Hugh Ryan at WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW COULD FILL A MUSEUM

Visual AIDS presented WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW COULD FILL A MUSEUM last January as part of the Brooklyn Museum's Target Free Saturday. Moderated by Brittany Duck, featuring Hugh Ryan, Jean Carlomusto, Tara Burk and Vincent Cianni, the event was part 2 of our ongoing public conversation about art, AIDS and representation. Below, panelist Hugh Ryan takes about the importance of history in order to go forward.

HUGH RYAN: As Britney mentioned I’m a writer aside from kid books, I mostly write journalism, a lot of it on queer topics. I’m also the Founding Director of the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, which is a grassroots non-profit that helps local communities around the country put on shows about queer history, broadly constituted. As a writer, I’ve had the opportunity to discuss AIDS in a museum context on numerous occasions. Prior to all of that I worked for years at a number of nonprofits that served primarily HIV-positive and high-risk populations in NYC, including the Hispanic AIDS Forum, the Hetrick Martin Institute, and the Peter Cicchino Youth Project at the Urban Justice Center.

As such, I’ve watched our recent parade of AIDS and AIDS-related museum shows with a wary eye. History isn’t something we find in a natural state and toss up on the walls – it’s a story we create out of raw materials like flyers and interviews and video tape, which is then further remixed by the viewer, who brings their own thoughts to the topic at hand, reads as much or as little of the accompanying text as they choose, and wanders a meandering and oftentimes cut-short path through the most carefully planned of exhibitions – if they come at all. And who can blame them? We’re taught history as a series of names and dates to memorize, with the most important one being the date of the final exam, after which we can forget everything because history doesn’t matter. Not in America.

I want to share with you a part of an article called “The Memory of History” by public historian Michael Frisch. Here, a Nigerian friend of the author is commenting on the American public’s lack of real connection to our history:

Why bother with history, when you’re rich and powerful? All it can do is tell you how you climbed to the top, which is a story it is probably best not to examine too closely. No, you don’t need history. What you need is something more like a pretty carpet that can be rolled out on ceremonial occasions to cover all those bloodstains on the stairs. And in fact, that’s what you usually get from your historians.

AIDS is one of those most recent bloodstained steps, and already, the carpet is being rolled out, like Kenneth Cole’s recent statement about how straight people had to help the terrified queer community because we were too afraid to step up; or this past summer’s New York Historical Society show that called the AIDS crisis the price of sexual freedom, and repeatedly referenced a concerned New York City coming together to fight against a nebulous homophobia that seemed to be in the air and in the water, but rarely in actual people or institutions. And these are just the obvious examples.

If you look, it’s not hard to see the blood dripping from beneath the carpet. It’s fresh and flowing still today. But most of us don’t even realize we’re on a set of steps. Instead, we see history as an archipelago, discrete islands of occurrence that bear no relationship to one another. In this view, the “good fight” against AIDS is over. New infections are either in countries that aren’t “our problem,” or are among people who “refuse” to take care of themselves.

Never mind the historic (and current) policies of domination, enslavement, and colonization that constitute much of our relationship to many countries with skyrocketing rates of HIV. Never mind that a huge number of new infections in the U.S. are occurring among poor young men of color, who have always faced racism, unemployment, homophobia, lack of access to health care and education, poverty, and other structural inequalities that complicate the simple motto of self-respect and self care as paragons of prevention. This is the archipelago of history: a series of facts fast receding into the distance, considered at most but a panoramic background to life today.

And this amnesia goes far beyond AIDS. Our historical memory is so short that we can pride ourselves on the legal battles queer people have won in this country – the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the legalization of same-sex marriage – while wholesale ignoring, denying, or simply being ignorant of the fact that these gains, while both symbolically important and materially helping many, make us complicit in the very systems of militarism and state-mandated acceptability that early queer activists fought so hard against. Perhaps these compromises are worth it – obviously, they were for some. But without recognizing what we gave or gave up, how can we truly measure what we have gained? And once a part of the system, how cognizant will we be of the next systemically disenfranchised group, the new homophobia, tomorrow’s AIDS?

Download the rest of the conversation below.

Hugh Ryan is a writer and traveler currently based in New York City. His food and travel writing have appeared in numerous venues. He has ghostwritten eight young adult novels. As a copywriter, he has produced web copy, video scripts, and social media tie-ins for a variety of major brand name companies. In 2013 he wrote How to Whitewash a Plague, a New York Times Op-ed about the New-York Historical Society's AIDS in New York: The First Five Years.