Editor’s Note: The Leather Archives & Museum are open to those 18+ due to the adult content within, which we will be discussing in this article. Make your reading choices accordingly.
Museums are meant to educate, elevate and celebrate the subjects they reflect on. A good museum should be able to introduce someone who’s unfamiliar with the subject matter or culture it represents in a way that will engage them with the artifacts that are in front of them to give them context and conceptual understanding, as well as awe and appreciation for what is on display.
It should, meanwhile, be by and for its community, making sure to accurately reflect the diverse nature of any one group, community or culture, and preserve the stories, people and moments in time that are, in every way, priceless. Everyone should be included, and the space should serve the community and be an active part of it, as well. It’s a high bar to reach, but the Leather Archives and Museum in Rogers Park more than achieves it.
Walk in the front door, and you’ll realize a few things. One–that you will be immersed in the culture. Two–that the people who work here do so out of genuine passion for the Leather/BDSM/Kink/Fetish community they represent, and Three–It’s fine if you don’t know everything, or anything at all–you are welcome.
These are the best conditions for having a great experience at any museum–genuine love for the subject, people who really care about it, and a willingness to let people in and even educate them, if they’d like to learn more. History, art and community weave together to create a surprisingly comprehensive look at the leather world at large in such a small space.
The Leather Archives and Museum was founded by Chuck Renslow and Tony DeBlase in 1991 with the expressed mission of “Making leather, kink, BDSM and fetish accessible through research, preservation, education and community engagement.” As with larger museums, it’s an active center for research and preservation, and its archives, both physical and digital, are in large part available for private study and scholarly pursuits. These include photographs, pin collections, and documents from leather clubs all over the world that include their bylaws, event footage on VHS and various other media, including the full run of some now defunct magazines dedicated to BDSM, leather and kink.
You’ll only need to take a few steps in the door to start to get an idea of what the museum has in store for you, with lobby halls covered in art and banners with things like “Fuck Safely One Day at a Time” as well as “My Pain, My Choice” hanging on the walls that lead downstairs to the main collection. They’re not just there to be looked at either, and can be borrowed from the museum for events. There’s a mixed feel of art gallery and historical archive that spills into everything LA&M does, which serves it well.
An artfully arranged collection of objects, art and photographs all done up in white and pink in the Guest Artist Gallery or GAG are where the museum’s latest exhibit, Velvet, resides. Velvet by Caleb Yono and Melissa Hespelt looks back at archival BDSM and kink narratives, with an aim to explore desire, the male gaze and sexual autonomy by looking at the carefully curated selection of objects in the historic materials present at the Leather Museum. It looks at gender issues and how ideas of what is femininity, femme and hysteric to see where the ideas connect and disconnect. It looks at and portrays glamour, transformation and objectification in an engaging and artistic way.
Moving along in the museum, you’ll find sections dedicated to the preservation of various local leather clubs’ documents, vestments and art, the works and history of body modifiers like Fakir Musafar, known as “The Father of Modern Primitives” who both participates in and studies body modification, decoration and rituals, and explores it as a sexual and spiritual practice.
One of our favorite parts of the museum was its timeline, which presents artwork, documents and details of the leather community as a whole, from Bettie Page and her ilk’s modelling for all manner of magazines to Cinekink’s celebration of cinematic eroticism to events like the Mr. Leather competition (which in Chicago, was held at the museum this past weekend) and Shibaricon, a conference dedicated to the sensual Japanese rope bondage conference which was previously also held in the Chicagoland area.
Special installations discuss women in the leather community, giving them their own space with A Room of Her Own, which physically creates an intimate space to explore the life and history of women in the culture through their art, clothes, and memoirs, with fantastic club art and photographs of special events and some truly beautiful leather pieces, or look at the experiences of transgendered and differently abled members of the community. A bootblacking display teaches the history and allows members of the active community to provide their perspective in video clips, and the Dungeon section explores the objects of BDSM, with some beautifully crafted examples.
My favorite thing about the Leather Museum is that at no point does it condescend to those who are not well acquainted with the leather community–but it doesn’t exclude, either. Whether you’re someone well acquainted with BDSM, the fetish community and your local leather club or not, you’ll be able to find something to connect to and learn about. There are truly beautiful objects of art, and truly lovingly constructed narratives meant to preserve the shared history of the community, living side by side in perfect harmony.
Upstairs, the Etienne auditorium exists for entertainment, meetings, weddings, funerals and fun, with plans for more programming already in the works, and a pretty fantastic gift shop provides a chance to take something home with you. Whether your intent in visiting is exploring a potentially exciting unknown, learn more about or celebrate leather, BDSM and kink history, or connect with Chicago’s own leather community, the door is open to you.
You can visit the Leather Archives and Museum Wednesday thru Sunday from 11am to 5pm most days, with extended hours to 7pm on Thursdays and Fridays, and every Thursday being the museum’s CLAW Free Day. Normal admission is $10.00, with a student, senior and military discount to $5.00 admission and access to archival materials by appointment. Also, as discussed, ID is required as the museum is only open to patrons 18 and older. For more information, including membership information, events schedules and more, click here.