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Leather Archives & Museum turns 25
by Owen Keehnen

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Formed in 1991 by Chuck Renslow and Tony DeBlase and incorporated by the state of Illinois the same year, the Leather Archives & Museum ( LA&M ) has been serving and protecting the history of the fetish community for 25 years. To this day it remains the only institution in the United States dedicated to the compilation, preservation, maintenance and access to alternative sex culture.

Through 1995, the museum existed as little more than an expanding collection, appearing primarily as an exhibit at the International Mr. Leather contests. In 1996, a storefront location was opened at 5007 N. Clark St., but the volume of donations soon outgrew the space. Since 1999 The Leather Archives and Museum has been located at 6418 N. Greenview Chicago. As the result of a grassroots campaign and generous donations from the leather and kink communities, the organization, in August 2004, was able to pay off the mortgage on the 10,000-square-foot, two-story building.

Increasingly, the Museum has become a tourist destination for kinky and non-kinky folks alike. Rick Storer, executive director for the LA&M since 2002, explained that for the past three to four years, the number of visitors has increased to approximately 4,000 annually. "Of those visitors, approximately 50 percent identify themselves as members of the S&M community and kink lifestyle, and the other 50 percent are tourists, those marginally involved and those just interested in seeing something different," he said. Storer added that the number of those not directly involved in the leather/kink community is increasing. He cited this change with increasing mainstream acceptance of sex museums in general. Storer added that he thinks "word has gotten out that the museum isn't what is expected, and that it's definitely something worth seeing."

Indeed, some of the museum's many highlights include the dungeon exhibit with artifacts and S&M and bondage equipment, a leather bar diorama, The Leather History Timeline, a Uniforms Room, an erotic art gallery and the SINS Screening Room, which plays films of leather and fetish interest in a loop. The Teri Rose Memorial Library is another notable feature; this 600-square-foot, non-lending research library holds an extensive collection of 15,000-20,000 books, magazine and library resources on all things leather and fetish. However, the crowned jewel of the LA&M remains the 164-seat Etienne auditorium, a handsome meeting space adorned with approximately 20 murals by the celebrated erotic artist.

In fact, these murals are the very heart of the museum. Renslow explained that his primary motivation in starting the LA&M was to store, maintain, and share with the public the extensive artwork of his late lover Etienne ( Dom Orejudos ). At the time Renslow also donated boxes of memorabilia from his years in the leather community—running Kris Studios which published physique photographs in the 1950's, as owner of the world renown Gold Coast leather bar as well as other businesses, and as an originator of the International Mr. Leather contest. His contribution proved a dynamic start to the collection.

In the past quarter-century, the collection has grown astronomically. Regular donations include erotic artwork, historical artifacts such as patches and pins from defunct leather and fetish organizations, oral history interviews with "old timers," contemporary artifacts including titleholder sashes, BDSM event T-shirts and posters, as well as books, periodicals, and films. New items are being added to the collection almost every day and as a 501( c ) charitable organization all donations are tax-deductible.

Storer explained the scope of the museum's extensive collection includes "7,500 artifacts including art, prints, and photography as well as 40 archival collections ranging in size from one to 120 boxes." When asked how much of this is seen by the public, Storer explained that the museum maintains an average of two to three new exhibits per year on site as well as three to four traveling or digital exhibits. The LA&M has also loaned objects about sexuality and kink to other museums and galleries, several universities, the Kinsey Institute and the Museum of Sex in New York.

In celebration of the LA&M's 25th anniversary, organizers have planned an illustrated catalogue of the museum's history including essays by notables in the museum's past, as well as others in the leather and kink communities, discussing the importance of the museum. In addition, a documentary is being made my filmmaker Christina Court and High Moo Productions under the tentative title By The People: 25 Years of Community Archiving at the Leather Archives & Museum. Also, a weekend celebration is scheduled for Sept. 16-18 with a roster of special programming, the emergence of the some of the museum's lesser-seen exhibits and a celebratory banquet.

A recurring theme in the discussion of the museum is the notion that the LA&M also stands as a memorial and a tribute to the past. Preserving the memory of so many leather and kink pioneers became crucial with the advent of the HIV crisis. Board member Jon Krongaard said, "In the 1980s, AIDS came along and there were things relevant in telling the story to the future that were lost because when someone died and the families would swoop in to clean up, finding these things was considered sick or perverse. They didn't want to talk about it. These were pieces of artwork or bar vests with dozens of event pins, or old publications and magazines, and a host of other things that were incinerated or are rotting away in a landfill somewhere because parents or family members didn't understand.

"This puts all that in a safe place. Enemies can't get to it, families can't throw it away, our history cannot be dismissed because people don't understand it and therefore think it's garbage. There are a lot of folks that aren't here anymore and their stories can never be told. Each and every person whether you are just starting out or you've been around for 50 years, we all have a story to tell. Those who died young, their stories stopped. With so many stories gone it is incumbent upon those who survive to give that lost generation a voice. Those lost people fought the battles that made our lives easier today."

According to Storer, the role of preservation at the museum has not changed and that this is where the history of the community is safe. "How it has evolved is in how the materials are being accessed," he said. "Just saving something is great for emotional purposes, but you ultimately save it to provide access so researchers or kink people or museum curators can access those pieces of history and use it for other projects."

Storer added that advances in technology presents additional challenges not just at the LA&M, but in the archival profession in general—including the importance of a digital versus a physical copy of something. "What exactly do you save when everything on the internet is saveable?," he asked. "We are fortunate in that our collection policy is very broad. As long as it meets the criteria of what we collect here—meaning leather, kink, fetish—we are able to save it. The museum, as far as web resources and internet sources are concerned, is not actively going out and pulling things in. Instead, we have people who send us materials. We are not yet in a place where we have to make decisions about what to save. Our 25th anniversary has given us the opportunity as an institution to start talking about that. We do have a space/capacity issue that will probably come up in four to five years, so much of our planning is focussed on that and what to do when we're out of space here." The most viable option seems to be additional storage off-site.

For 25 years, the Leather Archives & Museum has been a key component in the preservation and storage of everything that the leather and fetish communities have considered worth saving. The same vision remains the primary focus as the organization looks to the future and the next 25 years. Ultimately, the continued role of the Leather Archives and Museum is summed up simply and succinctly by Chuck Renslow, who said, "If you want to know where you are going, you need to know where you came from."

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