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Charlotte Museum Trust

2007 –

This essay written by Miriam Saphira was published online in Women together: a history of women's organisations in New Zealand in 2019.

‘Someone in some future time will think of us.’
Sappho, 500 BCE

In 2000, a group of Auckland women began discussing how to preserve lesbian cultural objects, such as paintings, ceramics, glass, badges, and depictions of labrys (the double-bitted axe commonly associated with female divinities). Such objects were absent from existing museums, and no public history of lesbian culture was readily available. The Wellington based collection, Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand (LAGANZ), set up in 1993, was unable to accommodate objects. The absence of any visible history of lesbian culture meant that lesbians were not only excluded and marginalised, but also deprived of a rich and satisfying history.  Women continued to make the painful journey to their sexual identity as lesbians alone and often ashamed, and families remained confused.

The concept of a museum trust was strongly supported, and after a small archive group in Auckland consulted with other lesbians on how to conserve lesbian culture, the Charlotte Museum Trust was registered and given charitable status on 7 May 2007. [1] It was named after two lesbians who had recently died: Charlotte Smith (Ngāpuhi), a nurse, and Charlotte Prime (Ngāpuhi), a draughtsperson. They had both been committee members of the KG Club (founded 1971–72), the first openly lesbian club in Aotearoa.

The first trustees were Dr Miriam Saphira, Nicola Jackson and Christine Hammerton. The first exhibition was held in 2007 at ‘The D Thing’, in the Marco Trust building on Newton Road, Auckland. The initial collection, held by Miriam Saphira, was catalogued with the help of Sarah Buxton, and moved into a large room in a heritage building in Surrey Crescent, Auckland.

The trust was financed by grants and the Friends of Charlotte Museum. Its objective as set out in the trust deed was to collect, record, display and preserve articles of lesbian significance for the benefit of future generations. These were to be made available to the public through events, art exhibitions, discussion, information and support to whānau. 

By 2018 the museum was based in premises in New Lynn, Auckland, on a commercial lease, as the Auckland Council did not provide it with community space. There were two display rooms (covering theatre, music, writing, clubs, sport, rural women, art, and a timeline) as well as two feature exhibition rooms, a workshop, a lending library, and a research library used by writers and tertiary students. The trust also offered four different heritage walks during the Auckland Heritage Festival. Other services included training for LGBTI welfare and counselling groups, and a trained counsellor who was available on Sunday afternoons for those in need of support, including wider whānau members.

In March 2011 the trust applied to National Services Te Paerangi Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa to achieve the National Museum Standards. It passed with an outstanding peer comment for customer service. These standards were maintained, ensuring the conservation of artefacts valued at over $100,000.

The trust was governed by a board of between three and five trustees. Depending on funding, there were at least three paid contractors, who hosted the open days, ran workshops, and administered the website. They also assisted the volunteer taking a pop-up version of the museum (displays, two films and a performance) to other centres throughout Aotearoa. By 2018 the trust had also published five books on lesbian history and achievements. [2]

The trust created a safe environment for people to express themselves at its workshops and events, and to increase pride and wellbeing for lesbians, their families and the public. It addressed isolation, stigma and homophobia, providing whānau support, training for counsellors, mentors for young lesbians, opportunities and creative endeavours for lesbian artists, and research opportunities. Private museum visits were arranged for people of different ethnicities who might not wish to be seen visiting a lesbian museum.

No other lesbian centre of this kind existed anywhere else in Aotearoa. Its impact was clear in visitors’ evident delight and joy, especially people who were formerly very closeted, and also families, astonished to see images of lesbians and their history dating back to 500 BCE. This frequently gave rise to comments such as ’Been around for so long’ and ‘It’s okay then’, indicating the reassurance that the museum was able to give. Being open to the public lessened discrimination and homophobia, and gave whānau the opportunity to visit and learn.

Miriam Saphira


[1] See website:

[2] Charlotte Museum Trust publications: Agassiz-Suddens, Doreen, The history of lesbian theatre, 2009; Lesbian music of New Zealand, 2011; Browne, Jan, HerSportStory, 2011; Saphira, Miriam, Remember us, 2008; Lesbian timeline: 14th century to 2014 (revised edition), 2018.