For the first time in its history, the International AIDS Conference went virtual. What would have been a gathering of 30,000 delegates in the Bay Area was instead an opportunity to reach a wider audience online. To commemorate the conference — and 40 years since the first cases of HIV in the US — the National AIDS Memorial (NAM) has uploaded the entire NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt to its website.
Spanning 1.2 million square feet, the quilt contains about 48,000 panels memorializing 125,000-plus victims of HIV and AIDS since 1980. Contributors from around the world have dedicated unique collages to friends, lovers, and family. Cutout portraits of victims appear alongside names and dates, pictures of pets, flowers, musical instruments, pink triangles, leather jackets, and thousands of other symbols that represent them best. Visitors to the NAM website can now peruse the most up-to-date version of the quilt and search for names, panel numbers, and keywords, while reading testimonials from the frontlines of the initial crisis.
The NAM’s new web platform marks the beginning of a larger community sourcing project to ensure that names, panel numbers, and dates are accurate. The site now incorporates excerpts of nearly 200,000 letters and notes, newspaper clippings, birth certificates, and obituaries that accompany the panels — all digitized in partnership with the Library of Congress. It also incorporates personal memoirs, including from friends and family, in the new 2020/40 storytelling initiative.
One moving example is the relationship of Gary LeGrand and David Wiles. The two died of AIDS-related causes in 1993, and their friend Larry Lewis contributed panels along with a clipped newspaper article about their life together post-diagnosis. In a letter to the NAMES Project, Lewis writes, “No one is guaranteed happiness, life just gives each person time and space. It’s up to us to fill it with joy. Gary and David were very successful in doing just that.”
Conceived by activist Cleve Jones in 1985, the quilt was originally a method of ensuring that victims in California would never vanish from history; it has since become the largest community folk art project in the world. Each panel measures at around three by six feet, originally to remind President Ronald Reagan of gravesites. It is a sobering experience to traverse the colorful panels with that in mind, to see sentimental imagery and original artwork in such high volume.
While zooming out conveys the immensity of the overall project, focusing on specific panels shows the care and craftsmanship in each one. Many of the individual patches are color-coordinated within each panel, and some panels are even coordinated with their surroundings. Conducting broad keyword searches — like school, church, and prison — leads to panels contributed by collective groups and organizations affected throughout the years. Many of these memorials feel like time capsules from a previous crisis, particularly salient as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the US.
Parallels between the two pandemics are seemingly endless, but the current ambiguity around a vaccine feels much more real when perusing the quilt. Four decades later, there is still no vaccine or cure for HIV despite more than 700,000 lives lost in the US and 1.2 million Americans still living with the virus. And while many are able to survive, we still lack efficient resources to aid the unhoused and low-income communities that continue to be hit hardest.
While COVID-19 halted many of the NAM’s plans, the digital quilt has already triggered a surge of web traffic that far outnumbers the amount of people who would have attended the in-person conference. This archive serves as a source of solace for those who have lost loved ones recently, and as a reminder that the last pandemic is still very much a part of our culture.
You can explore the entire NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt here.