who have lived through decades of LGBTQ struggles, activists currently pushing to change laws for LGBTQ people, and transgender youths being targeted by bills in statehouses across the country, he added.
“Those stories need to be told,” he said. “We all need to understand the consequences of public policy and culture on the lives of people who live here.”
Burns, a longtime executive in nonprofit groups who led Manhattan’s LGBTQ Community Center for two decades, and a group of fellow queer advocates began meeting “in people’s living rooms” in early 2017, he said, to begin thinking about how to make their dream of an LGBTQ museum a reality. While the idea for the museum had already been percolating among activists for years before those meetings started, it was the slew of court cases seeking religious exemptions for businesses and organizations that did not want to serve LGBTQ people following the Supreme Court’s 2015 landmark gay marriage decision that prompted them to move forward about four years ago, Burns said.
“That political context pushed us to say, ‘We need to record and present the history of our movement and the lives of LGBT people, and showcase both the discrimination and suffering of vulnerable people, but also the resilience and grit and determination to achieve equality and freedom and liberation,’” he said.
To determine their approach to the museum and its programming, the founding board partnered with outside firms to run focus groups in English and Spanish with LGBTQ people throughout New York City’s five boroughs, and it also commissioned a survey that was completed by more than 3,200 LGBTQ people nationwide.
Those efforts made clear that “culture can be a mirror, and people who feel invisible in the larger culture, they want a mirror that reflects back their lives, their stories, and confirms that we exist,” Burns said, adding that programming will be produced from intersectional perspectives, recognizing the ways gender, sexual orientation, race and nationality differently impact LGBTQ people's lived experiences.
The museum will also offer a mix of interactive events and more traditional programming, like exhibits, to bring in a wider range of visitors, he added.
“What we’re hoping is experiment with approaches to a museum so that people feel like they do belong there, that they do feel welcome — and that might require a lot of different kinds of approaches,” Burns explained.
The American LGBTQ+ Museum has received funding from individuals and foundations, and it is still raising funds to hire its first executive director, he said. According to The New York Times, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the City Council last week allocated $35 million to the Historical Society’s expansion project, which will also house classrooms, study areas and storage space in a now-vacant lot — which the organization has owned since 1937 — adjacent to its Upper West Side home at Central Park West and 77th Street.
New York City’s rich LGBTQ history, including the iconic 1969 Stonewall uprising, makes it the perfect home for the future cultural institution, Burns added.
“So much of our movement has happened in New York City,” he said. “We thought, ‘This is definitely the place for this museum.’”
Additionally, the city is home to about 756,000 LGBTQ adults — making it the metro area with the largest LGBTQ population in the country — and is the No. 1 destination for American LGBTQ+ travelers, according to data the museum collected from the tourism agency NYC & Company.
The museum will be one of many cultural initiatives dedicated to shining a light on LGBTQ history: Burns pointed to the Stonewall National Museum and Archives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society and Berlin’s Gay Museum as institutions doing similar work, along with Manhattan’s LGBT Community Center National History Archive and the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn. The American LGBTQ+ Museum also intends to feature the stories collected by queer oral history projects, including The Generations Project and I’m From Driftwood, according to Burns.
“It is our vision, our dream, our goal to collaborate with all of these efforts and provide a showcase for the work that they’re doing,” he said. “We’re part of a movement, and part of our mission is to provide a platform for all these other queer history projects that are in different stages of development.”
The new museum’s future home within New York’s oldest museum will also allow for a special kind of collaboration, according to New-York Historical Society President and CEO Louise Mirrer, who added that the initiative illustrates the ongoing need to re-examine historical narratives and center stories that have been otherwise overlooked.
“It underscores the fact that history is about agency — it’s not about a long dead past that no one can interrogate,” she said. “This particular story of the American LGBTQ+ movement is one that needs to be recorded and preserved for future generations. The exciting part of this is that New York’s oldest museum is at the forefront of ensuring that history has a future.”