AIDS Quilt unfolded in shadow of conference

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The last display of The AIDS memorial Quilt in Washington, D.C, in October 1992 covered 13 acres and contained 20,064 panels. Today the Quilt contains 42,000 panels and would cover 29 acres of land. In the current exhibition in D.C., the Quilt is being shown through a series of 60 changing displays in more than 50 locations over 31 days. –Photo: Courtesy of the NAMES Foundation

The AIDS Memorial Quilt is many things: It is the world’s largest memorial. It is the largest public art project in history. It is a testament to the lives of more than 600,000 Americans who’ve died of HIV-related causes, and it is a lasting document of the AIDS pandemic for future generations.

Last month, the AIDS Quilt returned to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where it was first shown in 1987. The exhibit will coincide with the 19th International AIDS Conference, which opens in D.C. on July 22 and continues through July 27. Each event marks a milestone in AIDS history. This is the first time that the entire quilt has been displayed in one location since 1996, and it’s the first time that the AIDS conference has been held on American soil since 1990.

San Francisco activist Cleve Jones first conceived of the memorial in 1985. His original idea was to inscribe the names of people lost to AIDS on placards. Installed together, the placards were reminiscent of a quilt, which sparked the idea for the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.

The project began in the summer of 1987 and continues to this day. About 94,000 individuals are commemorated in The Quilt through panels created by their survivors and loved ones. The compositions include everything from photographs to poems, embroidered designs and appliqués, wedding rings and ashes.

The Quilt is monumental and profound, its size alone a stark reminder of the many lives lost. Yet it’s intensely personal, with each panel a lasting and loving commemoration of a unique individual.

The panels measure three feet by six feet, and eight panels are sewn together to create blocks that are 12-feet square. Always growing, The Quilt currently consists of more than 42,000 panels and weighs about 54 tons. As a whole, it would cover 29 acres of land. If the panels were laid end to end, they would extend longer than 50 miles. Spending one minute viewing each panel would take more than 33 days.

In past decades, The Quilt has been shown in various arrangements, with excerpts touring cities around the country (the Milwaukee Art Museum hung select panels in June 2010). In honor of the project’s 25th anniversary, it is being shown in Washington in its entirety. But given the scale, a viewing in one single session is all but impossible. To accommodate its size, The Quilt is being shown through a series of 60 changing displays in more than 50 locations over the span of 31 days.

The making of quilts as commemorative objects has quite a long history. They are multi-purpose, functioning as bed coverings and hangings on windows and doors to block drafty passages. Other types of quilts were made as showpieces and items of decorative beauty in their own right. In America, they have long been associated with comfort and memory, in addition to functionality.

The AIDS Memorial Quilt is of a type known as a “signature quilt.” These are commemorative objects used to mark significant events in the lives of family and friends, and they traditionally bear names, written or embroidered on the quilt blocks. Signature quilts date to the mid-19th century, but they continued to be made in the 20th century as well. During World War II, signature quilts were used as charity raffle items for organizations such as the Red Cross.

One of the unique aspects of The Quilt is its iconic status as both a historical and contemporary memorial that brings together the work of many individuals and communities. And while it builds on traditions of quilt making, new technology is enhancing the ways it can be seen.

The Washington display, for instance, has an interactive timeline about AIDS and The Quilt project. There’s also a searchable database, which helps to locate individual names and panels. A mobile app is available at www.aidsquilttouch.org.

The 25th anniversary of The AIDS Memorial Quilt is a time to pause and reflect on the history of the epidemic and the countless lives it has affected in so many ways. The Quilt’s presence in Washing- ton will be particularly poignant to the world’s most important AIDS researchers meeting nearby – a reminder of the significance of their work and a symbol of the pressure on them to stop The Quilt from growing.