Prior to this year, my idea of conservation was confined within the walls of museums and I viewed my interest in social justice as something independent of my career goals. However, thanks to inspiring peers, mentors, and campaigns like #MuseumsAreNotNeutral, I have realized that the preservation of cultural heritage is inherently political and that conservation can be a vessel for social change. Specifically, by contributing to the preservation of the material culture of marginalized communities, conservators can make the history of these communities more accessible. In his 1991 book The Politics of British Black History, scholar Stephen Small writes about this issue in regards to the importance of Black community archives, stating: "part of our problem is that we do not know our histories; part of your problem is that you do not know our histories. So much of the hostility we face is based on ignorance and we must challenge this" (13). In my research this summer, I sought to familiarize myself with LGBTQ+ history and the community archives that have preserved it in order to address the challenges faced by these archives in my senior thesis.
I began my research by reading Michael Bronski's A Queer History of The United States and exploring the websites of LGBTQ+ archives such as the Lesbian Herstory Archives, ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, and the William Way LGBT Community Center's John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives. Bronski's work helped me contextualize the objects housed within these archives and appreciate the significance of even seemingly mundane things like ticket stubs and diary entries. I quickly realized that the majority of these materials are available for study because of community archives, which are defined by scholar Andrew Flinn in his 2007 article "Community Histories, Community Archives: Some Opportunities and Challenges" as "the grassroots activities of documenting, recording and exploring community heritage in which community participation, control and ownership of the project is essential" (2). Compared to traditional collection practices, community archives democratize the act of archiving, allowing marginalized communities to control their own narrative and empower themselves through their history. I conducted the remainder of my research on the history of and challenges faced by queer community archives. A major barrier to the preservation of these materials is a lack of funding for the organizations that run them and I hope to be a dedicated advocate for their importance throughout my lifetime.
My research this summer has provided me with the necessary foundation upon which to build my senior thesis, where I hope to design outreach projects related to this topic. I am inspired by the networks of activists who have preserved queer history and I intend to conduct interviews with community leaders to understand how to make cultural preservation resources more accessible to them. Conservation is not as niche as I once thought and I am grateful that this research topic has opened my eyes to the transformative possibilities of socially conscious preservation efforts.
University of Delaware Honors Program '21
Art Conservation and Art History Major
University of Delaware Alternative Breaks Operations Coordinator
Eugene Dupont Memorial Scholar