Hundreds of artefacts connected with the lesbian community in New Zealand are displayed in a small volunteer-run museum in West Auckland.
Charmaine always had crushes on girls. When she was head girl of Auckland Girls’ Grammar, she fell in love with her deputy. Her mother warned her of the dangers of intense friendships with women, and she always carried with her a nervous, sick feeling in her stomach.
Beth realised she was a lesbian when she was living in a convent. She formed a special friendship with another nun, but they were split up when they were sent to different convents and were never allowed to contact each other again. Beth always regretted that she never had any mentors.
Sue was violent, and ended up being sent to Oakley Hospital. But things weren’t so bad – all the lesbian mental nurses she met there made her feel like she wasn’t alone.
Miriam Saphira first heard the word “lesbian” in 1972 when she met Sharon Alston, a very obvious and very out lesbian, at an Auckland Women’s Liberation meeting. When she heard the word and discovered its associations with Ancient Greece and the poet Sappho, everything fell together. Almost 50 years later, Saphira is a trustee of the Charlotte Museum Trust and tells the stories of Charmaine, Beth, Sue, and countless others, at Aotearoa’s first and only lesbian museum.
“It started with that quilt and that badge collection.” The first thing you see when you walk into the Charlotte Museum is a patchwork quilt made of T-shirts, stitched together by Saphira and her daughter.
“People say, ‘what’s a police car doing in there?’” Saphira says, looking up at a patch of the quilt with a screen-printed police car on it. “She was my girlfriend.” Back then, Saphira had to speak in code when she rang her girlfriend at work. “If I wanted to say… ‘Jan and Bobbi, maybe we should have them over for dinner,’ I would say ‘Jan and Robert’ or ‘John and Bobbi’ or something like that, to try and masculinise it, so we weren’t suggesting two women were coming over for dinner… We were always careful.”
Another patch of the quilt reads: “But what do lesbians do? Well, we go to work and look after children, visit friends, join political parties, grow vegetables, dance at parties, attend school, and enjoy holidays. But also run, swim, shit, sing, love, and cry.” One time Saphira’s boss, after a few drinks at a work function, asked her, “what do you actually do in bed?”
“I feel sorry for your wife if you don’t know,” she replied.
The Charlotte Museum sits in the middle of New Lynn’s industrial area, with a rainbow flag out the front that’ll make you go, “Oh, this must be it.” It holds around 800 lesbian cultural artefacts, crammed into two small display rooms and an upstairs exhibition space.
In 2003, Saphira took the quilt, and a badge collection, with her to Wellington for the Outline conference, with the intention of donating them to the Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand (LAGANZ). Over her life she had accumulated objects that carried particular meaning within the lesbian community – artworks by lesbian New Zealand artists, household objects, books, political badges, T-shirts – but Saphira and her peers had begun to ask the morbid question: what would happen to it all when they died? “I mean, they’ll be in the second-hand shop,” Saphira said. “No one will know the relevance of them.” But at the time LAGANZ could not accept Saphira’s quilt and badge collection – they told her that they couldn’t have textiles, and badges were a problem because they would rust, which Saphira has since discovered. So Saphira, along with a small group she had been working on collecting stories with, decided to start a lesbian museum. In 2007 the Charlotte Museum, named after two Charlottes who ran Auckland’s first lesbian club, the KG Club, was registered as a trust and held their first exhibition.
When I tour the Charlotte Museum with Saphira, each exhibit prompts a new story. As we approach a “Red Beryl” t-shirt displayed on a mannequin, Saphira talks about early 80s nights spent packed like sardines in the infamous Alexandra Tavern, the lesbian pub on Federal St. Every Friday night, lesbian band Red Beryl would be there.
“It was absolutely crowded. There were people crowded around the edge of the stage… Then they sat on the bar, then they stood on the bar. And then some people were sitting up on the beams! And there were people peering in through the windows because they couldn’t get in. It was so crowded. Health and safety would have had a heart attack.”
The stories of women like Charmaine and Sue are told at the domestic ware section. Behind glass is a pair of “hers and hers” towels, plates and wine glasses decorated with the double Venus sign, and a Lezzo tin of apple tea “that all the [lesbian] households tended to have in the 70s and 80s”, according to Saphira. “I don’t know whether anyone drank it.”
These were things that lesbians kept to make their homes a safe space, to remind them that they weren’t alone. “Just having these things in your house, whether it was a glass with the double Venus sign, rainbow spoons, just little things. Often, when you came home, especially if you were in the closet, these little things made you feel OK. It’s awful when you have to hide so much of your life pretending to be somebody you’re not.”
The life of the museum has been a precarious one. Funding has never been easy, the suburban location has made it difficult to attract new visitors, and the lesbian community doesn’t seem to be in a comfortable enough position to offer up the hours of volunteer work required to keep the museum running. In the beginning, the trust faced a lot of rejections when they applied for funding, and often Saphira tried to hide the fact that she was running a lesbian museum for fear of rejection due to homophobia. “I tried to write the applications without using the word ‘lesbian.’ ‘Women’ I used a lot, to really not upset them. You know, a lot of people don’t like the word ‘lesbian’. A lot of the committees were mostly men when we started.”
Since its birth, the museum has existed in three different locations, forced to move around Auckland chasing more affordable rent. While Saphira and the other trustees have become accustomed to making funding applications, the future of the museum really depends on finding a more affordable space. Recently, Saphira applied, for the eighth time, to Auckland Council for a community space, but was again unsuccessful. Being granted an Auckland Council Community Occupancy (ACCO) would mean that rent for the museum would only cost around $500 to $1000 a year, as opposed to the $22,000 per year they are paying for their New Lynn space. The Charlotte Museum Trust ticks all the boxes for an ACCO, but every time they have applied, winning a space seems to be just out of reach. In 2017 the Charlotte Museum Trust even scored the highest against a range of criteria for a community space in Freeman’s Bay; a report recommended that the lease for the space be granted to the museum. But it still wasn’t enough, and the space was granted to another vital group, Rape Crisis Auckland.
There’s a sad frustration in Saphira’s voice as she tells me about the struggle to keep the museum open. There was the time the trust hired a truck for the Pride Parade and gave out cards to advertise the museum. “[It was an] enormous amount of effort to hire a truck, and dress it up, and go down the parade. And because our banner wouldn’t stay on the truck because it was windy, we had to get about four or five people holding it to walk down in front of the truck… It’s a big event, the Pride Parade, but you don’t get any support, really. It doesn’t spill over, not to a lesbian museum.” Despite the enormous effort and the hundreds of cards given out to people to advertise the museum, no one came.
All the odds seem to be stacked her, so why does Saphira do it? It’s because people like Charmaine, Sue, and Beth might have found some comfort in a place like the Charlotte Museum. During her 78 years, suicide has been a recurring feature of Saphira’s life: whānau members, lesbians she knew, transgender prisoners she worked with as a psychologist in the 1970s, all lost to suicide. As a teenager, Saphira herself attempted suicide after deciding she was a “freak.”
“It was horrible. I was training as a singer, I drank this poison, it burned my throat. I became a blues singer overnight. I never sang top C again.” Saphira’s witty, nonchalant way of speaking is belied by the warmth and protectiveness she shows a younger generation of lesbians. To Saphira, the museum being free and open to the public is an important way of reducing homophobia – offering education to lesbians, and their whānau, so that they can find some assurance in knowing that there are others like them, and that they have always existed within various cultural contexts.
All hope for the museum isn’t lost – the trust has secured enough funds to last them until March, with the intention of continuing to apply for more. A couple of people have even expressed an interest in taking over the governance of the trust and continuing their mission when Saphira is no longer here. For now, Saphira continues to find comfort in the words written by Sappho thousands of years ago: “You may forget but let me tell you this: someone in some future time will think of us.”