30 Years Later

Smithsonian opens exhibit illustrating AIDS epidemic

It’s been 30 years since HIV and AIDS first emerged in America. To mark that sad anniversary, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is presenting a three-part exhibit and website titled ”HIV and AIDS 30 Years Ago.”

”The showcase is focused on the very early years, the first stage, historical phase of the epidemic, 1981 to ’87,” says project coordinator Katherine Ott.

The exhibit includes brochures, health informational materials that were generated by AIDS service organizations, government publications informing people about how to be safe, and lab equipment from Dr. Jay Levy, one of the scientists who isolated HIV.

Ott says there’s been ample support from the museum in organizing this exhibit, and she’s hoping it serves as an educational tool for young people who may be unaware of AIDS’s origins.

”We’re now almost the second generation of people since the first reports,” she says. ”So young people really don’t understand what it was like in the early ’80s if you were a gay person or if you were infected or exposed to the virus and how dramatic it was. Because before they knew what was causing it, let alone have any kind of treatment, it was a death sentence, and it was very contentious because of the marginality of gay men and gay people generally.”

One of the goals of the exhibit, Ott says, is to provide a context of what it was like to live in those early years of the epidemic.

”For younger people our goal is to show them a little piece of history they’re probably not aware of. For people who lived through the ’80s, who were part of it, or for people who were part of it and became infected and are alive and thriving, we would like them to revisit that history and also see how that story is an important part of the history of science, of medicine and politics in the U.S.”

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