Collection Donors: the Key to Context

Over the last few months here in the GLBT Historical Society Archives, we’ve been focusing the bulk of our efforts on preparing to move the collections from our current space at 657 Mission Street to a much larger location down the road at 989 Market Street. A collection move of this size is no small feat; with all the inventorying, tracking, sorting, and barcoding of materials, the archives have been swirling with activity, and it’s been a mix of serious diligence and energetic anticipation.

As the NHPRC Visions & Voices project winds down – and the move rapidly approaches – I have been busy tying up loose ends around the archives, locating any and all collections that have yet to be formally accessioned and cataloged; leave no collection unaccounted for! And with the help of archives staff Alex Barrows and volunteer Richard Leadbetter, we’ve officially accessioned 5 new collections in 2016, including the Society of Gay and Lesbian Composers records (2016-05), Larry Berner collection (2016-02), and the Marcia Munson Lesbian Polyamory Reader papers (2016-01).

ESP Gallery front window; ESP photographs and ephemera (#2016-03). Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society
ESP Gallery front window; ESP photographs and ephemera (#2016-03). Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society

Collection donors play a huge role in the success of the GLBT Historical Society’s mission to interpret LGBTQ history and make it accessible to all. Not simply the originator or source of collections, donors possess valuable contextual  information about their collection materials, such as names of persons in photographs, the year a film was created, or general subjects that inform a collection’s broader historical significance.

In my quest to leave no collection unaccounted for before the big move, I came across a mysterious box on the shelves simply labeled “queer artists”. This single box filled with a binder of photos, postcards, and press materials had no deed of gift or other documentation explaining who donated them, what they were, and where they came from; this presented an incredible challenge in moving forward with cataloging the collection. But piece by piece, Richard and I began making sense of the box’s contents. The gallery name “ESP” showed up a lot, as well as the name “Matthew Pawlowski”. Through the power of the internet, I tracked down Pawlowski, shot him an email, and through conversation discovered he was indeed the original donor of the collection, materials he explained were a gathering of photographs and ephemera from the former Mission District art gallery ESP, which he started in 1996.

Crowd in front of art piece by Jim Winters; ESP photographs and ephemera (#2016-03). Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society
Crowd in front of art piece by Jim Winters; ESP photographs and ephemera (#2016-03). Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society

To help identify people, places, and events in the collection, Pawlowski agreed to come down to the archives and revisit his collection. From the point of sitting down, opening the files, and seeing his photographs for the first time in over a decade, I could sense the emotion and nostalgia sweeping through Pawlowski, whose life was once so closely intertwined with these materials. He went through each photo, told me the names of individuals shown, what the exhibits were, and the broader network of galleries and artists working together in the Mission District during this time, or what is now better known as the Mission School art movement.  Pawlowski remembered what seemed like every detail: who had passed away between now and then, what artists had gone on to do other projects, the dates of certain exhibits. And from this vast wealth of knowledge, Pawlowski transformed the perception of this collection from a once mysterious group of photos and ephemera sitting on the archives shelf to an extremely dynamic, historically rich record of queer and queer-friendly artists whose mark on the San Francisco art scene 20 years ago still reverberates today.

Sticker show at ESP Gallery; ESP Photographs and ephemera (#2016-03). Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society
Sticker show at ESP Gallery; ESP Photographs and ephemera (#2016-03). Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society

As the ESP photographs and ephemera collection (2016-03) has shown me, working with collection donors does not begin and end with the transfer of their materials to the archives; it is an evolving relationship that fosters conversation, collaboration, and cooperation between the archives staff and collection creators. Together, we shape a more accurate account of the past, benefiting all individuals who seek to understand truth in history.