AIDS Memorial Quilt Now Viewable Online
The Quilt transforms statistics into souls, stigma into understanding, and complacency into action. (quilt2012.org)
In early 1987, American human rights activist Cleve Jones and his friend Joseph Durant stitched together the first panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt in memory of friends they had lost. Said Jones of that act:
There was something about the process of creating the panels that was comforting. We shared memories of the two men as we worked and tried to imagine what they would have accomplished if they had lived. For the first time since Marvin died, I was able to think and talk about him without unbearable pain.
Little did they know that over the next 25 years, the Quilt would provide the same comfort to tens of thousands of others who had lost loved ones to AIDS. It would also change the way millions of people across the country and the world viewed HIV/AIDS and those who were living with and dying from it.
Months after those two panels were sewn, the Quilt was displayed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It contained 1,920 panels and spanned an area larger than a football field. Half a million people viewed the large, colorful tapestries, finally able to put names and faces to the increasingly alarming HIV/AIDS statistics in the news. The Quilt toured the U.S. and grew at each stop; a year after its first display, it had tripled in size. By 1992, the Quilt included panels from every U.S. state and 28 countries. The Quilt was last displayed in its entirety in October 1996 in Washington, D.C.; by then it covered the entire National Mall.
Today the 48,000-panel AIDS Memorial Quilt is 50 miles long—1.3 million square feet—and weighs 54 tons, rendering a physical display of the full Quilt in a single location impossible. Luckily, Microsoft Research Connections, in partnership with the University of Southern California Annenberg Innovation Lab, Brown University, University of Iowa, National Endowment for the Humanities, and the NAMES Project Foundation, has created a web site on which the entire Quilt can be viewed, providing global access to this treasure. Bing mapping technology lets viewers scroll around the entire quilt online and zoom in on any block. The development of this site is quite a feat, considering that it would take users more than a month to view all 6,000 blocks, comprised of 8 panels each.
Just as technology has revolutionized access to the Quilt, this week’s International AIDS Conference (AIDS2012) showed how science has revolutionized the global response to HIV/AIDS. Attention was largely focused on the potential of antiretroviral therapy (ART) to not only treat HIV/AIDS but to prevent transmission. Reflecting on the progress that has been made in the 30-year effort to understand, prevent, and treat HIV, Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, noted in the Washington Post that “interventions previously proved to work in controlled clinical trials are now—over and over again—proving effective outside the research setting, in the real world, in poor and rich communities alike.” Right now more than 8 million people in low- and middle-income countries are receiving lifesaving ART. This access to treatment averted 840,000 deaths in 2011 alone, which Fauci touts as “one of the most extraordinary accomplishments in public health history.” Yet roughly 9 million people living with HIV are in need of, but have no access to, ART. The incredible rate at which the AIDS Memorial Quilt is still expanding is a reminder that many people are still losing their lives to AIDS.
The AIDS Memorial Quilt holds a special place in my heart. As a college student in Chicago more than a decade ago, I volunteered at a residence for people living with AIDS, where I made many wonderful friends and saw far too many of them die young. Each year, I helped organize a display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt at my university and watched students, staff, professors, and community members from all walks of life take in the rich colors, textures, and stories depicted on the Quilt’s panels in silent, peaceful reflection. The Quilt is at once a celebration of life and a painful testament to the staggering losses AIDS continues to inflict on communities around the world. I love the Quilt—but I wish it would stop growing.