Hugh Ryan at (re)Presenting AIDS: Culture and Accountability

On August 22, 2013, Visual AIDS along with the Pop Up Museum of Queer History and the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, held a public forum entitled, (re)Presenting AIDS: Culture and Accountability. The event was recorded and transcribed. Panelists we invited to present a short statement about their work related to AIDS, art, and representation. Below,Hugh Ryan talks about the New York Times op-ed he wrote about the New York Historical Society's AIDS exhibition, and shares his thoughts about the power of history.

Hi, I'm Hugh Ryan. I’m the founding director of the Pop Up Museum of Queer History. And I just wanted to start by saying—thank you to everyone for being here because one of my biggest answers to the questions is engagement. I think we have to engage with each other, we have to engage with the generations before us, the generations after us, the institutions that support us, the institutions that scare us. It’s about engagement. It’s only when we’re talking to each other, sharing our stories, and sharing what we know and have experienced that we actually can move forward with any of this.

I recently wrote an editorial about the New York Historical Society’s show, and I was very critical. And I regret that the one thing that I did not say was: please go. I want everyone to see that show. I want everyone to see every one of the shows that we’re talking about and to talk about what is good, and what isn't good, or what we did like, or didn't like, or did understand, or didn't understand because we don't really move forward without doing that.

The Pop Up Museum of Queer History works around the country with organizations to create community-sourced displays on queer history. What I think differentiates us, or what we try to accentuate in our model is, we believe when and where queer history has been kept, it’s been kept by queer people ourselves. And this is a virtue; it’s not a problem. It’s not something we need to solve.

It’s not to say that we don't believe in authorities or in experience and in learning but, you don’t need, necessarily, to go through some institutional practice to have that and that, by valuing the authority that we have in the room and by sharing it we actually learn from each other. What we, as a museum, try to do is to work with individuals to create exhibits. So, our shows will have 30 exhibits created by 30 different people, some of whom may consider themselves artists, some of whom may consider themselves historians, many of whom have never thought about making an exhibit for a museum before. Our shows tend to be over lapping, they tend to be a little messy because of it. We believe that interplay is where we really learn the most, so we believe that one of the most important things in terms of how should AIDS be represented, is that we should all be representing it ourselves.

History is a tool we all have access to and we’re in this really odd moment right now, around queer history specifically, where it’s going from a “for us / by us” model of history to one that is more concerned with mainstream recognition and straight audiences. We’re suddenly interesting to people. And that’s not a bad thing. And that’s not something to be afraid of, but it’s something to note and something to remember when we engage, we shouldn’t give up what we had before. And what we had before was a model of history where we kept our history because no one was going to give it to us. And when we had it, no one could take it from us.

Download the full transcript at: (re)Presenting AIDS transcript