PLANS by Sydney Council to encourage donations of historically significant LGBTI objects to major institutions could affect the viability of a future museum, with leading institutions telling the Star Observer they would be unwilling to store objects without taking on permanent custodianship of them.
Earlier this month, council passed a motion that discussions be held with external organisations, including the NSW State Library and the Australian Gay and Lesbian Archives (ALGA), to preserve historic artefacts, photographs and papers donated by the city’s LGBTI community.
However, the institutions which could act as a likely home for the archive have told the Star Observer their policy is to have custodianship of their collections, effectively preventing a future Sydney-based LGBTI museum taking control of the items.
(Main image above: An example of an artefact that could be stored in a future LGBTI museum. A scene from Sydney’s gay liberation movement of the 1970s. PHOTO: Geoff Friend SOURCE: Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives)
Assistant Director General of the Australian Collections at the National Library of Australia in Canberra, Margy Burn, said the institution had recently taken ownership of the personal papers of Dennis Altman, an academic and pioneering gay rights activist.
“We need to be able to manage [our collection] in the future and this means we do need to take ownership and that’s pretty common,” she said.
Burn praised Sydney Council’s current archive, saying it was “fantastic,” and “a little bit unusual but it reflects the importance of Sydney.”
The Powerhouse Museum, which already has a collection of LGBTI ephemera, including some Mardi Gras costumes, said it would accept bequests but it was “not able to store or archive collections on behalf of third parties.”
Similar policies were in place at the NSW State Library and the ALGA although both said they regularly lent materials to smaller museums and galleries.
However, the State Library confirmed that it charges fees to institutions that borrow objects under its ownership.
Melbourne-based ALGA already has a wealth of materials on Sydney’s LGBTI history and was instrumental in the creating of the Mardi Gras pop-up museum on Oxford St in 2013.
ALGA’S Nick Henderson said they worked with: “many local, state and federal cultural institutions to support the collection and preservation of LGBTI history.”
But creating a stand-alone archive or museum “seems unwarranted,” said Henderson, and could duplicate the work being carried out by existing institutions.
He added that ensuring historical material significant to Sydney was stored and regularly displayed could instead be achieved by working with current organisations to: “create a space in which… existing and future collections can be permanently exhibited.”
Cr Linda Scott said if council itself stored donated items in its current archives it would ensure: “the rich history and stories of Sydney’s [LGBTI] community can be exhibited in the future, not locked up in storage vaults of libraries throughout the country.”
“I called for [council] to provide an archival space because other institutions have made it clear that once an item is donated, the ownership of that item is passed on to the institution,” she said.
“Disappointingly, the Lord Mayor and other councillors would not support this initiative.”
Cr Jenny Green, whose archive motion was passed, told the Star Observer: “I have faith in the integrity of these unique collections being expertly curated and housed in these highly respected institutions.”
The office of Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore said questions around ownership would be raised when discussions began with the various institutions.
As donated artefacts were likely to be fragile, “the best way to preserve [them] is to work with institutions… with the appropriate facilities, resources and staff,” Moore stated.
“Council’s resolution starts conversations with these… institutions so we can gauge how materials can be appropriately collected, stored and available for research and exhibition purposes.”
Moore said institutions such as the ALGA and the State Library already had substantial collections of artefacts from the LGBTI community and this did not “necessarily prevent them being available for exhibitions or used by other museums or galleries.”