Pandemic Pivot: Major museum digital exhibit for LGBT History Month

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The Stonewall National Museum and Archives in Fort Lauderdale from outsid
The Stonewall National Museum and Archives in Fort Lauderdale. Photo Credit: Stonewall National Museum and Archives

In Plain Sight offers website visitors a digital timeline of LGBT achievements, including 800 entries across 10 categories

Person holding a cell phone with the mobile app running
The mobile version of the “In Plain Sight” virtual exhibit. Photo Credit: Stonewall National Museum and Archives

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

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

Visitors slowly returned as vaccines became available and donors stepped up to bolster hard-hit finances. This summer, the federal Shuttered Venue Operator Grant program offered a more recent lifeline 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 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 internet’s global reach.

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already begun an ambitious undertaking to digitize its collection of more than 28,000 volumes and six-million pages of historical documents, but director Hunter O’Hanian knew there was much more work to be done during this critical moment.

After months of research, SNMA recently launched a major digital exhibit just in time for LGBT History Month in October.

“In Plain Sight” is a digital timeline that highlights pivotal LGBT figures and achievements with more than 800 entries across 10 categories: AIDS/HIV, Arts, Business, Film/TV, Literature, Memorials, Milestones, Music, Sports and Theatre/Dance.

Far more than an interactive display, 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 LGBT 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 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 LGBT 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.

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.

"In Plain Sight" cover image
“In Plain Sight” is a digital timeline that highlights pivotal LGBT figures and achievements with more than 800 entries across 10 categories.

“For centuries, there was a tremendous stigma associated with being gay. Over the past few decades, students and proponents of gay studies and gay rights have looked at LGBT 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 LGBT history is also key to anyone concerned with racism, sexism, ageism, or any form of systemic discrimination in society. The Florida Humanities Council provided funding for the project.

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

In Plain Sight is not the only innovative program to arise from the museum’s COVID pivot. Since the initial shutdown, more than 31,000 visitors have attended a series of lectures and curated talks from leading historians, authors, and thought leaders via Zoom.

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.

Person looking at a tablet with the mobile app running
The tablet version of the “In Plain Sight” virtual exhibit. Photo Credit: South Florida Gay News

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 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 Stonewall-Museum.org.