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The Charlotte Museum: A grand tour

Tue 30 Mar 2010 In: Community View at NDHA

Miriam Saphira I told my best friend, a gay man, I was heading down to the Charlotte Museum for a tour as I was writing a feature for I think his exact retort was, "What? Are you going to look at 150-year-old dildos?" Well no, in fact I wasn't. The Charlotte Museum, now freshly open in its new home in the Auckland suburb of Western Springs, is not quite the collection of wanton debauchery many would expect when they hear the phrase "lesbian museum". Nor is it, as another friend quite distastefully joked, a collection of stuffed women on a wall. The first thing that struck me about the museum was nothing on its walls; it was the statuesque woman who greeted my girlfriend and I at the door, whose tirelessness and passion has allowed it to even exist. I introduced myself to Miriam Saphira, explained I had brought my girlfriend along as my car had refused to start and she had given me a ride. "And so you should have brought your girlfriend," she replied "It's Saturday morning. I've just had coffee with mine." I liked her already. You see, there is a sort of respectful distance I have always held from much-older lesbians. The kinds of women I know have fought harder than I have ever had to, just to express the love that dare not speak its name. It's not that I don't appreciate those who paved the way for me to be able to come out by barely blinking an eyelid in comparison; it's that I feel a little bit terrified at the whole idea of a time in the world where I couldn't walk down the street without being spat upon, attacked or thrown into a loony bin. As Saphira showed me around, we looked at artefacts odd, breathtaking, sweet and poignant; she was smoothly sharing stories of her life, the lives of lesbians she knew and the lives of lesbians she never knew. I realised I could completely relate to them all. I realised that those who fought the kind of hate I have never faced are not Amazonian warriors or Wonder Women – they're just people. They're just lesbians. They're just like me. Just with grey hair, more stories and more reason to fight. Their slogans, strength and humour fill the museum, whether in patchwork made from t-shirts, posters, badges, art or magazines. Saphira's voice softened as we discussed the wall tribute to the late songstress Mahinarangi Tocker, someone she listed as a friend. Someone we both agreed was lost far too early. As we toured the records she broke into snippets of her favourite songs, something I defy anyone to claim they have ever had from another museum host. It wasn't a tour per se, more like a mother showing off her children with the kind of pride and humour only a mother can. Our hosts eyes lit up when we talked about her idea to have Rainbow Youth members come and visit, you could tell the museum is something she desperately wants to share with younger lesbians. It was amazing to me, a 27-year-old who has had many wonderful things in life fall into her lap, just how hard Saphira and her team of volunteers have worked to keep the museum afloat. It struck me just how many hours she must have put into building walls, carrying boxes, stacking books, cataloguing endless donated items and scratching her head over sums. I'm a history addict. I adore dusty books. But there is nothing more compelling than history direct from the source's mouth, history that was lived. The items in the museum are treasures, worth seeing, vital to preserve – but as I left laden with arms full of pamphlets and books and a head full of stories and songs, I couldn't but think Miriam Saphira is as much a treasure as anything on her much-loved walls. Go visit the Charlotte Museum. As much for the tour guide as the tour. The Charlotte Museum is now situated at 7a/43a Linwood Ave, Western Springs, Auckland.  It is open Wednesday and Sunday 12pm-4pm.  Volunteers are much appreciated!     Kitten Power - 30th March 2010

Credit: Kitten Power

First published: Tuesday, 30th March 2010 - 8:06am

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