The Chicago History Museum announced that its "Out in Chicago" exhibit will open May 21. The announcement was made at a cocktail reception before the first program of its long-standing series, entering its eighth year, Out at CHM, "Sexicon: Language & Identity," January 27 at 1601 N. Clark Street.
The exhibit is believed to be the first major LGBT history project undertaken by a mainstream urban history museum in U.S. history.
Melissa Hayes, vice president of external affairs at the museum, introduced the brief remarks by board members and members of the planning committee. The first to speak was board chair Sharon Gist Gilliam, who spoke of the function of the museum in the context of the city's history and that of the LGBT community in particular saying, "We tell the stories of Chicago one at a time. We make complex stories more accessible [ and ] we base our exhibitions on research and scholarship. Out in Chicago will demonstrate diversity as a key strength in Chicago's success. It provides opportunities for civic engagement and discussion and most importantly ensures the preservation of a significant part of this city's history."
James Alexander, also a member of the board of CHM and co-trustee of The Elizabeth Morse Charitable Trust ( a major supporter of the Out at CHM project ) , recalled the first meeting on Nov. 8, 2001 when a small group of community members including Evette Cardona and George Chauncey got together to make long-term plans to reflect the museum's commitment to LGBT history. At the time, according to Alexander, the decision was made to ensure "an extended series of programs, substantive and thoughtful, dealing with LGBT history that would culminate in a major LGBT exhibition."
John McGowan, of the investment firm Northern Trust Corporation ( the exhibit's major corporate partner ) , also spoke of the first time he received an invitation from CHM for the Out series, noting that it came not in an opaque brown envelope but as a brightly colored, oversize postcard "with words like 'transgender' and 'homosexual' written all over it: it just screamed gay." He said this was one of the first indications that CHM was not "timidly courting the LGBT community but made it clear that the museum wanted to be part of of the LGBT community." He also said that their family memberships were the first time he and his partner had been acknowledged as a family.
Jill Austin, museum curator, and Jennifer Brier, professor of history and gender and women's studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, are co-curators of the upcoming exhibit, which will cover 150 years of Chicago history. Austin spoke of how "LGBT communities have continued to have an influence on this city [ and ] its politics" and that Out in Chicago would detail that influence and history in four major aspects: individuals as urban dwellers, relationships and couples, social networks and communities, and how LGBT communities "have expanded into the public sphere, attaining a body politic and a critical mass."
Austin said the exhibition will be constructed around themes including the stories of individual Chicagoans, past and present; the building of families and homes; exploring the evolution of communities and city neighborhoods; and the communities' expansion into the political sphere.
Discoveries show that LGBT Chicagoans were active as early as the 1850s, shortly after the city's founding, CHM said in a press release. The curators' research uncovered an ordinance from 1851 that prohibited openly dressing in opposite gender clothing. "This exhibition is a unique and timely opportunity to interpret our knowledge based on our historical expertise, and making what we know as scholars and researchers available to the public," stated Brier.
The Elizabeth Morse Charitable Trust is a sponsor of the entire Out at CHM project. Northern Trust is the Lead Corporate Sponsor for the Out in Chicago exhibition. Additional support is provided by The Chicago Community Trust, Pauls Foundation, Polk Bros. Foundation, Sara Lee Foundation, UBS, and The Goodworks Fund. CHM thanks the following for their support of the exhibition: Robert Kohl and Clark Pellett, Art Johnston and Jose Peña, Charles R. Middleton and John R. Geary, Shawn Donnelley, Greg Cameron and Greg Thompson, Patrick M. Sheahan, and Esther Saks. The official hotel partner for the exhibition is Fairmont Chicago, Millennium Park.
More details will be forthcoming on the museum's website wwwby.chicagohs.org/ Windy City Times will be providing more coverage in the months leading up to the opening. The exhibit will be open through March of 2012.