The Pop-Up Museum of Queer History was and is a grassroots organization that transforms spaces into temporary installations dedicated to celebrating the rich, long, and largely unknown histories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.
We believe that our community – and especially our youth – deserve to know our history.
If you don't know you have a past,
how can you believe you have a future?
Founder Hugh Ryan talks with Just Josh on Here TV about the Pop-Up Exhibition at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art.
+ HOW WAS THE FIRST POP-UP FOUNDED?
I founded the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History in 2010, as a protest against the removal of David Wojnarowicz’s video A Fire in My Belly from the Hide/Seek show at the Smithsonian. I originally intended it to be a one night only collective envisioning of what a museum designed by, for, and about queer people could look like. However, when over 300 people (including 30+ exhibit-makers) packed into my Brooklyn loft on a frigid night in January 2011, I realized that I had hit a nerve; that people in my community were hungry for history that felt relevant to their lives, displayed in a welcoming space, and presented in ways that centered their experiences, concerns, and desires.
(I also realized – as did the NYPD – that having 300 people in my loft was a fire code violation. Oops.)
Quickly, a group came together to begin organizing a longer, more considered show. The Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay & Lesbian History provided us with their gallery space for the month of August 2011, and the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History was born.
+ WHY THE WORD "QUEER"?
Queer is a tricky word. Originally, I chose it (despite its many issues) because it did two things. First, it defined its subject in the negative – anyone who is not straight is queer – giving the museum the broadest subject of investigation possible, and allowing us to remain flexible as new labels (or identities) arise. Second, because it is so general, queer doesn’t call to mind specific identities (like “lesbian”) that may or may not have existed in various times and places.
However, there’s another way to understand “queer” as a concept. Instead of describing a kind of sexual or gender identity, queer defines that identity’s relative place in a hierarchy of identities. If being a sodomite is about sexual actions, and being gay is about sexual identity, then being queer is about being marginalized because of your sexual actions and/or identity. Thus it is an inherently political concept.
For all of these reasons, using “queer” in our name seemed less likely to call up preconceived notions our viewers might have held about sexuality and gender in cross-cultural and trans-historical settings, while still maintaining a focus on marginalized identities – though we recognize that to some, “queer” is triggering, offensive, or associated with a privileged, white, educated, young, and/or angry section of the community. We are always looking for a better word, but also believe that that better word may only exist in a better, more just world, one that it is our obligation to strive for.
+ WHY CREATE A MUSEUM?
A: Without the experience of constructing our own history, when and where will we learn to deconstruct the false histories that have been made about us? Both the process of discovering history and the experience of sharing it with someone else are critical to understanding history as a constructed reality. We need to educate to be educated, because information is not liberation. It is the ability to analyze that information, to deconstruct how it is being used, by whom, and for what purpose, that empowers us. Outside of a school context, too few of us are ever given the opportunity to construct history in a meaningful way. Instead, we see history as a dead subject to be memorized before an exam and then quickly forgotten – a situation made worse by an ever-growing national emphasis on testing over teaching. If we taught other subjects the way we often do history, math would be called counting and English would be lists of vocab words and grammatical functions. Dates and names are raw material, the connections we make between them are history. There are many, many amazing history teachers fighting daily in the classroom to change this situation, and we hope to support them with our work.
+ AREN'T THERE EXPERTS THAT CAN DO THIS FOR US?
A: Sometimes. But when and where queer history has been kept, it has mostly been kept by queer people ourselves. The “spinster” aunt writing in her journals, the academic hunting down ancestors in a footnote, the lover who rescues a life from the family trash: these are our historians. The queer community has traditionally lacked the kinds of institutions that pass information down through generations: churches, schools, knowledgeable & supportive birth families. With few venues for the vertical transmission of history, we have instead learned to rely on horizontal transmission: the sharing of information from one queer to the next. Our history is less of a canon – less of a straight narrative, if you will – and more of a spider web of facts, legends, and rumors. The more voices, the more threads, the stronger it becomes.
For this reason, there is no dominant, monolithic idea of our past to resist. Or at least, not one agreed upon inside the community – though wholesale condemnations of our history are externally commonplace. Instead we have vast lacunas that may never be filled, and what knowledge we do have is most easily gained by turning to other queer sources, not traditional experts. Thus, our historical knowledge has become a method of initiation. Part of becoming queer in the sense of social identity means finding your roots. This learning is messy, often self-directed, and haphazard – and all the more precious for it. What we have, we earn. The downside to this is that the smaller and more homogenous our personal community becomes, the more biased and blindered our understanding of our history becomes.
+ WHERE DID YOU POP UP?
A: Over the course of four years, we helped create seven community-based museum exhibitions in three different states; inspired Pop-Ups in numerous other countries; created a K-12 teacher training for nearly 100 educators (in collaboration with the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies at CUNY [link]); and took part in numerous documentaries, conferences, roundtables, and other public programs. We led guerilla-docented tours of exhibitions at other museums to highlight their queer content, created historical walking tours and posters, and worked with communities and individuals around the globe who wanted to share their own history. I was invited to speak at events from Camden, New Jersey, to Seattle, Washington to Stockholm, Sweden.
+ BUT ISN'T HISTORY BORING?
A: It depends! Teaching history as a neat set of answers to be unearthed deadens the subject. It removes the conflict, the vitality, and all of the other possibilities. By making history seem like a fait accompli, an almost pre-destined series of event, it suggests a linear narrative culminating in the present moment. Ergo, it promotes the belief that our ideas of the world are the most progressive and correct. This is bad thinking that produces lazy scholarship.
One of the most exciting curatorial experiences for us at Pop-Up was having the chance to show multiple exhibits, with widely divergent points of view, on the same or related subjects. In our first show in Manhattan, for instance, we used one side of a gallery wall for an exhibit critiquing the movement for same-sex marriage in Argentina, while the other side was a photo piece celebrating same-sex marriage in Canada. Either piece on its own might have turned off those who felt differently about the topic. By presenting both, we hoped to open space for real dialogue.
+ OK BUT WHY SHOULD I CARE?
A: Having a past is an essential part of psychological and emotional well-being. 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 youth without ancestors, and few of our children have positive adult role models in their family circles to teach them their history. By helping communities around the country create pop ups, we hoped to reach as many of these youth as possible, because if you don’t know you have a past, how can you believe you have a future?
While some bemoan the lack of historical interest among young people, our shows have always included many young exhibit-makers, and our openings teemed with viewers in their teens, on up into their seventies and eighties. It is a matter of making the content seem both relevant and accessible.
For one of our shows, Heather Acs, an artist who worked with the Hetrick Martin Institute (home of the Harvey Milk High School) developed a two-month long queer history art-making program with youth of color at HMI. The program culminated with the installation of an entire wall of youth made work, and a celebratory evening of youth performances. More than 200 people – primarily youth of color – attended the event.
If young people too often do not take history seriously, we believe it is because they have rarely been afforded the opportunity to do so in a way that is truly welcoming to them.
+ BUT I'M STRAIGHT, SO...?
A: All people, queer or otherwise, need queer history. Without an honest approach to history that acknowledges queerness, straight people are left viewing their queer peers as weird, unusual, or wrong, and thus easy targets for cruelty. We believe that good history can be as effective as anti-bullying campaigns in reducing the torment that queer (and queer-seeming) youth face every day in schools around the world.
Moreover, cultural narcissism inhibits the imagination. We are all robbed of a complete understanding of ourselves and our culture when our sex and gender norms are applied willy-nilly to other times and places. Without an understanding of the ways in which all of our identities have come to be socially constructed, how can we possibly understand those of other times, places, and cultures? And how can we envision a future that looks different from the present moment?
+ YEAH, BUT HOW CAN YOU PROVE [INSERT HISTORICAL FIGURE] WAS A LESBIAN??
A: Our shows were meant to provoke discussion and engender thought. We took as a starting point the idea that “truth” is unknowable, but worth debating. However, we were not interested in the tedious back-and-forth of “was she / was she not” a lesbian. We were of course concerned with rigor when it comes to the ideas we put forth. But the demand that we offer some kind of definitive “proof” of concrete same-sex genital touching before we discuss someone as queer reinforces the necessity of our very project by highlighting the general assumption that all of history is straight until “proven” otherwise.
+ CAN I SEE A VIDEO?
+ THIS SEEMS LIKE A LOT OF WORK?
A: Yup. But the more people, the easier it gets. None of this would have been possible without the work, support, and care of Mehron Abdollmohammadi, David Beasley, Nayland Blake, Lindsay Branson, Graham Bridgeman, John Caldwell, Davi Cohen, Anna Conlan, Ariel Federow, Avram Finkelstein, Stephen Kent Jusick, Jonathan Ned Katz, Ted Kerr, Kestryl Lowrey, Sassafras Lowrey, Rachel Mattson, Jay Michaelson, Zoe Mizuho, Ari Rosenbaum, Jo Shin, Buzz Slutzky, Mike Stabile, Quito Zeigler, and the hundreds of exhibit makers, volunteers, signal boosters, donors, and visitors who made Pop-Up what it was.
Pop-Up Bushwick, Brooklyn, NY
Pop-Up SoHo, Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay & Lesbian Art, New York, NY
Pop-Up Indiana, University of Indiana - Bloomington
Queering the Curriculum, K-12 Teacher Training with the CLAGS Center at CUNY, New York, NY
Pop-Up Philadelphia, The William Way LGBT Community Center
Before We Were Queer, Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay & Lesbian Art, New York, NY
Keynote speaker at Queering the Museum Conference
Museum of History & Industry, Seattle, WA
On the (Queer) Waterfront: The LGBTQ Histories of the Brooklyn Coast, Brooklyn, NY
The Queer Book Diorama Show, The New York Public Library, New York, NY
Guest Presenter: Intensivdagarna, Riksutställningar / Swedish Exhibition Agency, Visby, Sweden
Guest Presenter: From Insight to Chaos, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden
"[Seeks] to rectify the under-representation of LGBT art and history at major institutions"
"A multi-faceted intersection of history lab, art space, and teach-in"
– James Nichols, The Huffington Post
"...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."
For speaking engagements, press requests, or information, please send us a message