Laura Niebuhr loves art history, movement history and digitization. In this interview, Lauri tells us how she became involved in the digitization project of the 80s and 90s women’s and lesbian movement. We chat about her funny beginnings in Berlin, deep connections to the queer activist scene and how archive work has become not just a job, but a passion. Lauri not only shares insights into her daily work, but also brings along a special treasure from the museum – a photo that tells stories from times gone by.
Hi Lauri, nice that you found the time to talk to me.
I love to do it, I’ve wanted to be Darling of the Month for a long time!
Now you’ve made it! Can you briefly introduce yourself for the readers out there who don’t know you?
I’ve been working on a digitization project at the Schwules Museum since September 2022 with my esteemed colleague Janika Seitz. We are digitizing part of Petra Gall’s estate. It’s about the women’s and lesbian movement of the 80s and 90s in Berlin.
Has this been a topic for you for a long time or did you get involved through the Gall project?
The Berlin scene wasn’t a topic for me before, because I’ve only really been living here since last year. Now it’s very exciting to see what happened every day in Berlin, at least in the places where Petra Gall was.
And where were you two years ago when you weren’t yet in Berlin?
I was in Hamburg before that. During the Covid period, I had started my master’s degree in art history at the TU. But by then it was already clear that I was going to move to Berlin to finish it. That’s how I became aware of the position at SMU for a digitization project coordinated by digiS and applied because I thought the job advertisement was cool. It worked out, and I thought to myself, that’s the way it should be.
What does your day-to-day work in the Petra Gall project look like?
Well, there is no such thing as an average day. As it’s project work, there are always lots of different steps that have to be completed. For a while, we mainly looked through the negatives and contact sheets and thought about what should be digitized from the collection. In other words, which series should be included because they are also interesting from a historical perspective, which iconographic individual images should be selected, and we also considered which personalities were important. In other words, women’s rights activists or artists or authors who played a role at the time.
Has there been a highlight during your work on the Petra Gall project so far?
For example, the insights we have gained from her Walpurgis Night demonstration photos from the 1980s and 90s. Firstly, the people look just like they do today, in terms of style. That’s a bit funny. But the tragic thing is that some of the posters and demands are really the same as they are today. So not that much has changed.
Perhaps you can tell us where we can see your work at this point?
We have created 2000 digital copies, which are published on museum-digital.de. It’s an overarching platform where all kinds of museums present their digitized images and objects. We are also on there.
We once found one of her Tina Turner portraits there and used it in our newsletter. You are now working on a project that will come to an end at some point. Do you have any plans for staying connected to the Gay Museum beyond that? So what does the future look like for you?
Bad question (laughs). Yes, our project is coming to an end and there is no follow-up project. That’s tragic. The work is just a drop in the ocean given the amount of great archive material that’s here. This also applies to the entire collection, regardless of Petra Gall. My hope is that there are other ways and opportunities to continue working on it. I enjoy working in the archive and I think it’s also an important task to give people an insight into the queer history that is stored here.
I’ll keep my fingers crossed that it works out. Let’s move on to your little treasure, what have you brought us?
It’s a picture by Petra Gall from our collection, of course. It shows a group of people in front of the Pelze Mutlimedia. It was an action center and art venue where performances and exhibitions took place from 1981 to 1996. The picture is from 1982, during the week of the International Women’s Festival. The Pelze Multimedia was one of the venues, and there was a Petra Gall exhibition there. I like this meta-level: that she gave us a picture of the place where her pictures were exhibited.
Is there a story about how you came across the picture?
When we were going through the collection, we only looked at the negatives. Only now that we have the digital copies can we zoom in. And that’s how I saw a poster of her exhibition hanging in the shop window.
How do you get the context of a picture like that?
There is very little material on the whole history of women and lesbians, and only a small part is digitized, so you can’t really get any further with online research. So we did some more research ourselves at the FFBIZ and the Spinnboden.
It’s exciting that you and Janika are such a small center of expertise. So your eyes have seen all these pictures floating around without any context.
We enter everything we find out into a database that hasn’t been around for very long. In this respect, we are playing a pioneering role here. And for the Gay Museum as an institution, it is now also an important moment in the history of the museum to focus on such a collection of women and lesbians and make it visible online.
Do you have a personal connection to the photograph you chose?
I think it’s nice that the picture shows that there were spaces at the time where mainly women and lesbians met, made their art and actions and were relatively visible in Potsdamer Straße. That leads me to the thought: Where are the spaces now? Where do people meet now? Where is queer art being made and where are actions being prepared? Where are these safe spaces where people can hang out? There is a funny link to another object in the museum. It’s the illuminated sign by Lena Rosa Händle with the words “Pelze” on it, referencing this place that no longer exists. In Petra Gall’s picture, you can see this place with the neon sign above it and people on a ladder who are putting up the banner for the International Women’s Festival Week. And a passer-by walks past and looks over their shoulder and probably wonders: “What are they actually doing in the Pelze?”. I love that about the picture.
Are there any other treasures that are missing from the Gay Museum? That you would like to see more of?
I think my approach is more that we have so many treasures that are not yet visible. That’s one advantage of digitization, it gives you an easy insight. But I do believe that the collection is very focused on gay history, which is understandable given the history of the museum. I believe that this is now softening a little and that trans and lesbian collections have also been added, which need to be made visible. That’s the reason for my work and the digitization in this project: so that we can give a cool, barrier-free insight into our holdings.
Praise for the archive work! Thank you for taking the time!
Interview: mino Künze