Course:ARST575K/LIBR539H/Leather Archives & Museum

From UBC Wiki

The Leather Archives and Museum, located in the Roger's Park neighborhood Chicago, Illinois, USA, is a library, museum, and archives founded in 1991 by noted Leathermen Chuck Renslow and Tony DeBlase. It is a 510(c3) non-profit organization[1] that relies heavily on community donations and memberships, as well as grants and event rentals. Its mission is: "Making leather, kink, BDSM, and fetish accessible through research, preservation, education and community engagement."[2]

Leather Community

Leather developed in gay bars and motorcycle clubs of the 1950s and 1960s, but there are as many definitions of Leather as there are Leatherpeople. Leather is a style, an identity, a community, and a subculture that celebrates kink, fetish, BDSM, and sex. Community is a critical element of a Leather lifestyle. As Bean states: "Part of leather's sexual appeal, in fact, speaks to a broad sense of community, a safe space where one's fantasies and inclinations (whether or not they involve S/M) can be non-judgmentally realized."[3] This need for safe space and a sense of community among marginalized people is understood in archival literature as a driving force in community efforts in building archives.[4]

It is important to note that the LA&M specifically does not collect LGBTQ+ materials unless they contain "a significant relevance to Leather, BDSM, kink, and fetish communities, or a reasonable likelihood that the material is both of interest to the LA&M's Service Population and not otherwise being preserved elsewhere."[5] This separation between Leather and LGBTQ+ is critical in defining the Leather experience and community. Though Leather originated in gay bars and motorcycle clubs, Leatherfolk were actively excluded from "mainstream" LGBTQ+ communities in the 1980's and 90's. This disenfranchisement and the expansion of Leather values and practices to a more pansexual community cemented the separation: though there is important overlap between the LGBTQ+ community and Leather, they are not synonymous, and there is, even today, significant friction between the two. This friction and the Leather-shaped hole in narratives of LGBTQ+ history made the need for Leather-specific organizations to keep their own histories.[6]

The Leather Archives and Museum

The Leather Archives and Museum is a community organization dedicated to making the history and culture of leather accessible to the public. It includes an archives, museum, and the non-lending Teri Rose Memorial Library, all accessible in person. The service population of the Leather Archives & Museum is defined as "all persons, regardless of sexual orientation, interested in the collection, preservation, study and interpretation of historical materials in all formats relating to the Leather/Levi, BDSM, kink and fetish sexualities, practices, lifestyles, and communities."[5] It is funded by donations from individuals and organizations and membership fees,[7][8] as well as sales from its store.[9] International Mr. Leather also donates all proceeds to the LA&M to support its mission.[10]

The Leather Archives & Museum describes its educational mission as follows:

Founded in 1991, the Leather Archives & Museum has become recognized worldwide as a significant center dedicated to the compilation, preservation, and maintenance of primary materials on the leather, kink, BDSM and fetish communities and their cultures in both physical and electronic formats. Our museum galleries serve to present educational and historical material that highlights the silent histories of marginalized and under-represented communities while the archives and library serve the needs of scholars, writers and artists.[11]


The Leather Archives and Museum was founded in 1991 as a concept and community project. Though a few exhibits appeared in public places and at International Mr. Leather, few people were aware of LA&M until 1996, when a storefront was opened in Chicago. Collection started in earnest, and in 1997, the Board of Directors began the process of fundraising for a new building. The LA&M moved to its permanent location in 1999. The 10,000 sq ft building also houses:

  • Eight exhibition galleries;
  • A 1,425 sq ft (132.4 m2) climate controlled archival storage space;
  • A 164-seat auditorium;
  • A 600 sq ft (56 m2) reading library to house the research collections;
  • Various other spaces which serve as working space for staff, volunteers and researchers.[12]

Collections and Donations

The Leather Archives & Museum Collections Policy details the institution's policies on acquisition, storage, preservation, exhibition, and deaccessioning of materials.[5] The Collections Policy encourages donors to contact the LA&M prior to donating any items to ensure that the organization is able to prioritize its mission while meeting donors' requests. Materials in many formats are accepted, with consideration to the preservation and storage capacity of the organization.

The Leather Archives and Museum also states that if it is unable to accept a donation, it "will offer advice on how to store and care for the items and help [donors] find another home for their preservation." Donations are also accepted for annual sales to support the operations budget of the Leather Archives & Museum.[13]

The LA&M does not collect materials related to sex and sexuality in general. Significantly, the LA&M notes that kink and fetish are separate from sex/sexuality, and many kink/fetish activities are not necessarily sexual in nature.[14] This informs the LA&M collections scope, which focuses on kink and fetish (and their overlap with sex and sexuality), rather than on sex/sexuality as a primary aspect of the community.

The Collections Policy states the organization's priorities and limitations in clear language for donors. For a community archives such as the LA&M, the donor-organization relationship is essential to maintaining the community's trust in the organization as both a voice for the community and a repository for its heritage. The Collections Policy is explicit about the rules governing deaccessioning items, and makes these rules accessible to the general public and donors. The clear and accessible information on the LA&M website is notable considering the dearth of collections-related information on the websites of collecting institutions.[15]

Accessing the Collection

The Leather Archives and Museum is located at 6418 N. Greenview Ave., Chicago, IL. Although many materials have been digitized, the vast majority of archival, library, and museum items are only available in person at the LA&M. The Museum is accessible during the LA&M's regular operating hours, while the archival collection is available by appointment only; details about accessing the collection for research are available on the LA&M website.[16] The LA&M also has a recommended reading list[14] to support library users. The LA&M building is located up a flight of stairs.[17]

Online Catalog

The Leather Archives has a browsable online catalog which includes curated online exhibits.[18] This catalog is powered by CollectiveAccess, a free open-source software built for museum and archival collections.[19] The catalog includes finding aids to support research; the highest level finding aid is at the collection level, organized by creator. The online catalog contains 386 archival, library, or museum collections, filterable by decade and place.[20] Each collection is described by title, date(s) of creation, related entities, extent, processing/arrangement note, and accessibility. Sub-series are included where applicable.

Photographs and other digitized items are also made available online through the catalog. Object-level descriptions include titles, dates, places, and a link to higher-level description (i.e. at series or collection level). Community members are encouraged to identify photographs to support description. The LA&M policy also includes changes to description at the request of community members. Its description policy reads:

This website is password protected to respect the privacy of individuals in LGBT, Leather, BDSM and kink communities. By default, personal surnames are redacted to protect the privacy of individuals. Public personas, pseudonyms, scene names, and the names of individuals whose full names are otherwise findable in relation to LGBT, Leather, BDSM and kink communities with a cursory search online are presented in full. The LA&M will remove or change a name at any point in time at request.[7]

Community Engagement

The Leather Archives and Museum engages the wider Leather community through professional relationships with other archives, partnerships with academic institutions, and regular events with community members.

Related Archival Institutions

The Leather Archives and Museum is a member of the Reciprocal Organization of Associated Museums (ROAM).[8] The LA&M also supports donors in finding other archival or museum institutions if the LA&M is not an appropriate home for their items.[5] Additionally, the LA&M online catalog includes a list of other "libraries, archival repositories, research, and non-profit institutions with collections related to Leather, BDSM and kink history and culture" throughout the United States.[7]

Visiting Scholars Program

The Leather Archives and Museum supports a visiting scholar each year through a grant from Leather Sins.[11] The Visiting Scholars Program supports one researcher in their use of the LA&M archival collection. Researchers are selected out of a field of research proposals submitted to the LA&M.

Community Events

Programming to engage Leather community members includes:

  • Guest Artist Gallery (GAG): Exhibits from guest artists are displayed in the LA&M.[21]
  • Fireside Chats: "Chats," organized by Douglas O'Keeffe, Christina Court and Joanny Goaddy in association with the Leather Archives and Museum, are recorded conversations with community members which include a formal interview and an audience Q&A portion.[22]
  • Leather Legacies: Leather Legacies was a four-month series of talks between LA&M Executive Director Gary Wadsin and community stakeholders. Recordings are available on the LA&M website.[23]
  • Kink U Online - Bootblack Series: LA&M partnered with Titans of the Midwest and Kink U to provide a seven-episode series on leather care.[24]

Other events are advertised through the LA&M social media channels @leatherarchives on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.[25]


Flinn, Stevens, and Shepherd define community archives as “the active participation of a community in documenting and making accessible the history of their particular group and/or locality on their own terms.”[26] By this criteria, the Leather Archives and Museum is fairly successful. The LA&M was founded by Leathermen in 1991, and today it is staffed and managed by other members of that same community.[27] Members of the Leather community comprise the primary funding body through donations, memberships, and event rentals, as well as the International Mr. Leather competition.[10] The Leather community built this institution, paid for it, and by an academic understanding, has post-custodial ownership of it.[28]

In contrast to the many LGBTQ+ archives, museums, and institutions that have formed in North America over the past 30 years, LA&M is unique. It was the first and remains one of the most legitimizing organizations in the American Leather community, a fine example of Caswell et al.'s "politically generative Spaces."[29] Critically, it does this by limiting its scope to those identities and practices that are inherently unwelcome in the mainstream.

  1. "Leather Archives and Museum 510(C3) documentation" (PDF). Leather Archives & Museum. Jan 25 1996. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  2. "About the Leather Archives and Museum". Leather Archives & Museum.
  3. Bean, J. W. (2004). Leathersex and Sexuality. In M. Stein (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History in America (Vol. 2). Charles Scribner’s Sons.
  4. Caswell, M. (2014). Seeing Yourself in History: Community Archives and the Fight Against Symbolic Annihilation. The Public Historian, 36(4), 26–37.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 "LA&M Collections Policy". Leather Archives & Museum. June 10, 2017.
  6. Flinn, A. (2007). Community Histories, Community Archives: Some Opportunities and Challenges. Journal of the Society of Archivists, 28(2), 151–176.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 "About". Leather Archives & Museum Online Catalog.
  8. 8.0 8.1 "Become a Member". Leather Archives & Museum.
  9. "Leather Archives & Museum Store".
  10. 10.0 10.1 "IML Store". International Mr. Leather.
  11. 11.0 11.1 "The Visiting Scholars Program: 2020". Leather Archives & Museum.
  12. "Leatherpedia: The Leather Archives and Museum". 10/06/21. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  13. "Donations to the Collections". Leather Archives & Museum.
  14. 14.0 14.1 "What is 'Leather, kink and fetish'?". Leather Archives & Museum.
  15. Day, Alison S.; Krtalić, Maja (2021). ""Evidence of Me" Becoming "Evidence of Us": A Case Study of the Policy, Processes, Donor Relations and Responses of Selected New Zealand GLAM Institutions to Personal Donations of Collections and Artifacts". Collection Management. line feed character in |title= at position 44 (help)
  16. "Research". Leather Archives & Museum.
  17. "Plan Your Visit". Leather Archives & Museum.
  18. "Digital Galleries". Leather Archives & Museum Online Catalog.
  19. "Home". CollectiveAccess.
  20. "All Collections". Leather Archives & Museum Online Catalog.
  21. "Past Guest Artist Exhibitions". Leather Archives & Museum.
  22. "Fireside Chats". Leather Archives & Museum.
  23. "Leather Legacies". Leather Archives & Museum.
  24. "Kink U Online - Bootblack Series". Leather Archives & Museum.
  25. "Upcoming Events". Leather Archives & Museum.
  26. Flinn, A., Stevens, M., & Shepherd, E. (2009). Whose memories, whose archives? Independent community archives, autonomy and the mainstream. Archival Science, 9(1–2), 71–86. P. 73
  27. "About: Staff and Board of Directors". Leather Archives & Museum. 10/06/21. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  28. Zavala, J., Migoni, A. A., Caswell, M., Geraci, N., & Cifor, M. (2017). ‘A process where we’re all at the table’: Community archives challenging dominant modes of archival practice. Archives and Manuscripts, 45(3), 202–215.
  29. Caswell, M., Gabiola, J., Zavala, J., Brilmyer, G., & Cifor, M. (2018). Imagining transformative spaces: The personal–political sites of community archives. Archival Science, 18(1), 73–93.