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GLBT History Museum vs. Port of San Francisco

I am constantly fascinated by the way that official stories are told. So many museums and institutions tell such a narrow or oversimplified version of the events they are representing.

San Francisco Port 150th anniversary signs For example, the Port of San Francisco is currently celebrating its 150th anniversary. To commemorate, there are flags celebrating various aspects of the port’s history and present. The flags all have the text “The Port of San Francisco – 150 Years – A Place For __.” The blank is filled in by various words, like History, Labor, Nature, Fishing, Ships, Travel, Families, Sports. In one way, this kind of media does tell a multifaceted story, highlighting different aspects of the port. However, when these terms are used in this way, a whole set of meanings is invoked. For example, what exactly does it mean to say that the port is “A Place for Families”? What kind of families actually feel comfortable spending time at the port? Given that one of the major events at the port is spending money – largely at restaurants and souvenir shops – we can assume that they don’t mean families who do not have disposable income to spend on such things.

San Francisco colonial history sign at Fisherman's Wharf Similarly, they claim that the port is “A Place for History,” however, in the few hours I spent there walking around, I didn’t see a single mention of the indigenous people on whose traditional territory the port is located. In fact, the only evidence of San Francisco’s colonial history is a sign that is located in an obscure area of Fisherman’s Wharf park. The sign does not mention the indigenous people of the land at all, rather it just describes the journey of a spanish ship in the “discovery” narrative that has been so well critiqued by many, many people (see this site, for example, or this one). Each of the words they have used – nature, travel, labor – all have similarly complex meanings and histories. Without defining their terms, the port invokes the most superficial meanings of these complex concepts.

GLBT History Musem storefrontBy contrast, I was pleasantly surprised by the way stories were told and, more importantly, questions were asked at the GLBT History Museum in San Francisco. The museum celebrates 100 years of the city’s “Vast Queer Past” and has really a very wide range of exhibits exploring many different aspects of queer history in San Francisco and the US.

For example, one of the exhibit captions on GLBT participation in consumerism contends that in “the 1980s and 1990s ‘pride’ became its own product” and asks the question “What is the price of freedom?” Beyond GLBT participation in consumer culture, this seems like an important question to ask about any liberation movement.

GLBT History Museum Legendary exhibit I was also excited to see the way that they incorporated different racialized GLBT histories throughout many of the exhibits, in addition to an exhibit specifically exploring racialized queer experiences and communities through both static and dynamic media. This probably shouldn’t be remarkable, but given the invisibility of whiteness in most historical representations, I was pleased to see this more complex (and accurate) representation of queer history.

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  1. For all of Canada’s issues, I found myself rediscovering my colonial past and present only after moving out of the US and catching up with coastal BC’s progressive community’s honest (if imperfect and evolving) colonialism awareness. White US history, even looking past the discovery myth, is so tied to their independence from their British colonial masters that what they did to the American indigenous before, during and after is completely glossed over. There is also that notion of “we fought, we won, it’s over, it’s ours fair and square”.

    See you soon, nice blog, added to my feed reader :)

  2. As one of the curators of “Our Vast Queer Past: Celebrating San Francisco’s GLBT History” at The GLBT History Museum, let me thank you for this very perceptive review. We’re deeply committed to raising questions about representation and belonging, to reflecting the diversity of GLBT communities and experiences, and to demystifying the role of museums by critiquing their power of inclusion and exclusion directly within our exhibitions and programming. At the same time, we love putting on a good show and telling resonant stories. It’s always great to see a response like yours that lets us know visitors recognize what we’re up to.

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