Come to the Leather Archives & Museum, It’s for (Kinky) Lovers

Jackets on display at the Leather Archives & Museum

So much of my time in Chicago has been spent trying to force people to visit me in Rogers Park. So often, I fail. All of my beautiful, lovely friends live in neighborhoods like Logan Square—a godless place populated by hippies with asymmetrical haircuts and too many restaurants that offer brunch.

“Come to Rogers Park,” I will plead. “There are so many wonderful things in the neighborhood!”

“There is nothing interesting in Rogers Park,” they scoff as they swill their craft beer. Then they laugh at me.

The fools.

Rogers Park is the home of the Leather Archives & Museum (LA&M), a testament to leather, kink, and any and all fetishes you could imagine.

The Leather Archives & Museum is housed in an unassuming building off Devon Avenue in Rogers Park.

It’s a nondescript gray structure located off of Devon with “LA&M” printed in large letters over a set of gray doors. The outside of the building looks like it should be a school. Down the street is Devon Market, another gem of Rogers Park.

To gain admittance to the museum, you must first ring a small bell before being ushered into a gift shop that smells like an expensive leather couch. To be fair, the entire museum smells like you’re drowning in age-old leather. It’s amazing.

The museum was founded in 1991 by Chuck Renslow, an activist also responsible for opening the first gay leather bar in the country, The Gold Coast, back in 1958. Although the first location for the LA&M was situated in Andersonville, the need for more exhibit space pushed them up north to Rogers Park.

“Our collections need a lot of space,” said Rick Storer, executive director of the LA&M, as he led me throughout the building. “Physical expansion is kind of an immediate concern—within five to six years we need to find a way to expand our storage capacity.”

It is understandable that space might be limited—the museum takes up two floors with an auditorium, library, gift shop, archives, and a vast display of artistic collections. There are a number of different exhibits currently on display—there is a digital collection dedicated to Sailor Sid—a tattoo artist and piercer who extensively documented his work with body modification, and a traveling exhibit on the history of leatherwomen.

The museum celebrated its 25th anniversary in September, and to commemorate the occasion, Christina K. Court, vice president of the LA&M Board of Directors, produced a documentary on the institution and what it offers the community. The film provided a look at the history of the place over the past quarter century, and its value as a library, educational institution and artistic center.

Leather Archives & Museum Library

The library and archives are a focal point of the museum.

“In highlighting the archives, and the work being done in the archives, and with the papers and collections, it’s my hope that viewers can see how LA&M has evolved from a repository that collected our history in one of the co-founder’s basement to a full-scale, professional library… and archive that uses standard professional methods and uses the best practices within those professional disciplines,” said Court.

The library and archives are a focal point of the museum, and an important focus of Court’s film. There is a need for this preservation, as the archives give a glimpse into the lifestyles of social groups not commonly documented.

“Preservation is really at the core of a lot of museums and archives, and to a lesser extent, libraries,” said Storer. “But it’s really a critical part of our mission to keep this history for as long as possible so future generations have access to this history—history that is being made today and from the past.”

As Storer walked me from the auditorium to the archives, I kept looking around in confusion. WHERE are the penises, I wondered as he led me from room to room. I was expecting a bevy of penises, to be entirely honest. A surplus of penises. But then he led me to the basement, and that was where the magic began.

Like all museums, the best stuff is in the basement. “I’ll let you look around,” Storer told me as I gazed around the room like one of those kids at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, before all the assassination attempts started.

The basement is a broad collection of art and experiences from artists throughout the city and abroad. There is a wall dedicated to Fakir Musafar, a performance artist engaged in a series of photos featuring corsets that would put Kardashian waist trainers to shame. In the center of the room is a video playing on loop of a group of woman giggling as their nipple rings are ripped out by a disinterested-looking middle-aged man.

Leather Archives & Museum

Take that, Barefoot Contessa

In the corner is a plaque labeled “The Dungeon.” There is a small gargoyle with glowing red eyes positioned above it, so I know it’s legit. Inside is a collection of goods featuring equipment used by the BDSM community, including a citrus juicer that is an exact replica of one I have in my own kitchen. I read the card placed behind it and learned it is a pervertable, used as a dildo for S/M play. Thank you, Leather Archives and Museum, for teaching me more about potential uses for my kitchen appliances! You don’t see the Barefoot Contessa providing me with this information—if she did, her show might be more interesting.

 

What is most interesting, to me, about the collection of the art in the basement is that so much of it features lifestyles—it is art, but it is of the everyday, not the extraordinary. These are day-to- day experiences. These are collections from people’s homes, portraits of them and their friends —snapshots of daily life and hobbies..some of which include citrus juicers as dildos.

“The art and artifacts on the walls at LA&M are very important,” said Court. “Because they not only celebrate a variety of sex and sexuality that exists in the world—the art and artifacts on the walls at LA&M confront all other institutions, organizations and groups who feel that overt sex and sexuality should remain hidden and ‘private.’ In displaying these materials in an unapologetic manner, LA&M provides a reminder that sex and sexuality are important and part of the human journey that deserves celebration and discussion so that everyone can have a more authentic and joyful life.”

One recent exhibit, “Part of the Party: The Visual Story of the Onyx Brotherhood and Walter Houston III” by artist Erica Brooks featured different forms of media to tell the story of the ONYX organization, a group founded by men of color who enjoy leather lifestyles.

“I happened upon the LA&M and wondered about people of color and leather because I haven’t seen that many stories,” said Brooks when asked about her project. “It’s a small part about the history of leather groups, and there was information about people of color but there was no contemporary artistic exploration about their lives.”

Leather Archives & Museum exhibit

“The art and artifacts on the walls at LA&M are very important,” says Christina K. Court, vice president of the LA&M Board of Directors

The LA&M is a home for different subcultures of sexuality—providing historical examples of its past and artistic exhibits to showcase its future. The calendar for the museum is packed—a rotating schedule of shows, traveling exhibits, the International Mr. Leather Weekend, and more. As my tour finished and Storer led me to the door, I asked him if the museum is always this busy, with so many exhibits and competitions held on a yearly basis.

“Oh, yeah,” he tells me. “Chicago is a great place to be kinky.”

He’s not wrong.

The Leather Archives & Museum, 6418 N. Greenview Ave., is open Thursday-Sunday for visitors ages 18 and over. Visit the museum’s site for hours and more information.

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Molly Harris is a riddle, inside an enigma, wrapped in feminine wiles, nestled in a soft, human skin suit with a blonde wig on top. She arrived to Chicago from the wild cornfields of Indiana and spends most of her time talking about science fiction and glitter and puns.