Miriam Saphira, Charlotte Museum

Miriam Saphira, Charlotte Museum


This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity

Miriam Saphira: A group of us started talking about having some Auckland archives to try and send things to the Wellington archives. I'd been involved in the Wellington archives.

We didn't get very far, and then in 2003 was the Outlines Conference, and I took the quilt there with all the T-shirts sewn together, and the badge collection, thinking that would be wonderful in the Lesbian and Gay Archives in Wellington, but oh, no; The National Library collects paper, not things.

Wai Ho: I know! I didn't realize that. They're real paper-focused.

Miriam: And it's also quite hard to get access to the things, so they don't have a permanent display or anything.

So, I came back to Auckland, lugged them back, and thought: What about all those art things like over in the cabinet, there? They would all just disappear. Some people might keep them and hand them on to relatives and so on, and they'd think: Oh, that's quaint, or whatever; but they really wouldn't understand the lesbianism of things. And I thought it'll all vanish.

So, I talked to the archives group, which changed a bit, and we came up with: Let's have a museum – a lesbian museum.

And then: Well, what's in that other museum? Surely there's some lesbian stuff in New Zealand museums. So, that's what the Internet's good for. We punched it in and we got four things. We got a picture of two women in Siberia – two English women in Siberia; they were obviously lesbian, but they had visited New Zealand.

Wai: [laughing] And so that was the New Zealand component of the search.

Miriam: Yes. And there were three cartoons of Helen Clark. And I thought, if that is a history of lesbians in New Zealand and all we have achieved over more than a century, then that is really sad. So, that was an impetus. I was so angry, that was an impetus to give me a lot of energy.

Wai: So, when was that?

Miriam: That was 2003, 2004. So, I set about investigating setting up a Trust and those sort of things, and by 2007 we had our first exhibition, “The D Thing” at MARCO Trust, and waited for our Trust deed – we did it in 2006 – to get registered. And that was a thing in itself because I rang up to see how it had progressed, and he said, "Oh, it's in legal."

And I said, "Well, it shouldn't be a problem in legal. It's a standard Trust deed form written half Pakeha and half Maori. All we've done is put our aims in it. We haven't changed almost anything else except put our name through it." And then I said, "But we're used to discrimination. It'll be sitting on someone who can't cope's desk."

So he said, "Oh, I'll ring you back," and by 3:00 in the afternoon he rang me back and said, "It's passed." That little magic word, "Oh, we're used to discrimination," seems to actually pay off sometimes.

So, we set about finding premises, finding money and setting it up.

Wai: Was that a real mission? Has it been a real mission or has there been quite a lot of support?

Miriam: There's been some support from people in the community – some very good support – and a couple of women put in about $14,000 the first year, and then another $6,000 or $7,000 last year. So each year there have been some backers who've put in several thousand. Other people put in several hundred. They pay a bit, but if everyone in the community paid, as I say, a latte a month – less than $5 a month – to be a friend of the museum, that would make a big difference. In fact, we're just trying to do an outreach now for that.

Wai: So, there's heaps of really fantastic visual stuff here, which I guess some of it would be paper. But yeah, like you said before, there's a quilt with a whole lot of T-shirts.

Jenny Rankine: There's two of them.

Miriam: We've got two of them, so we alternate them because they start to sag after while hanging them up. So we have another one we bring out every six months.

Wai: Right, and there's heaps of posters and old photographs – big photographs little photographs. Yeah, just a whole heap here. How did you come about all this? Did you put a big call out or was it all sitting in your basement? [laughs]

Miriam: It was around my house. [laughs] My house was renowned for having masses of women's images and things, and some of the things I acquired, for instance that lovely glass vase done by Kharen Hope, the one that's sort of quite sexual.

Wai: Oh, the pinky one.

Miriam: Yes. There's the one about her grandmother wanting to be a doctor but married one instead, the other one, so it's a more feminist one, but this one is very sensual – that pale one. I saw that in the Waikato Museum for sale and I couldn't bear the thought of a man buying it, so I just had to buy it.

And now we have had a very generous donor who's brought replicas of museum items from Crete about the ancients, so there's things with labryses on: that beautiful silver egg cup. There's pieces of ceramic, there's a snake Goddess there. That's one she donated, the other snake Goddess I brought back from Crete.

There's a ceramic there of two punk girls kissing – that was made by a lesbian psychologist in the Waikato. So, each one has a little story about it.

There are some lovely pieces of Raku ceramics by Paerau Corneal, and she also did the weaving of the kete up there. Those are pieces that Auckland Museum quite liked the look of and would like to get their hands on them, but again, they wouldn't label them as lesbian-made or anything. That would just disappear into an exhibition of Raku work, not what we're about, really.

The lovely carving of the two women, and I haven't got that story yet because I can never get anybody at home with the telephone number I was given for that piece. So, it takes a while to get the stories for things.

And then there's the carving of Chrissie Paul that was always in my house, and I always felt my house was very safe with that, and I thought I really need to donate it to the museum. But it's on loan because that piece needs to be handled in a particular way when we put it up and take it down, so I've kept it as an on-loan. That and Paerau's pieces are the only pieces, just because I want to make sure that they are very secure and handled in an appropriate way for Maori artifacts.

So, everything else has been donated: lots of T-shirts, some fabulous ones with great slogans on; some very historical things like the early Gay Pride from 1980, I think it was, or '79; a CIRCE soccer T-shirt. Of course there are some labryses, and the labryses are gold ones – some of them were used for CIRCE cheerleaders. They used to run around in tutus and gumboots and wave labryses : Come on you lovely lesbians! You know, great cheerleading.

Jenny: That was a soccer team. The CIRCE was a soccer team. There was also a CIRCE softball team, but we don't have any of their uniforms yet.

Miriam: We've got various coming out stories on DVD that we put on for people to listen to, and I'm busy trying to get some more money so we can have a smaller screen so people can just put headphones on and do them individually when they come in. That's what I'm working on now, and I want to use clips of film so they wouldn't be so long – just three or four minutes. I saw it in Brisbane at an exhibition there and I thought that's what we need.

Wai: When you said that you were setting up the Charlotte Museum Trust, what were some of the responses, I guess of lesbians in particular, were they “whoo hoo or..?

Miriam: Mostly positive. One or two people found it difficult. They didn't want to be in a museum.

Wai: [laughing] They didn't want their photos to be in a museum or they didn't want the museum to exist?

Miriam: They didn't like the idea of lesbianism in a museum, so they perhaps weren't out and proud as much as some of the rest of us.

Wai: You mean kind of worried about turning it into a spectacle or just uncomfortable about it?

Miriam: Yeah, not sure what we'd put in, so that seemed to be a bit of a problem for... Like, Te Papa, when they heard about it, came up to my house to see what we had. They were a bit suspicious, but they also, of course, then saw some of the things that I had in my house and they were keen on them for their museums. And that's one of the problems, that museums are always eyeing other things in other people's museums, because I think they've got a Goddess in Auckland Museum that I think that we should have. [laughs]

Wai: You should do trades.

Miriam: Yes.

Jenny: We've just done a feedback survey. We did it online and sent PDFs around the country to our mailing list and we also gave them out at the Big Gay Out, and we've got 50 or so. You know, you never really get a great response from those things. But, we asked how important was the Lesbian Museum, and almost everybody ticked "Very." Almost everybody; even the bloke – I think we've got one guy who responded who has visited the museum. So basically there's an awful lot of lesbians, and I think they're sort of just the tip of the iceberg, who think that this is a really important place.

Wai: Can you talk a little bit about the importance of a museum historically-wise, and I guess lesbian history, inter-generationally, as well?

Miriam: Well, for me, I knew I was homosexual by the time I was 14, because that was when I looked it up in the encyclopedia, and it said homosexuals had arrested development, so I thought they were all short and spent years looking for short people.


Miriam: And then, of course, realized I'd grown so tall that I was a freak – I was the only tall homosexual in the world.

Wai: So you weren't in the encyclopedia?

Miriam: No, and I was training as a singer, and sadly, I swallowed poison and burned my throat, so I never want that to happen to anybody else – to feel so bad about themselves. And I didn't have any mentors. Sure, there was a short teacher at school who lived with a tall teacher, but I mean, I didn't really, because I was into horses at that stage. When I was at high school I didn't really click about the nature of their relationships, so Bucket and Spade were always Bucket and Spade – those were our nicknames for these two teachers. And it was much later before I realized that these pairs of teachers who lived together were actually my mentors, but I was so naïve and into horses that it didn't occur to me; into horses and my girlfriend, whom I really wanted to marry, so I was devastated when I menstruated because I wanted to marry her.

Wai: So, you did manage to find a girlfriend who was short? [laughs]

Miriam: She was straight. She was short and she was straight and she, in fact, wouldn't talk to me. We went to Teacher's College together, and that's the reason I went to Teacher's College and left the farm, but she met a guy, on the athletic team, that I was friendly with – and she never really spoke to me much after that – married him, and she's still with him. So, very straight. But, what else? That's what lesbians in small communities do – fall in love with straight women because they can't find other people like themselves. It's quite difficult.

Wai: So, visibility's really important.

Miriam: And having mentors, I think, makes things enormously better for people; to know that someone's done it before; to know that you come from a history, that you know where you've come from and so then you can know where you're going, because I always think if you don't know where you've paddled your canoe from, how do you know where you're paddling to?

Jenny: That's what some of the feedback says. One of the young women said, "I wanted to see the stories of the older women that made it possible for me to be out and gay," and so many of them say it's just really important that this place exists, that these stories are gathered in one place, that lesbian history is valued and told, and it's just really neat to see these women up on the walls, because a lot of the women up on the walls were women people in their 30s to 50s would have heard about growing up. They're well-known women, founders of organizations like The Country Women's Institute, you know, various... [interrupted]

Miriam: Yes, contemporary theatre.

Jenny: Yes. And so that's really important to know that these were women like me, you know?

Miriam: And knowing that most of them managed to avoid getting married. Some of them didn't. And they managed to lead their lives. The theologian Rita Snowden lived quite openly. She died about 1947, but there's a picture of her with her partner, Renee, and they lived quite openly together. They belonged to different churches. On Sunday they went off to their separate churches, so they didn't quite clone as much as lesbians today might do.

Wai: Do you think visibility's still an issue today?

Miriam: In some areas it is. There are still plenty of areas where people choose to be more closeted. People in the media are one, because they get such a hard time. Sports people are another. We've just been doing research on sport, and it's amazing the number of people who find it really difficult to really tell us how it was as a lesbian in the sporting field they were in, because they don't want to be outed, even though they're no longer participating in that sport.

Yeah, so there's still the stigma, and I think a lot of internalized homophobia that among older people still exists. For years you thought you were no good and terrible. It's very hard to overcome that when you've been thinking that every day of your life for 40 or 50 years; to suddenly turn around and think everything's hunky dory now, I can skip around amongst the daisies [laughs]. You know, it's not so easy.

Wai: So, the Charlotte Museum does some research? It has a lot of artifacts and pictures and books and magazines and it does research. Does it have a mentor thing, as well, or what's some other stuff that it does?

Miriam: No, we try and fundraise and pay people to do some research. We've done some research on early lesbian theatre, early lesbian music, and that's going to be put together into a film and also a little book. The theatre one is up on that board there, and we've got a book about that. We're currently working on early lesbian sport, early women's networks and groups of lesbians in the Auckland area, and early takatapui in Auckland. So, we're going as fast as we can with the resources that we have, but we never get very much money to do these things.

Jenny: The other thing we're doing is organizing events, and we've done a range of events since the beginning of this year. The first one was an ANZAC Day event, and this time instead of inviting lesbians from armed services we invited some lesbians who had been in peace groups. They were the Pramazons and they'd walked around the East Cape for two or three months in the middle of summer in 1983, and they were a little discombobulated to find themselves now the subject of a museum, because they were only in their 40s, you know? But they were lesbians and feminists and they did this amazing action, and it was a peace action. And there are so many lesbians involved in peace activities over the last 30 to 50 years that I think we'll have lots of ANZAC Day events like that.

Another event we had was on the centenary of the birth of Tuini Ngawai who was a Ngati Porou songwriter, an extraordinary woman of huge mana acknowledged right across Maoridom, who only had relationships with women and whangai'd a bunch of children. And whenever Ngati Porou get up and sing they practically always sing one of Tuini's songs. And we have some or her whanau here who spoke about her, and it was a really neat event. We had a bunch of Maori and Pakeha lesbians that came to that one.

And we also had the two intergenerational events. One was organized for youth week, and we got a lot of really positive feedback about that. The first one was completely inclusive of all GLBTT people, and the young gay men, particularly, young queer guys, were really interested in it. And the sense of anticipation when that event started was just tangible, you know? There was this really expectant silence. It was just wonderful. There were more than 60 young people or people there, and 40 of them were probably under 25, and it was just a really positive event.

Then we had the follow-up event with women, and that sort of showed quite a few differences in the community, but I hope people felt it was a good event. It was very... what's the word? There was a huge enthusiasm for that dialogue. It's not something that we would necessarily be able to do as a regular thing, but we wanted to kick it off, and the role of the Charlotte Museum in holding that kind of community event, I think is quite important, because there's no sort of women's venue that focuses on queer or lesbian issues in Auckland. And so, the Charlotte Museum has become a sort of de facto queer lesbian women's center, really.

And so, for example a couple of years ago when Mahinarangi Tocker died there were women who weren't able to get to her house or to her tangi, which is down the line, and so we organized a sort of memorial event. It was just an opportunity for those women who contacted Miriam and I, in various hats that we were wearing at the time, saying: Oh this is terrible. I just really have missed having an opportunity to talk about her. And so that was open, like all our events are, to the public. We had men, women, trans men, trans women. It was a really lovely event, and some of her whanau came, which I thought was enormously generous of them in their grief, to do that a week after she had died, but they actually found it a very positive event. There was just this huge community grief about such an early death of such a wonderful woman, and it was a really positive event talking about the meaning she had had for all of the people there. And there were all these wonderful stories. So that was a really neat event.

And, for example, the Tamaki Makaurau Lesbian News Center is holding its 20th anniversary here this coming Saturday, and so there's a bunch of events like that.

We've just had our first local history event, and what we did was Miriam talked about why she set up the museum and what was involved in the 52 Policy Statements and the Standards and the way in which you have to conserve things and the labeling and the databases. That's the policy folder.

Wai: It's a very large folder.


Jenny: And I talked about a really brief overview of the history of women loving women for the last 200 years, and the way in which Maori acceptance of love between women was completely disrupted by colonization and missionaries and church denominations, and the way in which Pakeha attitudes changed markedly in the 1880s from an acceptance of passionate friendships and women having those kinds of intense public relationships, to treating lesbianism or love between women as something that was sick and to be hidden. And that was quite positively received by the dozen people from different local history societies who came, and so we're hoping to have local history events every six months and we'll bring up the results of our research in the inner-city inner west areas that we've been funded to do at the next event.

And the next one we're having in October is a DVD night with the BBC movie, The Secret Diaries of Anne Lister, which is about a woman in the late 1700s, early 1800s, who had almost a contemporary sense of lesbian identity. She never called it that; she didn't have that word, but she said her attractions were to the fair sex, and only the fair sex. And she had two long-term relationships and lots of other sexual relationships with women, and she wrote it all down in code in a diary – four million words of it – which has only recently been decoded and published. And so the BBC did this 1½ hour movie about it, which will never get on the TV screens here, and we're going to show it on October 17th.

Wai: And what are the kind of demographic of people who visit the Charlotte Museum? Is it mostly lesbians? Is it mostly women? Are there lots of young people, lots of researchers, lots of older lesbians?

Miriam: It's mostly lesbian; not many researchers at all. It's always disappointing that there aren't more lesbians out there doing PhD's on that – we could give them lots of topics. The sports one would be a good topic.

And then there's the other group that's just a variety of mixed people, men and women, some straight people come because their daughter or sister or somebody is lesbian and they want to come and tell them about it. Sometimes they bring a relative with them. A lesbian brought her daughter and grandchildren once from out in greater Auckland, so it was about an hour away and they came one day. So yeah, a whole variety of people, but that's probably 10% to 15%.

The bulk of people come to events, and like on Wednesdays during the week we get the odd visitor – like yourself. But Sundays during the winter we don't get so many visitors. The most time we get most visitors is probably between February and about June, and then it sort of fades off with the damp weather.

Wai: I think you talked a little bit before about when you had these intergenerational events or youth week, and you were saying the anticipation or the excitement of the young people. Why do you think that is? I think there's a big stereotype with archiving and libraries and museums that it's boring and stuffy and old. What do you think the anticipation was about?

Jenny: Oh, it was about dialogue with people who'd gone before. And I think there's a big hunger for that among young people.

Wai: They don't often get those opportunities.

Jenny: No. And one of the things that came up was that in the really early days, in the '50s and '60s, when there was just the beginnings of a community, everybody used to socialize together. Some of the lesbians in our coming-out stories on DVD say that they were part of that. And so it used to be the gay men, the lesbians, the transgender people, the prostitutes, everybody was in the same pub drinking together.

And what used to happen was that, especially the gay guys talked about this at the Youth Week event, there was actually a sort of informal but very sort of organized, I guess, transferral of knowledge and understanding about what it meant to be queer, how to be safe, from the older guys to the younger guys. Women, I think, didn't do it in quite the same way, but that kind of informal passing down of knowledge, and the sort of socializing together has stopped now because the community is so big that gender queer can socialize with gender queer, and lesbians with lesbians, and never see gay guys; and gay guys ditto, and never see lesbians.

So, it's so big now that we're all in our little sort of identity groups and we don't socialize together. And so, especially with young people and older people, the older people aren't hitting the young bars, and would feel dreadfully out of place if they did, and so the young people don't actually meet any older lesbians or older gay men. With trans people I think the community is still small enough that they do. But that's how it is now, and so those kind of informal ways of picking up how to survive, survival knowledge, and an awareness that there are others like yourself, and what they've gone through, there isn't that kind of structure for it anymore, so it needs to be organized. And so, that's what the hunger for it was.

I'm sort of still thinking about that; about what role the Charlotte Museum can play. The Trust did talk about that. It's not sort of a core function, we've just got all our work cut out for ourselves doing the research, conserving the stuff, getting all the new stuff that people dump on our doorsteps and give us boxes of, and cataloguing it and sorting it. We're really still behind in the cataloguing, so the community organizing is the sort of second string, but it is...

Wai: Might have to delegate.

Jenny: Yeah, well yes, we could delegate.

Miriam: Yes. That's why we employed Jenny, because I just got exhausted.

Wai: Yeah, it sounds like it's a real hub and it sounds like it's been really successful in achieving things that weren't even really its aims or whatever.

Miriam: Yes, but raising the money has always been the hard slog. Our rent last time killed us. It was 2,000 a month, and so this is half the size and it's half the rent. So we'll be tight in November. October and November is always a difficult time for most groups because you get very little funding coming in at that time, particularly for operating costs and admin and rent.

Wai: So, how can people find you if they'd like to come and have a look at all the incredible things on the walls, or give you some money for rent and admin and that kind of thing?

Miriam: Well, they can go online and see our website ( http://www.charlottemuseum.lesbian.net.nz ). They can get our address off the website, or they could read the TML News – the address is there. They can pick up a brochure from the Women's Bookshop and there's usually some at Garnet Station and a few venues around, like Rainbow Youth has our brochures as well, with our address on. And they can come along on Wednesday afternoon between 12:00 and 4:00 or Sunday afternoon between 1:30 and about 3:30. I mean, we'll stay a bit longer if someone turns up at 3:00 of course.

Jenny: Yes, or Facebook. They can find us on Facebook.

And our events we're trying to advertise more widely, so for example we had an article in the Harbor News, this issue, about the local history event, and also it's on Stuff, and we're going to be putting out, like for example, Event Finder, some of the Auckland City Council events website – we put our events on that. So we're gradually getting our marketing, spreading it around into more and more avenues, so we're hoping to become more visible as we go on, but mostly if you want to see us and participate: Wednesdays and Sundays in Mount Albert. Suburban Mount Albert is where it is.

Miriam: Anybody can be a Friend of the Museum. You don't have to be a lesbian to be a Friend of the Museum, and we have a number of friends who are not lesbian, so I guess that's one thing I'd like to say. And unless people support us financially, it will be too hard to sustain. We have to be sustainable.

Transcript by cyberscrivener.com