Volunteer work and research combined
Sophie (Morgan) Lespiaux not only found her way from music to research, but also from France to the Schwules Museum Berlin! The former musician and culture journalist is dedicating her doctoral thesis to the SMU. Accompanying her research, she regularly works shifts at the archive, the library, or in the exhibitions. She told us what she appreciates at the SMU – and why volunteering at the archive has benefits for many.
SMU: Please introduce yourself in three short sentences: Where are you from, what do you do for a living, what are your greatest passions and hobbies?
Sophie (Morgan): I am from France, I am a doctoral student at the Université de Paris and am also an associate doctoral candidate at the Marc Bloch Zentrum in Berlin. But I arrived there after many professional experiences: I was a musician and taught the violin, afterwards a culture journalist and editor, at the same time, I studied literature and philosophy at the university. I have a big passion for books and music of all kinds! In my time off, I like to take trips, especially to the sea, or go for a walk in the city, always with my camera in my bag.
How did you first come into contact with the Schwules Museum? When and how did you start volunteering at the museum?
The first time that I visited the Schwules Musem was in 2013, a few months after the move to Lützowstraße. To be precise, it was October 14, 2013, during the permanent exhibition “Transformation” – I still have my notebook! I especially remember my surprise to see lithographies by Jeanne Mammen in the exhibition, they were loans by Berlinische Galerie. Actually, I was for three weeks in Berlin back then to visit Jeanne Mammen’s studio at Kurfürstendamm, among other things. I just discovered her art and her life and was completely fascinated. I really wanted to write something like a biography about her. But I didn’t know any German and all sources are in German. In 2014, I moved to Berlin and learned it! My research interests shifted, though. Since then, I regularly visited the Schwules Museum, even wrote articles on the exhibitions »Mein Kamerad – Die Diva« and »Homosexualität_en«.
In early 2017, I noticed a call on the museum’s website that the Schwules Museum is looking for volunteers. I was really excited at the prospect to work in the library. I applied and it worked! I was so happy, it was such a wonderful experience! My professional situation at this time got more and more precarious, I did not know what I could do except move to France and complete some kind of education. Previously, I had to give up my career as a violinist due to health reasons… But I had a glimmer of hope: the Schwules Museum! I had a wonderful research topic on hand! During the summer, I worked on my research project about the Schwules Museum and applied at the École des hautes études en sciences social (EHESS Paris). I was accepted, under the tutelage of Régis Schlagdenhauffen, who wrote his dissertation on homosexual persecution during the Nazi era and politics of remembrance. That’s how it happened. 2019, I submitted my Master’s thesis on the Schwules Museum. And I always worked as a volunteer during my research residencies, as I do now.
You are even writing your doctoral thesis on the SMU. Do you want to tell us more about your research?
Since October 2020, I am developing a “socio-histoire of the Schwules Museum”. It is a socio-historical analysis of the institution, or, more precisely, an analysis of the development of different practices – for example, historiography and research, exhibition and archive, publications, all connected to the identities or ideological and political standpoints of the various agents. I put my emphasis on the history of exhibitions at the Schwules Museum. I am especially interested in Capri. Zeitschrift für schwule Geschichte, which was published from 1987 to 2019 by Manfred Herzer and the Schwules Museum – I wrote an article on it, which Manfred Herzer published in Capri‘s last edition.
What are your tasks at the SMU? What do you like to do?
I try to combine my research with my volunteer work in the best possible way. This means, I sometimes work as a guard in the exhibition and at the same time view and document the exhibitions. I also take over shifts in the library, I can do my research and at the same time leave another spot for researchers – this is especially useful during Covid-19 regulations. I also work at the archive where I review the holdings on exhibitions and make them accessible for researchers. I am also very happy that I had a part in the handing over of the estate of a gay man from East-Berlin. A project that runs for three years already and was very complicated. We are about to finish the deal, and I am very happy about it.
Why is the museum a special and important place for you?
Because it is unique! There is hardly a place where I felt like I am free to be who I am, and, at the same time, can have new, diverse experiences by my own initiative. It is remarkable that this instituation ran almost exclusively built on volunteer work for the longest time. Something like this is very rare. In Paris, nothing similar exists. There are a few activists, who are fighting for years to found an LGBTQI* archive, but this project has not yet reached the finish line. Only this year, in 2021, the first exhibition of this kind will be on show in France, an exhibition about the history of gays and lesbians during the Nazi era, at the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris.
What is your fondest memory at the SMU?
Oh, there are many! Maybe when I discovered the holdings of photographer Rita Thomas in the archive, a lesbian from East-Berlin. So beautiful pictures that I analyzed for a paper, I even did an internship afterwards at the FFBIZ who possesses the largest collection of her work, I wanted to make it accessible – the internship was too short, sadly, I couldn’t complete it! I always liked the friendly atmosphere at a vernissage. Also the day trips to Weimar and Dresden with the other volunteers.
Is there an exhibition (or more) that you especially remember? What impressed you the most?
Without doubt the exhibition “Homosexualität_en”, especially at the Deutsches Historisches Museum. I was overwhelmed by the amount of documents and artworks. I could hardly comprehend that such a topic was treated in a state-run museum, and in such a detailed way. The exhibition “Fenster zum Klo” is also ingrained in my memory, it was historically and sociologically interesting, as well as beautifully designed. And I admired that curator Marc Martin fought to include women despite of the topic being focused on gay males. There also was “Year of the Women*” in 2018, so much happened during this year… But it was a decisive event at the Schwules Museum, I think, it meant a lot and the institution’s direction changed to plurality.
Is there anything you miss at the museum? Or something that you would like to change or improve?
A better connection to the archive! There is so much left to do, many collections and holdings remain inaccessible for the researching public. But the Schwules Museum needs the initiative of volunteers for that. I recommend everyone who is interested in working at the archive, to become involved. It is very interesting, important, and great fun!