The Pop-Up Museum of Queer History

Interview with Hugh Ryan, transcript by Christopher Kennedy  (February 2012) |

CK: Can you talk a little bit about what the idea of a “museum” means to you? Does it have a particular responsibility to “do” or “be” something to someone?

HR: A historical museum is a place that contextualizes the past in a way that is meaningful to the community viewing it, and opens up that history for examination. It presents questions, not answers. This is especially true in a queer context, as sexual and gender identities are unstable both cross-culturally and trans-historically. This is part of the reason we chose to use the word “queer” in our name, as it encompasses the vast array of non-heteronormative sexual orientations and gender identities, without imposing any specific ones upon the subjects of our exhibits. We see it as our duty to disturb the presumptive heterosexuality that is often imposed upon the past, but not to replace it with a monolithic presumption that all sexual and gender identities can be mapped onto the ones that we currently recognize in our society.

CK: What are your first memories/experiences of a “museum”? What did it smell, look, and feel like?

HR: My first memory of a museum is from a book. In the 3rd grade I read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, in which a brother and sister run away from home to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They experienced the museum in a personal way: behind the scenes, up close, interactive. They became interested in pieces and researched them, taking an active part in creating and learning the history the museum had on display. I loved the intimate relationship they had with the past: it was something in their home, and something to which even they, as kids, could contribute.

Fashionable Places out of Season a little too much is just enough for me - Daniel Lang Levitsky, 2011

Fashionable Places out of Season a little too much is just enough for me – Daniel Lang Levitsky, 2011

This ethos of community involvement and sharing is one that The Pop-Up Museum of Queer History values greatly. Queer history has often been kept, if it is kept at all, hidden in our homes. The process of seeing oneself and one’s community as a valid subject for historical study goes hand in hand with believing that you have a story worth telling.

CK: Can you talk a little bit about the inception of the Pop-Up Museum? How do you feel place/context informs the construction of each pop-up museum? And does a community form around its creation?

HR: The idea for the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History came to me shortly after the conservative attack on the Hide / Seek exhibit forced them to remove David Wojnarowicz’ piece “A Fire in my Belly” from the show. I was frustrated that the Republican establishment and the whims of governmental funding could so easily play political football with both art and history. I wanted some way to both protest the removal, and provide an alternative venue for queer histories.

Around the same time, a group in New York City called Queers Organizing for Radical Unity and Mobilization (QuORUM) put out a call for events. They were organizing a week of queer workshops in queer homes, and they were looking for a space big enough to hold the kick-off. At the time, I lived in a large industrial loft in Bushwick, and I proposed a one-night only museum show. I put a call out for exhibits over Facebook, not really knowing what kind of response I would get.

I was floored when more than thirty people – many whom I didn’t even know – wanted to create exhibits and performances. They ranged from the whimsical (e.g. a gingerbread scale replica of Stonewall) to the meticulously researched (e.g. a talk about and performance of the works of composer Jean-Baptiste Lully). A curator and artist named Buzz Slutzky stepped up to co-curate the show, and dozens of other people volunteered to help install the works.
Our one-night engagement was scheduled for the evening of January 14th, 2011. It was freezing cold that evening, but more than 300 people showed up for the show – including 14 police officers, who shut us down for fire concerns shortly after midnight. They also gave me a ticket for disturbing the peace when I refused to let them into the apartment without a warrant. I guess it wouldn’t be a real queer historical event without a police raid…

Even as the cops were forcing us out of the building, people were asking when the next museum would pop-up. Queer people were hungry for our history, told by our community and to our community. Buzz and I quickly realized that this wasn’t a one-time event, but rather the beginning of an organization. Creating a nonprofit was different from creating a one-night show, however, and we needed help. Graham Bridgeman joined us as our development expert, and the three of us formed the nucleus of the organizing group that has created the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History as it exists now – along with dozens upon dozens of volunteers, artists, historians, archivists, and committed community members, without whom we could not exist.

Seeing Femme - Morgan Hart, 2011

Seeing Femme – Morgan Hart, 2011

Because the exhibits for our shows are created by a wide variety of individuals, not by a staff of paid professionals, we have an automatic community of interest over and above those who would normally come out for a queer history event. This gives each of our shows an incredible vitality and a unique feel. Although the space that a particular Pop-Up inhabits also defines the event, I believe it is the people who coalesce around it that create each show’s unique heart. This project is a labor of love for everyone who participates. Without strong community support none of our shows could have ever come together.

CK: What’s the logistical background of getting spaces to create these pop-up museums like? Is it about networking and finding agreeable landlords? How have you navigated this?

HR: Every Pop-Up has been housed differently. So far, we have installed shows in galleries, community centers, schools, and personal homes. For each show, we work with a local partner organization that knows the lay of the land in their city, and together, we choose the best location for that particular installation. Finding a space depends just as much on networking and community involvement as does filling it with exhibits, and we spend months working with partners to develop all aspects of the show, including the space. This not only keeps us accountable to our grassroots, but also helps imbed the Pop-Up in the specific needs and desires of the local community.

CK: Do you feel there is an urgency to tell the “story” of GLBTQ+ struggles/histories/stories etc.? How is that connected to your mention of youth involvement?

HR: Having a past is an essential component to believing oneself psychologically healthy and emotionally worthy. Isolation and a sense of aberration are two of the main forces that drive so many queer youth to depression, drugs/alcohol, and self-destruction. The straightwashing of history leaves these youths without ancestors. Unlike other marginalized communities, few of our children have positive older role models in their family circles to give them their history.

A Letter from 42 Butter Lane - Sasha Wortzel, 2010

A Letter from 42 Butter Lane – Sasha Wortzel, 2010

Children who do not identify as queer are left viewing their queer peers as weird, unusual, or wrong, and thus easy targets for schoolyard cruelty. A more honest and comprehensive approach to sexuality and gender identity throughout history is as important as anti-bullying and tolerance campaigns. In fact, when Stoke Newington secondary school in London integrated queer history into their standard curricula, they succeeded in “more or less eliminating homophobic bullying” over a five-year period.

Furthermore, we are all robbed of a complete understanding of ourselves and our culture when our own norms and identities are applied willy-nilly to other cultures and times. Without an understanding of the ways in which our own gender and sexual identities are socially constructed, how can we possibly understand


Pop-Up Museum of Queer History


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. He holds an MFA in Nonfiction from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is represented by The Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency. He is also the Founding Director of The Pop-Up Museum of Queer History.

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