The Missouri History Museum’s collection dedicated to St. Louis’ LGBTQ history will debut this summer. Curators hope the first exhibit will encourage people to revisit their own memories and share oral histories, mementos and photographs to contribute to the project.
The museum has been gathering pieces of LGBTQ history for the collecting initiative since 2014, when it partnered with the St. Louis LGBT History Project. In a six-month atrium show scheduled to start in June, the museum will highlight pieces from that Gateway to Pride collection for the first time.
The atrium show will invite visitors to help curators find missing pieces of history in the greater St. Louis area, from eastern Missouri to southern Illinois.
“We’ll ask the questions of, ‘Do you have anything that you can share? Or can you help us with this?’” said Sharon Smith, the museum’s curator of civic and personal identity. “There'll be places where we will literally say, ‘We need objects here, or stories here — do you want to share a story?’”
Visitors’ answers will help curators further develop the collection — and improve its first large-scale exhibit, which will follow the atrium show in fall 2024.
The collection already has some significant items. They include a coffin carried by AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power activists who shut down a 1990s St. Louis pride parade to protest indifference to AIDS. The collection also includes a section of the "World’s Longest Rainbow Flag," originally displayed in Key West, Florida, then sent around the world.
The atrium show will display smaller pieces, like photos and information on influential people, places and groups that have contributed to LGBTQ history in St. Louis. It will also show images of pride flags from various LGBTQ identities, and a timeline.
But Smith said the museum wants to save some larger and more delicate objects for the larger exhibit in 2024.
One of those larger items is a transgender pride flag used to protest the deaths of trans people in the U.S. Smith said the flag is one of the first major pieces of trans history the collection has received.
In 2016, shortly after the election of Donald Trump, St. Louis activist Lily Chouteau took a permanent marker to a transgender pride flag. Whenever trans people died violently, she wrote their names on the flag. Then she marched with the flag at protests to call attention to the deaths by suicide and murder in her community.
“This piece is a message: 'Look at us, we're dying. Help us,'” Chouteau said. She said that when she marched with the flag, many people were surprised and alarmed to learn how many trans people were dying. “Any way I can get that message further out, the better. Donating it was just another way to spread that.”
One major goal of the atrium exhibit is to gather information from as many people as possible, said Smith. She said she hopes the smaller exhibit will help the museum reach people of color and trans communities for the stories like Chouteau’s that the museum doesn’t already have.
“In order to be able to do all of those stories justice, to be as accurate as possible, we need more material,” said Smith.
The atrium exhibit will run from June 6 until Jan. 10, 2021. The museum hopes to host an open meeting to discuss the Gateway to Pride collection, but is currently postponing the March 31 event out of precaution to limit the spread of coronavirus.
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