Dr. Jennifer Brier spoke today at the National Library of Medicine on “Surviving and Thriving: The Making of an Exhibition.” Dr. Brier is director of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Circulating Now interviewed her about her work.
Circulating Now: Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do? What is your typical workday like?
Jennifer Brier: I trained as a historian of gender and sexuality at Rutgers in the 1990s, and moved to Chicago from New York City, about eleven years ago to work at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). I grew up in NYC’s East Village, and have been educated entirely in public schools, kindergarten to PhD. Since getting my PhD in 2002, I have only ever taught at public universities. Learning and working in public schools has definitely shaped my life as a scholar and teacher. It means that I spend my day doing a multitude of exhilarating and dreadful things: working with first generation college students on how to read social theory and think and write historically; engaging with colleagues, on and off campus, who share a commitment to learning from and with the working people of the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois; all the while struggling with shrinking budgets that make it hard to get things done in the public arena.
In the last several years, I have rekindled my connection to and engagement with public history. During and after college, I worked at the National Museum of American History on the permanent exhibition, “Science in American Life,” which was on display for over 15 years. Once I got tenure at UIC, I found myself drawn back to the work of thinking about how history can matter for people outside the university classroom. In 2011, I was a co-curator for Out in Chicago, an award-winning exhibition at the Chicago History Museum (CHM) that presented an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) history of Chicago. Working on this amazing collaborative project reminded me that when history moves beyond the walls of the classroom it can have a powerful effect on visitors and change the way they think about things they think they know about. It also helped me understand how hard it is to distill and synthesize academic history into forms that make sense to a wide audience and at the same time make them feel something different than when they read a book.
My work with CHM pushed me to think more creatively about public history. For the last three years, I have been the project leader for History Moves, a public history gallery “on wheels” that drives around the city of Chicago and expands what we consider the city’s history. It does this by designing a collaborative process where community members can tell their stories and interpret their histories. It then moves that history around the city and asks visitors to share their stories in response to what they see in the gallery. We are currently in prototyping stage and I’m excited to see how the project evolves.
CN: Can you tell us about your work on AIDS and the on the NLM exhibition Surviving and Thriving: Aids, Politics, and Culture, which you presented in your lecture today?
JB: In 2009, I published a book entitled, Infectious Ideas: U.S. Political Responses to the AIDS Crisis, which is a political history of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. The book argues that AIDS provides a perfect lens through which to see the political landscape of the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, anew. Using a wide range of historical archives, including collections held at the National Library of Medicine, I pieced together a narrative of how various groups, from gay men and lesbian activists, to AIDS service organizations, to the federal government and private philanthropy responded to AIDS. When Patricia Touhy, who runs NLM’s Exhibition Program, approached me to see if I would be interested in developing an exhibition for the traveling program she oversees, I jumped at the chance to take the ideas I’d written about in Infectious Ideas, add them to how I have been thinking about mobile history with History Moves, and turn the combination into a history of AIDS that a much wider audience would see and engage with.
Surviving and Thriving takes much of what I wrote about and puts into a new form. But the exhibition also has a slightly different focus than the book. Surviving and Thriving insists that people with AIDS need to be at the center of the public history of AIDS. Taking the title from a book published in 1988, the exhibition makes a case for understanding people with AIDS as agents of action in their own lives and able to affect the structures and system around them that shape how the epidemic came to look as it did. It also insists that we have to acknowledge the intersection of homophobia, racism and inequality to truly understand how AIDS evolved and continues to evolve in the 21st century.
From the first time I saw them, I loved the AIDS prevention posters that populate the exhibition’s digital gallery. The breadth of the collection is stunning. There are posters from around the world held in the archives, and although we only used posters from the United States in this project, there is material for several more exhibitions that could be produced with what we haven’t shown. The posters, each of which makes a different case for how to deal with, prevent, and/or treat AIDS, suggest how wide-ranging people’s ideas about the epidemic were in the 1980s and 1990s (and continue to be in the 21st century). Whether in the form of posters with a scary message of death and nothing at all on specific forms of AIDS prevention (safer sex or needle exchange) or erotic messaging designed for men who have sex with men, the posters taken together illustrate the extent to which AIDS has shaped all our lives since it was first “discovered” in 1981.
CN: How did you originally become interested in the history of AIDS?
JB: I came to the history of AIDS from my own history as an out lesbian growing up in NYC in the 1980s and as a historian of sexuality. While I was not involved in the social movements organized around AIDS in the 1990s, I am thinking most specifically about ACT-UP, a group that receives significant attention in the exhibition, I did come to the project from my work in activist circles around reproductive justice and international solidarity work. Specifically this means that I see the study of AIDS, and the study of disease and public health more generally, as a way to unpack a history of how the state acts upon its residents and citizens as well as how structural inequality and violence shapes who is cared for and how.
CN: What inspires you in your work and what do you hope readers will gain from it?
JB: I very much hope that my work, whether in the form of writing and teaching about AIDS to students who have a much different relationship to the epidemic than I do, or building models for public engagement in historical interpretation, inspires people to think about and imagine their own histories and how they connect to the people around them.
Dr. Jennifer Brier’s presentation was part of our ongoing history of medicine lecture series, which promotes awareness and use of NLM and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities.