Taking the Truck OUT!
On June 26th and 27th, the Humanities Truck traversed across the city from American University’s campus in Northwest D.C. to Capitol Hill Village’s office in Southeast. Capitol Hill Village, the organization with which we partnered for this event, serves as a community center for older people in the neighborhood. Our mission was to engage their members on the subject of HIV/AIDS activism and we were successful in drawing 40 people in to stop and look at our exhibit titled “Taking the Truck OUT!”. The exhibit focused on the contributions of D.C.-based direct-action organization Oppression Under Target (OUT), active from 1987 through 1992. OUT! was a disparate network of lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men who formed an affinity group united in their anger at both the United States government’s negligence and apathy of the general population during the early days of the AIDS epidemic.
The exhibit was a reiteration of what the Humanities Truck previously displayed at the Whitman Walker Walk and 5k to End HIV on October 26, 2019. This time around, however, we also played clips of oral histories with DC HIV/AIDS activists, one of whom was with Amelie Zurn-Galinsky, who donated much of the exhibit material. The other people interviewed include Ron Swanda and Craig Lustig, both connections made through the Village network. The interviews were displayed on a screen in Capitol Hill Village’s office and viewers were encouraged to sit and watch our 15 minutes of curated footage. The clips were expertly arranged by Jules Losee, an undergraduate videographer who has been helping to record the interviews our team has been conducting.
We met with Amelie Zurn-Galinsky at her home office in Silver Spring. As we spoke, she detailed both her experiences as an organizer for OUT! and also as director of Lesbian Health Services for Whitman Walker. The interview helped to create a fuller picture of the papers and pamphlets that she donated and we displayed this past weekend. Zurn gifted her papers to the AU Archive after working with a group of students interested in how stories of organizing around HIV/AIDS help us learn about illness, race, sexuality, gender, and class oppression in the current day.
Additionally, it provided much context to her current occupation as a psychiatrist, as the lack of emphasis on care work during her years at both OUT! and Whitman Walker led to eventual burnout. Zurn felt after spending so much time on policy and macro organizing, she wanted to do more individual-oriented work. Starting her own business and the flexible schedule that accompanies this autonomy allowed greater ease for having a family and children, something which Zurn believes activists should talk about more. In her current work, she helps individuals, couples, and families around issues of trauma, a service Zurn herself possibly could have needed as a young person living during the HIV/AIDS crisis and dealing with extraordinary grief.
As a budding public historian, this experience interviewing people and presenting the exhibit to the public was invaluable.
Seeing people walk by and interact with the material illuminated what passersby respond to in a public history project such as our own. I’ve found that people are always drawn in by something big and obtrusive on the sidewalk and this held true for our time stationed outside Capitol Hill Village. Most who walked by were curious to know who we were and what we were doing, even if what initially had drawn them in was hopes of us being a food truck. As Dr. Curtin noted, although we couldn’t feed people in the traditional sense we were able “to feed their minds”. Despite not everyone stepping inside to look at the exhibit, many were enthralled by the timeline on the side of the truck. Something which people could latch onto and insert themselves into. For me, this represented the incentive of a project such as our own: alerting people to interact with the history which came before them and continues to have a direct impact on life today.
The event also further emphasized to me the need for multi-modal presentation, as the knowledge within archives is not stagnant nor fixed but rather information that is malleable and requires reaction and discourse. Presenting our exhibit within a platform such as the Humanities Truck allows for an experience that engages the senses — gestures, touch, and sound — evident within storytelling. The viewer/audience could hear Amelie’s voice as they saw pictures of her protesting and looked over pamphlets she crafted with her friends and fellow organizers.
We hope to continue displaying this exhibit but with additional features as we collect more documents and oral testimonies. The Humanities Truck is an excellent vehicle for reimagining traditional forms of storytelling preserved within the archive and we look forward to collaborating further with the Villages to construct new ways of sharing knowledge for today’s world.