Ben Garcia still believes in magic.
“When I was a little kid, I used to think about fantasy realms and faeries, sort of what’s behind the veil,” he says. “There was something about my queer identity that was very connected to the possibility of something more than what I was seeing in the world.”
As he grew, he discovered that museums could be transcendent spaces, apart from our ordinary lives, where visitors understand something new about the human experience — or about themselves — that isn’t always quantifiable.
Lois Silverman, a public scholar of museum education and professor of Museum Studies at Indiana University — gave those “elusive moments of insight, transformation and deep significance” a name: museum magic.
When Garcia was named the first executive director of the American LGBTQ+ Museum in New York City in 2022, the former deputy executive director and chief learning officer of the Ohio History Connection was tasked with creating a dynamic, innovative and healing museum space that taps into that same untouchable experience.
Today, his vision for the country’s first national museum dedicated to LGBTQ+ history is clear: a safe and collaborative space where LGBTQ+ people of all ages and experiences can connect with their ancestors, engage with their histories and work toward a more equitable future.
What is the American LGBTQ+ Museum?
In 1987, thousands of LGBTQ+ people flocked to the nation’s capitol for the Second National March for Gay and Lesbian Rights.
“That was the year that I came out,” says Garcia, who was a student at Amherst College at the time, about 90 miles west of Boston.
Garcia spent his late teens and early 20s engaging politically around AIDS.
“It was a time when gay identity, especially for gay men, was so closely connected to the AIDS epidemic,” he says. “It was also just a really amazing time for the queer liberation movement more broadly.”
Coming of age in the late 1980s shaped Garcia’s radical vision of what museums can be and do, especially for people who have been historically brutalized, marginalized or erased by the museum industry.
Now, he’s incorporating innovative ideas into the American LGBTQ+ Museum’s design to ensure it is a collaborative, accessible and evolving space for LGBTQ+ people from across the country.
“We see this museum as part of the movement for queer liberation, not as an objective observe,” Garcia says. “We are going to be a museum with a perspective, and that perspective is that queer people deserve to have access to the same benefits, rights and liberties in society as everyone else does.”
Garcia envisions the museum as a powerful, community-oriented space with a focus on four key elements: honoring LGBTQ+ elders and ancestors, building space for activism, celebrating LGBTQ+ people’s contributions to culture and telling the story of queer liberation.
The museum will honor the “resilience and strength of queer expression,” Garcia says — tapping into a legacy and network of queer community that has always existed in cities and towns across America.
‘I found an incredible queer community’
“I was in Ohio for just 2 and a half years, but it really did have a big impact on the way I think about the work that I’m doing now,” Garcia says.
When he and his husband arrived in Columbus, Garcia was focused on his new position at the Ohio History Connection, which involved the repatriation of artifacts to ancestors of Ohio’s historic indigenous tribes.
“I was [dealing]with the issues that museums face with their legacies and their relationship to colonization and the very negative impact that museums have had on Native American and indigenous communities,” he says.
At first, he was exclusively focused on reparations work.
Then, he joined the board of Columbus-based LGBTQ+ nonprofit Equality Ohio.
“I found an incredible queer community not just in Columbus, but across the state,” he says. “Queer families raising kids in Lima, Ohio, and all in all these small towns — all these places that have passed nondiscrimination ordinances, all these people working tirelessly for rights that are taken for granted in California and New York and the 20 other states where there are protections for queer people in employment and in housing.”
When Garcia left Ohio to accept his position as executive director of the American LGBTQ+ Museum, he remained a member of Equality Ohio’s board of directors.
He says it was important to him to stay connected and involved with LGBTQ+ communities across Ohio.
“I think that the work that [Equality Ohio] does is absolutely as crucial to the story of the American LGBTQ+ experience as those in San Francisco or New York,” Garcia says. “The story of liberation only only exists within a matrix of queerness across small towns and cities.”
Confronting the violent, colonialist legacy of museums
In many ways, Garcia says his work creating an innovative museum space for and about LGBTQ+ parallels his work at the Ohio History Connection.
“Museums were collecting the bodies and belongings of indigenous people in a process that was not mutually empowered,” he says. “It’s the same thing within the LGBTQ+ community, because every liberation movement, whether that’s feminism or whether that’s LGBTQ+ liberation, has had to confront the same forces, the whiteness of its origins — white supremacy, colonization and imperialist thinking.”
To help root out those legacies, Garcia plans to build and curate the American LGBTQ+ Museum with real equity and creative collaboration at its core.
“Institutions everywhere are looking at the biases and the awareness gaps from those original years and now trying to do something different,” Garcia adds. “The beauty of this project is that we’re a new museum. We get to start from the beginning in a way that’s inclusive and representative and respectful of all the members of our community and that addresses their real needs”
‘A dream realized’
“That idea of queer magic and museum magic, to me, is that intangible quality of members of our community,” Garcia says. “It comes from resilience, from the creativity that’s required to navigate being queer person in the world.”
“I feel like [queer people]have always had to look for things beyond the reality of what we face day to day,” he adds. “Often, reality hasn’t really made space for us.”
For future generations of LGBTQ+ people, Garcia hopes the American LGBTQ+ History Museum can be a space for queer people that has not yet been created: one that evokes queer nostalgia, grief, rage, joy and connection — a place to explore and engage with memories and experiences of queer life.
The museum’s physical space is set to open in early 2026, but before then, Garcia says the organization aims to launch a robust digital space full of archival material, a direct effort to boost the museum’s accessibility for queer people across the country.
“I’ve worked in museums for 20 years, and I really believe in museums as a form for personal exploration, for social engagement, for education,” Garcia says. “I just feel so incredibly happy to wake up every morning and this is what I get to think about. I feel like this is absolutely a dream realized.” 🔥
- To learn more about the American LGBTQ+ Museum, visit their website.