In this month’s Feature Archive, Dan Callwood talks us through the Fonds Michel Chomarat at the Bibliothèque Municipale de Lyon. Dan is a PhD candidate in the school of history at Queen Mary University of London working on an AHRC-funded project provisionally entitled ‘Experiencing France’s gay liberation “moment” 1968-82’ supervised by Julian Jackson.
The acceptance of LGBT collections into national archival institutions has had a difficult history in France. Only now are the Archives Nationales and the Bibliothèque Nationale leaving dismissive attitudes behind and coming to realise the importance of preserving LGBT heritage. To counter past indifference on the part of the authorities, attempts have been made to set up independent national LGBT archives, based in Paris, but the project has repeatedly hit the buffers.
These well-publicised problems with LGBT heritage on a national level can obscure the spots of vibrancy that do exist when it comes to LGBT collections in France, be they held by private collectors or nurtured by smaller institutions. One such bright spot is the Bibliothèque Municipale de Lyon’s Fonds Michel Chomarat, gifted to the library by M. Chomarat in 1992. Its presence at the library makes the Bibliothèque Municipale de Lyon one of France’s primary LGBT archival centres.
The collection’s curator, Michel Chomarat, is an activist and former local councillor who in 2002 was named as “chargé de mission mémoire” for the city of Lyon, a role that he used to preserve the history and heritage of Lyon’s marginalised communities – sexual as well as racial and religious minorities. He has spent his life building an eclectic collection, first as an amateur enthusiast, and now with increasing professionalism. On my visits to the library I have been very lucky to be able to spend time with M. Chomarat as he worked on his (still expanding) collection, and interview him about his life as a prominent activist in the city. As it is housed in the city’s library, the collection is open to all, but M. Chomarat is always keen to welcome personally researchers working on it.
The LGBT portion of the fonds ranges from eighteenth and nineteenth-century engravings and medical treatises to the heated debates over same-sex marriage in France (passed in 2013). M. Chomarat has collected much of his material through his own painstaking research and acquisition as well as from his personal contacts, many of whom have given papers on deaths of friends and loved ones through the traumas of HIV-AIDS. M. Chomarat has also collected widely from local groups and organisations in which he has had a personal involvement, such as Lyon’s Groupe de Libération Homosexuelle (late 1970s).
The collection is broad enough to interest anybody working on the history of gender and sexuality in France, particularly in the twentieth century. But it is in no way limited to LGBT-focused material. The collection ranges more widely beyond this remit, following the collector’s own eclectic tastes and interests which include the city of Lyon, the sixteenth-century French seer Nostradamus, the Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini and French Freemasonry.
This eclecticism leads to intriguing juxtapositions – homosexuality has often been described (both sympathetically and unsympathetically) as a sort of ‘Freemasonry’; and the vivid cinematic visions of Pasolini contrast with those of Nostradamus.
The Bibliothèque Municipale de Lyon is France’s second largest library after the Bibliothèque Nationale. Arranged across multiple locations in Lyon, the main site, which houses the archival collections (including the Chomarat collection) is located in the Part-Dieu neighbourhood, next to Lyon’s main train station. Like many of France’s municipal libraries, it serves both as a place of study and as a community space. The archive reading room, found on the top floor, is bright, comfortable and has always been very quiet on my visits, a nice contrast with the bustle of the rest of the building. No appointment is necessary, and the library has a large, unhurried staff who are happy to help you either remotely before your arrival or on the day. The entirety of the Chomarat collection is indexed and searchable alongside the other holdings of the library (http://catalogue.bm-lyon.fr/).
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of M. Chomarat’s collection is that it is very much a living collection. The library has used the collection extensively in its latest exhibition on the life of the gay Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, tragically murdered in 1975. The exhibition contains treasures such as original theatrical release posters, photography and movie stills. The exhibition is free and is open until the 10th August 2016 – (https://www.bm-lyon.fr/expositions-en-ligne/pasolini/?lang=fr). I encourage you to have a look if you find yourself in Lyon over the summer and dip into the Michel Chomarat collection while you are there!
Thanks Dan! To learn more about Dan and his work see https://qmul.academia.edu/DanielCallwood and follow him on Twitter at @dancallwood