Published on April the 21st 2023
[Illustration : Carrache, Ulysse découvre Achille, XVI-XVIIe siècle, Paris, Musée de la Vie Romantique, Collection en ligne, Paris Musées]
The Schwules Museum is a community-run queer museum in Berlin. Founded in the eighties, the museum has an interesting history and has developed new challenges over the years. Heiner Schulze, a member of the board of directors, answered our questions to discover more about the museum and its current strategies.
As we started our interview, the staff arriving at the museum found the façade shot. This is a reminder that museums talking about such topics still face hate.
The article is available here in French.
Julie Besson: Could you introduce yourself and the museum?
Heiner Schulze: I am a social scientist, working at an university in Berlin. I have been invested in the museum for about eight years. At first, I volunteered in the library. Since 2016, I have been elected to the board of directors.
The board consists of eight people. Each of us is responsible for an area. In the past, I was more focused on events, now I am responsible for archives. At the same time, I have been supporting exhibitions and curating myself.
The Schwules Museum, which translates to the gay men museum, was founded in 1985. The story begins a year earlier in 1984, when three museum guards of the « Berlin Museum », which has now merged with other institutions, took initiative to develop an exhibition on homosexual men and women. Eldorado – the History, Everyday Life and Culture of Homosexual Women and Men 1850-1950 was the first explicit exhibition about queer people in Germany. Back then the resistance was strong. The museum received hate mail but it didn’t stop the initiative.
The exhibition was a huge success: the museum received as many visitors in six weeks as it had normally in a year. Afterwards, came the question of what would be done with the material that had been collected and the research. The museum didn’t want to take care of it. That’s why the curators decided to come together and found their own museum. There is a debate about why the lesbian community didn’t join at the beginning and we are nowadays uncertain of why they chose not to come. It explains why the initiative started as a strictly gay men’s museum.
Since the beginning of the museum, it has been a community-run organization, a status which is still preserved. It is a membership organization, independent from other institutions. We do receive outside funding by now but we are still independent.
Over the years, the museum started to grow. At the beginning, it was a shared room with another queer organization, and it moved to different places to have a bigger space.
The museum has three pillars :
- its archives, which are the biggest queer archives in Europe, and maybe even worldwide. The missions are to document, collect, research and preserve queer history and culture.
- the library, where people can come, research and have access to the material
- the exhibition space, where we can have 2 to 3 exhibitions at the same time following an exhibition program.
Over the last forty years, the museum started to grow and become professional. Today, it employs around 20 part-time workers in several fields such as education outreach, administrations, and workshops… There are sixty volunteers, to welcome people in the exhibit areas as well as in the archives.
There is also an outlook change: from a gay male cis-centred museum to a more diverse, queer museum where we look at the whole variety of sexuality and gender.
By now, the museum engages with a variety of partners such as the German Historical Museum – the most important history museum in Germany -, universities, queer communities…
We also contact other institutions to get funding. We have funding from the State of Berlin, which helps to pay for the space and the employees, and often get additional funding from foundations and other institutions for things like exhibitions.
J. B. How do you decide which exhibitions the museum is going to be held?
H. S. These last years the exhibitions were decided upon by a committee, constituted by members of the board of directors and part of the staff. It takes a look at what kind of exhibitions we want to do, the requests we get from outside, what we think makes sense or not. The decision can go back to the board of directors, as it ultimately decides.
By now, our program tries to combine different facets of queer life: historical exhibition, art-related… We strive to have a variety of people working on them and make it a rule to have diversity in curators over the year.
Exhibitions can be curated by people from outside but also from our institution, with what we have in our archives. As an example, the exhibition I curated was based on our archives. We also have curators from the outside. We sometimes support them in getting funding for the exhibition.
J. B. In terms of archives, what volume do they represent and what are the strategies to collect them?
H. S. Spacewise, our archives measure 500 or 600 square meters. We can estimate it to be 1.5 to 2 million of artefacts, from leaflets to clothing, etc.
We rely mostly on people’s donations, whether it is after people’s death and family members or friends donating their old possessions. Sometimes, people donate when they get older. For example, Klaus Wowereit – a former Berlin mayor who outed himself – gave us many of his archives.
Sometimes people just show up to give something and explain to us why it is important. It can be random to a certain extent.
We also try to cultivate connections with people that we know might have interesting archives for us.
Strategy-wise, there has been a major shift in the last couple of years: we try to have diverse archives, from different queer communities. It was very gay cis white male-centred and we try to see if we can get archives from lesbian or trans people for example so it better represents the whole community.
We also have sex workers archives, as the area the museum is located is known for prostitutes and we can find many links between sex workers and queer life. It even became an exhibition subject. We also have one of the biggest HIV/AIDS archives, since the history of HIV/AIDS is closely connected also to our queer histories.
We also communicate with outside organizations (NGOs, Press Archives of queer newspapers) to receive their archives. They are primarily from Germany but also from outside. For example, a Turkish queer organization came to us two or three years ago because they wanted to preserve their archives. Some Polish organizations had similar concerns. We always take action to safeguard the archives.
When we get contacts, we see if we can collect it or we refer them to other organizations so the archives are preserved.
Exhibition works also help to collect archives and material, as well as when we cooperate with other communities.
We have many young people using the archives in certain projects and we also ask them if they want to donate stuff for our archives. For instance when working together with Theater X, a theater group of young adults, they developed a theater play after research in our archives, and in turn some of their research and parts of the costumes of their play became part of our archive in the end.
J.B. As other queer cultural institutions are developing in Europe (for example, the Queer Britain Museum, Museo Q in Spain…), to which extent are you collaborating with them?
H. S. There are other places which try to develop and we are sometimes in contact with them. For example, we were contacted by someone in Greece, trying to organize a museum. We had contacts with people in Britain, also from Sweden and we are in contact with an LGBTQ collective in Paris (Queer archives and museums). We also have contact from outside of Europe such as the Museum of Sexual Diversity in San Paulo.
When we connect, we exchange ideas, related to archives for example.
We founded an organization to connect queer archives and libraries in german speaking countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and a part of the Netherlands). We actively try to network, discuss and organize things around queer archiving.
We sometimes network with institutions that are not queer in themselves. We are members of all the major networks (International Museum associations) and some of our staff founded a network called « Queering museum in Berlin » where they connect and see how they can queer up and bring queer topics into their institutions, archives and exhibition spaces. It is on the verge of expanding nationally.
Most of the people are relatively young, it is a whole new generation of people to diversify museums.
Also outside groups spring up to diversify the cultural sector, for instance there is now a group on inclusivity in the main association for art historians and we have been invited by them to share our experiences.
Resistance to this process of diversification and including the whole range of queer experiences comes mostly from older people, more established ones.
The networks we established and participated in allowed us to talk at meetings and present our experiences. Younger ones tend to be receptive while older ones are more reluctant. Of course, some of them are more open. It is very reliant on individuals.
In an interview for NYTimes (1) Birgit Bosold said the museum has a « double role: to advocate to the mainstream audience for the recognition of queer heritage as part of collective history, and to challenge problematic discourses which are dominant within the queer community ».
It has always been something from the start. We started a counter-cultural memory, to show that it is legitimate and to create a space for it. We also try to influence other institutions and by now, we work with them. For example, the German Hygiene Museum, which worked on the human body, contacted us to see how they can go away from presenting the human body as binary and heteronormative, or the German Historical Museum. We are making them more aware, as queer history is also a part of History.
We do it also within our communities, by challenging certain discourses. As we try to decenter from gay cis white men, by focusing on women, trans, etc. There is also resistance whenever we challenge the image of the queer community since we started as a gay cis white men museum. Everyone is not happy that we are diversifying, but it isn’t about privileging one experience or another, it’s about every experience that is in the whole range.
J. B. What reactions do you get from your visitors and also from people outside?
H. S. We work a lot with outside institutions and we do have a rather friendly intervention. We work with schools and universities. A lot of students visit us or participate in workshops, and many of them are not queer.
Our visitors are often queer but not always, they can be accompanied by families, their children, and their non-queer friends, they can also be non-queer friends on their own, that are open to the subject.
Over the last forty years, reactions from the public have gotten better and better. At first, people didn’t want to do anything with us and now we are established enough that outside institutions work with us. There can be some reluctance though.
What happened several times is shooting at the museum windows.
It gets more difficult when we have to handle social media. Of course, our public follows us and it is friendly. One time, we did an advertisement on Facebook and it got played out to people who are not queer and our Social Media Team had to work a lot to moderate comments. When it is not our usual fans, we can get hate quickly.
One or two years ago, after we created a quite successful TikTok channel after geting some money from the TikTok foundation, it was a huge success, but our account has also drawn negative attention towards the museum and some of the people working here.
We have to manage the balance between drawing attention, but not from people who are not friendly.
We started having unwanted attention from the far-right extremist party and they weaponized it against us. They put an anti-queer, anti-gender poster in front of the museum, so people could pose in front of it and post it online.
Though we don’t see negative reactions as much in everyday life, or sometimes when people call and ask pointless questions. It is more present online.
J. B. How many visitors do you receive in the archives and the museum?
Inside our museum exhibition space, we receive 20 to 25 000 people every year. Of course, it was lower during the covid-19 crisis but it is starting to increase again. Two-thirds of our visitors are international. We have every exhibition in German and English, sometimes in other languages like French and we try to incorporate German sign language.
Our archives and library received 400 people in 2020 and 460 in 2021. It’s mostly researchers, from an international background as well. After the covid-19 quarantine, the numbers are growing steadily.
We have two or three tours every week and they are very well received. We also have workshops and some of them have waiting lists, such as the workshop on pornography which is always booked out.
J.B. Is there anything you would like to emphasize?
H. S. Community is essential to us as we came from the community. We try to be connected to queer communities and bring them into our archives and our exhibitions.
We were sometimes asked by visitors if we would be interested in being a state museum but we do not want to, as we prefer to stay independent and community-run.
We got more and more professionalized over the years. It was decided by the board of members to create a paid board member position that will take more responsibilities.
We are working with our communities, for example, one or two years ago we had an exhibition on intersex people, curated by people who are themselves intersex. We also try to have representative teams when talking about the experience of people of colour, either curators are POC themselves or the team is mixed.
One of the criteria for recruitment of our staff is the diversity.
We’re not as diverse as we would like to be but we are on the way, and we made a large progression compared to the beginning of the museum. We advocate for other institutions to bring more diversity to their own staff. It was one of the key points of a talk I gave at the German Museum Association.
We want to be more than a museum about people, but a museum growing with people.
Tom Faber, What should an L.G.B.T.Q. museum be ? Approaches vary., https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/04/arts/design/lgbt-museums-queer-britain.html
To discover more about the Schwules museum
To cite this article : BESSON, Julie. 2023. From the community, for the community : The Schwules Museum in Berlin. An interview with Heiner Schulze., Metis Lab, published on April, 21st 2023. Available at :
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