Batavia Park District Dish: Batavia Depot Museum exhibit unveils hidden LGBTQ+ history

Museum exhibits usually are defined by tangible artifacts and written records passed down through generations, but sometimes our history involves what is left out just as much as what is preserved.

In a groundbreaking new exhibit that opened this month at Batavia Depot Museum, historians address how much of our LGBTQ+ history remains unseen. For decades, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender individuals, those who are queer or questioning and others on the gender identity and sexuality spectrum have not been included in typical museum exhibits nationwide.

Depot Museum Director Kate Garrett said these institutions now strive to be more inclusive and reflect such diversity, and that begins in Batavia with “Refraction: Finding Identity.”

“We have never done anything like this before,” Garrett said of the landmark exhibit.

“Refraction” delves into the changing norms of identity and sexuality, and celebrates the stories of Batavians who forged their own paths throughout history.

Two major influences stifled the collection of artifacts that help to tell the story of LGBTQ+ individuals in Batavia: self-censorship and collection bias, Garrett said.

Often, there were painful social and even physical penalties for stepping outside the cultural status quo. As a result, so much of LGBTQ+ history remains silenced through this chilling effect.

“Love letters or other mementos that might give us definitive proof [of one’s sexuality] could also be incriminating to an LGBTQ+ person, their family or loved ones. Whatever tangible evidence there might have been either never was created or intentionally was hidden or destroyed out of fear. What artifacts do survive often did not make it into museum collections,” Garrett said.

At the Depot Museum, for example, much of its collection was donated between 1970 and 2000. To place it in context, the Stonewall Uprising took place in June 1969, sparking the first Pride parades in 1970. The AIDS epidemic claimed the lives of 430,000 people, many gay men, who died between 1980 and 1999.

“An entire generation of history keepers and storytellers lost the opportunity to contribute to the record,” Garrett said, because they were busy fighting for their lives and human rights. “We hope this exhibit shows that while we haven’t always been listening, we are now and are eager to preserve these stories for future generations.”

Collection bias is the second influence. We run the risk of looking at our ancestors’ lives with a very modern lens. And while we know that sexuality is innate, it hasn’t been understood or expressed the same across all cultures and time periods, Garrett said.

“My biggest hope is that people who didn’t feel comfortable at the museum feel comfortable and welcome. It has the potential to do a lot of good,” Garrett said.

The Depot Museum’s second spring exhibit is “Inspiring Expression.” This eclectic exhibit celebrates the many ways in which Batavians used visual arts to express themselves throughout time and provides a look inside the museum’s archives of rarely viewed visual artworks.

The mediums on display in the museum’s lower level range from the common to the astonishing. Pieces in the exhibit include an oil painting of President Abraham Lincoln, a depiction of a windmill alongside part of the Fox River that was created in crayon, intricate rope sculptures, photographs and watercolors.

Also showcased is a portion of hand-carved barn wood depicting a brick farmhouse and barn that was created by Edward Parkhurst in 1880. Parkhurst was about 18 years old when he climbed into the barn and carved the image, including his name and date of birth: April 17, 1862.

“Edward was a machinist so he worked with his hands. But this was the earliest known work of his that was just for beauty,” Garrett said.

The carving was rediscovered 100 years later when wood was being collected to be repurposed for paneling in an art studio downtown.

Both exhibits may be viewed through July at the Batavia Depot Museum, 155 Houston St.