The Berlin Gay Museum Two-Track History

Berlin Gay Museum; Photo: Tobias Wille
Berlin Gay Museum | Photo (detail): Tobias Wille

It is the only museum in Europe dedicated to the history of homosexuals. In the Berlin Gay Museum a new exhibition shows how lesbians and gay men have lived, fought and partied. Now even more spectacularly than before: in spring 2013 the museum moved to a new location.

We know her! That’s Maria from Risiko, the bartender from the fabled West Berlin pub of the 1980s who used to gel her hair up into a rockabilly quiff and posed for this photo. Or Rosa von Praunheim, the cult director whose film Nicht der Homosexuelle ist pervers, sondern die Gesellschaft, in der er lebt (Not the Homosexual Is Perverse, but the Situation in Which He Lives) launched the West German gay movement in 1971, and who looks like a young Adonis in this painting from the 1960s. Not to forget Frederick the Great, the legendary King of Prussia, who looks so ramrod stiff in the reproductions that he must have been constantly holding something in – and not a few historians have assumed it was his homosexuality.

“Aha” experiences like these accompany the tour of the new Gay Museum in Berlin. In the year of its 28th anniversary, the institution has moved, from a Kreuzberg back courtyard to a Schöneberg front house. Large windows open on the Lützowstraße. The deprived child has become a prestige object, renowned and publicly funded with an annual budget of 650,000 euros. The New York Times has long been recommending the museum and nationwide media reviewing its temporary exhibitions. At the opening of the new location in May, Berlin’s mayor Klaus Wowereit spoke of a “social upgrading”.

A confusing name

The nearly 300 exhibits in the 650 square metre exhibition space ramify into high culture and subculture and afford visitors insights into a perhaps unknown everyday life. For example, thanks to photos and flyers from the bar Pelze in the Potsdamer Straße 139 in Berlin-Schöneberg, which has been a cultural meeting place for lesbians and women since 1981 and where there was even a darkroom. “Whatever may have happened there”, as Birgit Bosold says, a contemporary witness, literary scholar with a PhD and honorary board member of the museum.

Berlin Gay Museum, interior view, architecture: Wiewiorra Hopp Schwark Berlin Gay Museum, interior view, architecture: Wiewiorra Hopp Schwark | Photo: Tobias Wille Birgit Bosold, or “Dr. Bosold”, as a young man addresses her, whom she smiles at so disarmingly that there can be no question as to what the proper form of address is, is sitting in the courtyard smoking a cigarette and talking with Krista Beinstein, an Austrian artist whose work treats lesbian eroticism and is just now visiting the museum. She is clad in friendly black, her belt bag sports a skull sticker and she rejects the objection that the name, Gay Museum, is somehow confusing: “The view of women is also represented here”, she says. And Bosold, who is co-curator of the museum’s exhibitions, adds: “Women also used to call themselves ‘gay’”. That is, women who loved other women. They organized the West Berlin Homosexual Action Front (Homosexuellen Aktionsfront Westberlin / HAW) together with men until they planned and carried out their own actions in 1974.

Super central in a new building

Up to now there has hardly been a two-track history, from the perspective of women, from the perspective of men, at the Gay Museum. The programmatic reorientation was an important step that went along with the move to new premises – very near Berlin’s old gay neighbourhood round Nollendorfplatz. “Super central”, says Bosold of the location. And is delighted at the 1,600 square metres that the building has at its disposal over three floors (before it was 900). The documents lined up in the cellar for accurate evaluation is over a kilometre long.

Butch

The curators are still working on the permanent exhibition. Meanwhile a comprehensive exhibition entitled Transformations treats changing gender orderings. It is based on both the new two-track orientation and the individual biographies that can be found in the minimalist white rooms. There hang, for instance, photos of Lotte Hahn from the 1920s. “Today we would call her an event entrepreneur”, says Bosold of the party organizer and political activist. Back then she was a “butch” (kesser Vater, literally: “jaunty father”), as women who wore men’s clothes were called colloquially. The temporary exhibition is devoted to the pictures of the East German painter Jochen Hass, abstract and figurative paintings from the early 1950s. Created by a man who relinquished his official status as an artist to work as a conservator lest he have to paint propaganda daubs and so as to hone his homoerotic aesthetics. Another room treats Jewish homosexuals in the Third Reich.

Dispelling taboos

A quick tour of the museum offers a roller-coaster of persecution, expulsion and recognition. From ancient myths to gay parades, it was a millennia-long path. Has it now come to an end? In France, tens of thousands are demonstrating against so-called “gay marriage”, in the United States the issue dominated the election, and in Germany the Federal Constitutional Court admonished inadequacies in the legal equality of hetero and homosexual partnerships. Same-sex sexual relationships are still taboo and criminalized in many countries across the world. In the writing of history, the word “homosexuality” appeared not at all until the industrial age. “History is always the history of the victors”, says Birgit Bosold. There is a Gay Museum so that this does not remain so.