Frank Fournier, “[Homophobic Protest]” (1988)

In his New York Time opinion piece, “How to Whitewash a Plague” Hugh Ryan, offers a criticism of the New York Historical Society’s (N-YHS) exhibition “AIDS in New York: The First 5 Years.” He writes:

Bad history has consequences. I’m not afraid we will forget AIDS; I am afraid we will remember it and it will mean nothing. If we cannot face the root issue — that we let people die because we did not like them — AIDS will become a blip on our moral radar, and this cycle will repeat every time we connect an unpopular group with something that scares us.

In the interview below, Visual AIDS asks Ryan what prompted him to write the piece,what would have made the exhibition better, and what is going on in terms of representation that he is excited about.

Visual AIDS: What was your experience seeing the exhibition?
I saw the exhibit with my boyfriend, Tim. We were both really excited to see this topic being covered by a venerable institution like the N-YHS, and at first, I enjoyed the show. The collection of primary source materials is fantastic. But the longer I explored the show, the more I found the curatorial point-of-view to be one that I disagreed with. When I still found myself thinking about the exhibit twenty-four hours later, I returned to see if I was perhaps being over sensitive. When I was still incredibly frustrated on the second viewing, I decided I wanted to write about the show.

Visual AIDS: In the piece you mention that this was their first exhibition to address queer issues. With this in mind, what do you think their community outreach strategy was? For example, we had limited and somewhat disjointed contact with them.
I can’t say for certain, but judging from the show and the acknowledgements, I suspect there was limited engagement with queer and HIV/AIDS organizations around the shaping of this exhibit, which saddens me. I think this is indicative of a massive change in representations of "our" history. Now that the social stigma of being queer in this country is changing - and I say changing because while I think progress is being made in some areas, other issues (like violence against trans-people) still persist - I think mainstream institutions are rushing to fill the queer gaps in the history they've told up until now. That in and of itself is great, but when that rush isn't accompanied by engagement with the actual communities, individuals, and organizations that have been actively living and preserving this history, we run into situations like this.

Visual AIDS: AIDS in New York: The First Five Years received a lot of public and media attention; where as other recent exhibitions related to AIDS have not. Why do you think there was so much interest in the N-YHS exhibition?

I think there are a number of reasons. First, and most obviously, it's a departure from the usual N-YHS fare, and I think that gets attention. They're a venerable New York institution, perhaps the definition of "establishment" when it comes to NYC history, and so a sea change of this order in their programming is momentous. After all, it was only a few years ago that OutHistory.org published Weena Perry's report that criticized them, by name, for never exploring queer themes in their exhibitions.

But beyond that, I think there is an odd conception that an organization deep in the work of a specific topic - say Visual AIDS on AIDS - can never produce a truly "objective" survey of the subject. Not only do I think an objective history by anyone is impossible, I think that what gets labeled "objective" is often the version of history that upholds the most mainstream understandings. It's not objective; it's majoritarian - and therefore less frightening, alienating, confusing, or confrontational for the average viewer.

Visual AIDS: What would you have liked to see in the exhibition? Have you seen any exhibitions that have been great?
I would have liked to see more engagement with queer and HIV/AIDS historians in the shaping of this exhibit. There is this understandable, but ultimately unproductive, attempt to "soften the blow" of an honest accounting of the early years of the crisis. We need to stop being afraid of history.
On a purely curatorial level, I would like to have seen more interactivity in the exhibit; more bringing the viewer into the story.

We're living in a great moment for queer history. In the last few years, there has been an explosion of fantastic exhibits, books, and organizations, small and large, exploring the topic. The Queer Newark conference in New Jersey has been doing amazing work. “Not Over: 25 Years of Visual AIDS" was fantastic. The Lesbian Herstory Archives continues to do amazing stuff, decade after decade, as does The Leslie + Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art - especially their recently mounted Paul Thek show. Although I didn't get to see it in person, I saw a presentation on the GLBT Historical Society's Dragon Fruit Project (exploring Asian Pacific Islander queer women and transgender activist history) and was very impressed. The Queering the Museum project in Seattle is doing some great theoretical explorations of what it means to be a queer museum exhibit, as has the Elsewhere Museum down in North Carolina.

The sheer variety of projects out there - from important surveys and overviews to laser-like examinations of small, personal moments - impresses me more than any particular exhibit. I think by promoting a variety of queer histories -and queer historians - we are most able to protect and project a real history of our communities, overlapping and intricate though that history may be.

Visual AIDS: What has the response to your article been?
The response has been wonderful. Whether people have agreed or disagreed with my reading, they have respond openly, passionately, and with great thought and engagement on the topic. I myself have learned a huge amount just by reading the comments on The New York Times site. The one thing I would say to everyone reading my piece is if you can, check out the exhibit for yourself. If you're uncomfortable giving money to an institution you may have issues with, go on one of the free evenings. We need to actively engage with (re)presentations of our history - good, bad, and in between - in order to understand what is at stake.

Hugh Ryan is the Founding Director of the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History (queermuseum.org), as well as a journalist and young-adult author in New York City. He is represented by Meredith Kaffel at DeFiore & Co. More can be seen on his website, hughryan.org.