LGBTQ history exhibition is a first for Memphis museum

The history of LGBTQ people’s fight for equality and civil rights will be displayed at the Museum of Science & History (MoSH) through two complementary exhibitions running together from June 4–Sep 26.

This hand-painted pillow shows two women embracing. It's a souvenir of the 1992 Gay Pride celebration. (photo courtesy of the Museum of Science & History)“Rise Up: Stonewall and the Civil Rights Movement” is a national touring exhibit curated by the Newseum in Washington, D.C. “Rise Up” tells the story of the police raid of the Stonewall Inn in New York City, an event broadly viewed as a turning point in equality and civil rights for LGBTQ Americans. Artifacts include Martina Navratilova’s tennis racket, the gavel used by Nancy Pelosi to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a campaign poster for Harvey Milk, and more.

“Memphis Proud: The Resilience of a Southern LGBTQ+ Community'' was researched and curated by MoSH staff and focuses on LGBTQ history in Memphis.

To create the local exhibit, curators of “Memphis Proud” formed an advisory committee consisting of LGBTQ people and others involved with the local LGBTQ community. The group met once a month to come up with themes for the exhibit, like the AIDS epidemic, the fight for equal rights, housing, faith, nightlife, education, the bar scene, and drag culture. The exhibit uses photographs, artifacts, and stories, both written and oral, to educate and inform.

Moth, Memphis artist and drag performer. (submitted photo by Marcus Menefee)Mothie—local artist, full-time drag queen, and one of the exhibit’s curators—is excited about the story the exhibit tells and how groundbreaking it is.

“This is a huge, decentralized, extremely academic version of our story, and our story has never, ever, ever been presented like this,” they said. “This is a huge step and a huge marker for what we have won in our community here in Memphis.”

Adding the local exhibit to the national traveling exhibit was a no-brainer for Raka Nandi, director of exhibits and collections at MoSH.

“Our curatorial staff did all the primary research to tell a story about what the LGBTQ community of Memphis is and what its history has been,” she said. “Because our museum’s collecting and exhibiting mission has always been on regional history, it seemed like a really good pairing.”

Nandi said that both exhibits are important because many Memphians don’t know much about local LGBTQ history, or that the Stonewall uprising was a watershed moment for national LGBTQ civil rights and equality.

“Many groups of people have been left out of American history, and LGBTQ people are one such group,” she said. “MoSH is trying to tell more stories that are diverse and to really sort of reflect on diversity, so that is another reason why it’s been important to host this here, to host the traveling exhibit and to curate this local exhibit.”

This is the first time MoSH has held an exhibit specifically on LGBTQ people, Nandi said.

Gayfest, a festival hosted by the Memphis Gay Coalition, ran from 1987–1990, when it was replaced by the Gay Expo. (photo courtesy of the Museum of Science & History)MoSH was able to put on “Memphis Proud” thanks to a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and a sponsorship from FedEx. Nandi said it was important to include representation of the Memphis LGBTQ community alongside the traveling exhibit.

“[The community is] diverse in terms of ages, it’s diverse in terms of races, it’s diverse in terms of sexual identity,” she said. “So I think all of that is something that enriches the ‘Rise Up’ exhibit as well, by showing that even in a Southern town that has sort of a Southern reputation, resilience and activism is continuing and flourishing.”

Mothie, who said their involvement in the curation of the exhibit has been a labor of love, echoed Nandi’s sentiments.

“This exhibit was so important to me, and after losing some of the people I have lost over the past few years, people like Beverly Hills and people like Lisa Michaels, I would sooner cut off my own hand than walk away from this exhibit,” they said.

“Our LGBTQIA community is so big and so bright, brilliant, fun, and supportive, and so many other Memphians don’t know we are here at all. We’ve been changing history and moving culture in this city for over 100 years. This is a huge moment of reflection and a huge moment of celebration.”