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Volunteer of the Month: Maria Bormuth

2. April 2020

„Suddenly I saw cottages with glory holes everywhere.”

Maria has been with the team of volunteers at Schwules Museum for eight years. Here the historian  discusses activism, her research on the AIDS pandemic and gay cottaging.

SMU: Maria, tell us about you. Where are you from, what do you do outside volunteering, do you have any hobbies or passions?

Maria: I’m 36 years old. I was born in Bremerhaven, raised in Frankfurt am Main, and came to Berlin in 2003. I graduated in history and work freelance as consultant historian and also as an events manager. Apart from work I love being outside with my two dogs, Sherlock and Fiete. I love travelling, as far as this is possible with two dogs and so many work projects.

What first attracted you to Schwules Museum?

It began in 2012. I was looking for a new research subject, and had been involved with Berliner Aids-Hilfe and exploring the history of HIV; so the link to Schwules Museum was an obvious one. I looked at their exhibit, still on Mehringdamm then, and thought I’d enjoy working there. My first day was when the Christa Winsloe – Mädchen in Uniform exhibition opened. That got me hooked.

What’s your task at the Museum?

I started as an exhibition attendant at the old premises, then did library service. The new library needed someone at reception, now I’m in the archive. There, I started off like everybody else, sorting a mad assortment of boxes and re-assembling the stuff into some kind of order. Most recently I’ve been working with our material on neo-Nazis.

What is that like?

Basically it consisted of two large boxes labelled Neo-Nazis. It was a random collection of newspaper clippings, flyers, fly-leafs, and other documents going back to the 1980s and 90s. A lot of stuff on the gay neo-Nazi leader Michael Kühnen, who later died of Aids; and there was quite a lot on violence and assault perpetrated by neo-Nazis, and on anti-Nazi activism. I conceived of a structure that seemed to make sense and grouped everything under 15 to 20 headings. Once the head librarians approve, the archive can be made available to the public. I also compiled the relevant finding aids, describing the collection, its range, and the document sources.

You have a paid job at the Museum, too. How come?

I’m active with Deutsche Aids-Hilfe, in a working group on the history of Aids and a project on oral history in particular – interviewing witnesses on HIV and Aids-related activism in Berlin. In collaboration with Schwules Museum and Berlin’s Humboldt University we successfully applied for research funding, and as I’d been registered as project leader, here I am, coordinating it and getting paid. We hope to be able to eventually make the interviews available in online portals by HU and Schwules Museum, and there’ll be a series of accompanying events. We were also planning on a related but separate exhibition at the Museum, for which I volunteered, but the schedule is in doubt now with the Covid 19 pandemic.

Why do you consider Schwules Museum to be relevant?

I believe it’s important to narrate history not just in terms of the big players. Other perspectives need to be heard and researched, which have always existed but hardly registered. Luckily a number of community archives now exist where this is achieved. Schwules Museum is one of the big players in the field of recording and presenting “other” histories. I also like the fact we have so many volunteers and how we’re involved in participatory decision-making. I was quite active, as the volunteer representative. It occasionally leads to more conflict, but on the whole I think it’s really beneficial.

How much time do spend at the Museum?

Currently I’m on home-office duty, like everyone else. Normally I’d aim for four to six hours per week, regardless. I try not to over-extend myself, but with my paid assignment there’s a lot of overlap anyway. 

Which exhibition stuck on your mind?

My absolute favourite has been the show Fenster zum Klo (Loo Window) in 2017, on gay cottaging. I can’t really express how it made such an impression, I just thought it was fascinating. Maybe because it was a subject I’d been completely oblivious of before. I had to go to Brunswick and Wolfenbüttel for a research project while the exhibition was on, and with my newly-found knowledge I suddenly saw Cottages everywhere! I’d never have realised without the show.