VG&NM: Hi Karolina, many thanks for agreeing to grant us this interview. First of all we would like to ask you: what is the virtual LGBTQ Museum of Poland, and how are you personally involved?
KU: The creation of a virtual museum is related to the existing archive of Historical Club LGBTQIA FEM and the Foundation Fundacja Q that was created in the year 2017. Initially, we were a grassroots group on Facebook that wanted to popularize queer history (we have a particular interest in the history of queer activism especially between years 1989-2000, owing to the ways in which its suppression has had an historic influence on LGBTQ+ rights in Poland) and share with our followers the archival materials. We started by posting Facebook’s calls for any type of records as well as we used their contacts to communicate with former activists and asked them to donate their collections to the Historical Club. In the beginning, we received just a few zines and gay magazines, but drops join to make a stream. With time, more people trusted us and shared with us their private collections of photographs, pamphlets, printed materials, personal documents, or correspondence. Some of the materials that we are receiving stay in our hands and some of them are only able to scan and keep a digital copy. At present, we have more than 4000 pages from different magazines and journals, 100 posters, 50 different kinds of photos, 300-400 leaflets, zines, and other individual pieces of paper. We owe 20 oral history recordings, and we are currently working our way through a list of queer activists. Right now, we have 100 people who could give us an interview about their engagement.
However, the rough, unworked archival materials have a limited impact on the audience. It takes time, energy, and know-how to process historical sources. We are not used to getting conclusions from information scattered among different resources. The separate materials can give a glimpse at a specific case but it is difficult to build a complex reflection on a metalevel. So as creators, we came with an idea of virtual space where all source materials concerning the Polish LGBTQIA community could be preserved, presented, and used for educational purposes. In this sense, the virtual museum supports our archive by presenting our collection in a synthesized and understandable way. It makes marginalized narratives more visible and tells the story of non-heteronormative people’s constant existence alongside heteronormative majority.
The museum was created in cooperation with Google Arts and Culture. So far we hosted 3 exhibitions. Its inaugural exhibition showcased Posters of Polish LGBTQIA Organisations. The idea was to show the fragment of the history of queer organizations’ activity in Poland told by posters. The next two were concerning Action Hyacinth – the raid against Polish homosexuals between the years 1985-1987. As a result, 11,000 people were registered in so-called “pink files” that have not been found to this day.
The initiatives were started in a team of three. Now there are only two of us working on voluntary based mostly on the weekends. In such a small team we do not have a specific position and we are doing everything from administrative tasks through looking for archives, recording oral histories or cataloging, and processing materials to creating exhibitions.
VG&NM: How does this initiative relate to the cultural-political context of Poland? Which have been the challenges but also the impacts or reactions from the public?
KU: During the recent presidential campaign, a tremendous amount of attention was unexpectedly trained on the LGBTQIA community. President Andrzej Duda has used harmful rhetoric as he has compared what he calls “LGBT ideology” to Communism and called for policies that deny human rights to LGBT people. The whole picture of LGBTQIA situation needs to be fulfilled with two other important incidents: by the end of June approximately 100 Polish municipalities had adopted resolutions declaring themselves “LGBT-free zones” and at Pride marches in Poland in 2019, participants suffered verbal abuse and physical attacks, and two people were sentenced to a year in jail for bringing explosives to an event in Lublin.
So far there is no museum celebrating LGBTQIA history or even one public, institutionalized, and easily accessible queer archive in Poland. The historical and artistic resources are scattered all over the country and stay in the hands of NGOs, informal groups, and private people. One of the main reason is a relatively young stage of queer movement reinforced by persistent homophobia in public institutions including museums, state archives as well as national libraries. Therefore, as in many other countries, the responsibility to preserve the history of non-heteronormative people rests on the shoulders of grassroots organizations and individuals. Our initiative fits into this context.
Since the beginning, it was met with a warm reception and interest. Even though homophobic rhetoric is visible in public space Poles’ attitudes are changing, and are pushing back. I was surprised with a feedback we received from young and diverse audiences. It brings hope that things can change.
VG&NM: Which other networks are involved in your initiative Activist associations? Other cultural institutions? Other not-institutional cultural contexts?
KU: Right now we are working only within a small team of our foundation. What we are trying to do is to involve queer activists who were active at the beginning of 90’s and could share with us the experience from the first hand.
So far we managed to save the archives of the first legally operating organization for non-heteronormative people in Poland called the Association of Lambda Groups. Its last chairman wanted to bury all the materials somewhere in the forest under the tree because the state archives refused to take care of them. We also received a folder from one of the first Polish lesbian group – Bilitis.
VG&NM: Despite the prohibitions and the very violent policy also implemented at the institutional level, is there a cultural internal debate in Poland about the LGBTQ world, that is, carried out by thinkers, researchers and artists, even if “hidden” or in any case not “official”?
KU: It seems that in Poland we live in “schizophrenic” reality. On the one hand, at the institutional level, the LGBTQIA community is called an “ideology” and constantly dehumanized. This year Poland was ranked as the worst country in the European Union for LGBT people, according to the annual “Rainbow Map” produced by ILGA-Europe, a Brussels-based NGO that advocates for the rights of LGBT people. The leader of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, Jarosław Kaczyński, declared that Poland must “defend children and normal families” from the “imported LGBT movement”, which “threatens our identity, our nation, its continued existence, and therefore the Polish state”. On the other hand, we are spectators of the robustness of LGBTQIA activism. Last year, we noted record 24 pride marches in Poland and the fact that courts overturned attempts to ban marches in a number of cities. Homophobic Duda’s words have led to renewed activism in the last week, with demonstrations in several cities, including smaller ones. Several hundreds of people were undeterred by the rain and bad weather to dance in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw in an “LGBT provocation” event designed to mock and ridicule homophobia and the propaganda of the ruling party.
In bigger Polish cities the LGBTQIA community has access to safe spaces such as community centers, LGBT-friendly bars, and cafes. There is also a diverse cultural offer including art exhibitions, lectures, parties, theatre plays and film festivals. Therefore there is an outlet to exchange opinions and discuss new queer theories.
VG&NM: Why did you decide to create a museum specifically? What kind of relationship do you need with two central questions in the museum context such as memory and arts?
KU: The museum is a counteract to the government’s hostility. Populist and right-wing parties in Poland are playing with historical policies and redefining common history. As a result, they are trying to show that there is just one heteronormative Polish citizen. What we are trying to show with our initiative is that actually, the LGBT community was, is, and always will be here. Queer story matters and without this perspective Polish historical discourse is full of gaps because we are part of the history of this country, its society, and citizens.
As our primary activity was a community archive we have a particularly strong belief for social values of memory preservation. The museum is somehow the result of our passion for history and past, a conviction that some records are worth preserving. At this point of our activity, we are focused on preservation as the biggest amount of resources as possible. The majority of archive materials are made from paper, meaning that they are susceptible to damage and eventual degradation. Plus there are still many former activists who could share with us the experience from the first hand.
VG&NM: What perspective has the museum taken ? Is it an initiative which aims to highlight questions related to the LGBT world in Poland or does it want to be a sort of springboard for future generations ?
KU: Such documentation on ‘mythical’ beginning has far-reaching consequences for Polish LGBTQIA as well as society at large. Establishment and acknowledgment of queer archival material will counteract ‘symbolic annihilation’ (absence and misrepresentation of a marginalized community in mainstream discourse) and transforms society with possibilities of inclusivity for social justice and the rewriting of its past. There is also the affective potential of such archives as spaces for members of marginalized communities to represent themselves and learn about their histories – connection to the past can be a survival strategy that enables people to counter feelings of erasure and isolation.
 For the purposes of this interview, the following definition formulated by Andrew Flinn will be used: «community archives are the grassroots activities of documenting, recording and exploring community heritage in which community participation, control and ownership of the project is essential». (Andrew Flinn, Community Histories, Community Archives: Some opportunities and Challenges in “Journal of the Society of Archivists” 28:2 (October 2007), p. 153).
Karolina Ufa is an activist of Fundacja Q where she is taking care of organisational archives, youth worker and a student of Gender Studies, Intersectionality and Change at the University of Linköping.