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The queer historian sits down with Vada to discuss how LGBT+ History Month allowed him to connect with the queer community, and the need for spaces that spotlight our history.
Dan Vo’s first memory of being in a museum is as a tour guide at the Melbourne Museum. When I say tour guide, however, what I should really add is that Vo was aged five at the time, and was acting as interpreter for a group of “Vietnamese oldies” as he puts it, two of them being his grandparents. Having recently arrived in Australia, Vo’s grandparents found their community amongst other Vietnamese people of their generation who had settled in the Australian state of Victoria. The group’s outing for that day was to the museum, where Vo had been roped in to translate. The memory resonates with him today, he explains, because the museum we’re currently sitting in, Queer Britain, is also a place where people come to find their community.
Founded by Joseph Galliano-Doig and Ian Mehrtens in 2018, Queer Britain staged various temporary exhibitions prior to opening as a physical museum in 2022 in King’s Cross, London. Previously the museum’s Head of Learning and Engagement, Vo is currently a Trustee of Queer Britain, the UK’s first dedicated national LGBTQ+ museum. A responsibility he undertakes alongside his current role of Director of Pre-College at The School of The New York Times and the Sotheby’s Institute of Art, which sees him shuttling between London and New York. He somehow finds the time to undertake a postgraduate degree in Art and Visual Culture at the University of Cambridge too.
Vo’s passion for queer history is palpable. We’re not even five minutes into our interview, when Vo – dressed in a Walker Slater tweed ensemble, recommended by Museum of London fashion curator, Dr Lucie Whitmore – jumps up and darts across the museum’s main exhibition room, beckoning me over to glass cabinets on the other side of the room. Vo’s enthusiasm is that of a small child, yet his wisdom and soul belongs to somebody beyond his years. With his face almost pressed up against the glass, he begins explaining the significance of this display.
“We’ve worked with the Museum of Transology that brought in this cabinet. They had their own volunteers and curators to display the way that they want to,” he says. “We’ve got Rainbow Dash there,” pointing at the stuffed toy on the shelf. “And the note reads, ‘Immersing myself in My Little Pony is how I manage dysphoria’ and that’s written by the person who donated it. That’s not standard museum practice.” On the cabinet’s last shelf, there are hundreds of tags bound together with string, housing even more stories from trans people, which Vo adds is just a handful of stories that have been collected by the Museum of Transology’s curator, E-J Scott.
“It’s done in a way that celebrates the person who has donated,” says Vo of the collection. “It acknowledges their own expertise in their own story, and their understanding of the community. But everybody’s story is different. Everything they’ve written is different. But they are connected by the fact that they’re part of the Museum of Transology. So there are points of connection and also points of difference.”
Next, Vo asks me if I know how to work a rotary phone. When I reply that I do, his momentary surprise is pushed aside, and he continues by asking me to pick up the phone’s receiver and listen to the first of many stories that the phone houses. The story of a Switchboard volunteer begins to play, as she recalls the night she received a phone call from somebody asking for help. At the time of the Switchboard’s launch, the helpline was perhaps the only source of information and support for LGBTQ+ people living in the UK. The stories found on the rotary phone come directly from entries made by helpline volunteers in the charity’s log books.
“You can just imagine the courage it would have taken for somebody to turn the dials to call that number,” says Vo. “You wonder how many times somebody had almost made it to the end of the number, before hanging up again.”
It’s something that is close to Vo’s own experiences, having volunteered on an LGBTQ+ helpline in his mid-twenties in Melbourne. “I think a lot of the calls I got were information based,” he replies when I ask about his memories of being a volunteer. “They’d ask us about what events were going on in Melbourne, for instance. But I always left that space for people to ask something else and sometimes that would open up into some really lovely things.”
Alongside this, Vo was also working on a gay and lesbian radio station. “It sort of betrays the time that we’re living in now,” he says. “Because now, it’s an LGBTQIA+ radio station.” Nonetheless, the radio station’s significance was not lost on Vo. Much like how his grandparents living in Australia would listen to Vietnamese radio to connect with their community thousands of miles away, Vo observed the power of having a queer radio station and its impact it had on listeners.
“I think that was also a pivotal moment,” reflects Vo, explaining that different groups within the LGBTQIA+ community were given an hour each evening to share their stories. “I thought that was always my formative way of thinking about our community, as well as realising that there’s lots of depth and nuance to what LGBTQIA+ constitutes. It helped to put a spotlight on stories that sometimes don’t always get a great spotlight, but also realising that even when we do that, there’s going to be so much within that community that can be endlessly explored as well.”
Given that he was volunteering for LGBTQ+ organisations in his twenties, I ask Vo if activism was something that he’d always wanted to do. “I think early on, it was personal,” he replies. “I found the radio station, found some really great mentors and people who I’m still connected to now. And in a way they sort of were a surrogate family. They inducted me into a different lifestyle, or a lifestyle that I didn’t know was possible growing up. I realised that there were different opportunities. I was looking for a community, for a family, a way that I could step into something that I didn’t really know much about, but that I knew I wanted to be a part of.”
When it came to LGBTQ+ history specifically, it would take Vo to move to the UK in 2010, after leaving Melbourne to travel around Southeast Asia, to find a space where he could expand his passion for telling our community’s history. It’s a chapter of his career that would see him working with the Victoria and Albert Museum, founding their award-winning LGBTQ+ Tours and training museum volunteers in LGBTQ+ history. Additionally, Vo worked as a consultant for the University of Cambridge, developing LGBTQ+ tours at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Museum of Classical Archaeology, Polar Museum, and Zoology Museum. In Wales, he worked with the country’s national museum to develop similar LGBTQ+ initiatives.
“I think LGBT History Month was what pushed me into this direction,” Vo says of his work with museums. “There’s the realisation that there’s a connection to where we are now, the past, and the deep past. You know, we’ve always existed, and there’s always been communities, it just depends on how you look for them.”
Representing the whole of the LGBTQ+ community is challenging though, I venture. How does he see Queer Britain trying to achieve that? “Absolutely, but I think if we start by telling our history through some excellent curatorial work, through the amazing people who support us and loaned us items. If you look around, this is some of the result, but a lot of it was lent to us from people who have spent a lot of time collecting these items, as well as recognising the power of social history as well.”
Vo acknowledges that a museum cannot capture all aspects of our community’s history, yet believes that Queer Britain is home to a diverse range of voices and stories from the LGBTQ+ community. The worlds of activism, art, cultures and social history from the past 100 years are housed within its walls. In addition to it being a space for queer people to come and understand more about their community’s history, the museum sees family members and friends of queer people visiting as well.
“We’ve seen young people come through and get stunned by some of the history that we talk about here. They’re not aware that there were times where horrible things happened to queer people,” he tells me. “But then recognise that there are spaces for them now. And you see them come back with their parents, or come back with another family member, that they want them to understand them better. Or you have parents or family members who come on their own volition to try and understand, because they’ve just been told by a child or their family member that they’ve just come out. That’s where the space becomes really important.”
Speaking of the physical space of the museum, I ask Vo about the decision to open Queer Britain in London, especially given the argument that arts and culture should not just be London-centric. “We’re very lucky at the moment that we’re in King’s Cross. It’s very easily accessible from various parts of the country,” he replies. It’s Vo’s view that there is huge potential for museums across the country to celebrate queer history, with several already collaborating with LGBTQ+ curators, so that museum-goers across the country can have access to LGBTQ+ history.
The internet and now AI are also garnering further opportunities for people to learn about queer history, without the need to visit a museum in person. Yet sitting back on his chair and looking at the exhibits that line the walls around us, Vo believes there is nothing that could ever replace the importance of having a space like Queer Britain.
“People who come here are looking specifically for Queer Britain, they’re looking for queer history, they’re looking for queer stories, they’re looking for the queer community,” explains Vo. “Some of them will become volunteers and become deeply connected in that way. I think that’s what makes us completely different from any other museum, because everyone who comes here is wanting more than just a museum experience. I believe that’s what drives them to come through our doors.”
Whilst Vo and I have been talking, we’ve lost track of time. Our photoshoot and interview started before the museum was due to open. We call time on our interview when a somewhat confused visitor walks into the room where we’re seated and walks out again. “They’re probably wondering what’s going on in here,” laughs Vo. It’s time to leave.
On the way out, Vo points to the white wall covered in hand-written magnets from people who have visited the museum. Some have illustrated the magnets with drawings that represent the queer community or their own experiences, whilst others have written personal messages. “I once saw somebody who just wrote, ‘I now understand my son better.’ That was just… That was something quite remarkable.”
Dan Vo is featured on Vada’s latest digital cover, wearing Walker Slater and photographed by Priyan Odedra. Dan is a Trustee at Queer Britain, the UK’s first national LGBTQ+ museum. You can visit the museum, which is located in King’s Cross, London, from 12pm to 6pm on Wednesday to Sunday. With special thanks to the team at Queer Britain for their support with this photoshoot and interview.