AIDS Quilt's Double Duty

The quilt honoring victims of HIV/AIDS returns, with high-tech enhancements, but the same sober sentiments

By John Riley
Published on June 21, 2012, 7:27am | Comments

The AIDS Memorial Quilt, marking its 25th anniversary, is returning to D.C. The quilt, memorializing the victims lost to HIV/AIDS, was last displayed in full in 1996, laid out on the National Mall, according to the NAMES Project Foundation, custodian of the quilt.

The quilt's 48,000 panels of names, pictures and artwork of those lost to HIV/AIDS, will first be displayed during the Smithsonian Folklife Festival June 27 to July 1, and then July 4 to July 8. Later in July, the quilt returns in conjunction with the XIX International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2012).

During the festival, visitors may participate in quilt-related activities, says NAMES Executive Director Julie Rhoad. One workshop, for example, features artists who will assist visitors in making panels to add to the quilt. The Folklife quilt program will also feature a ''healing arts'' area, a space for quiet reflection.

''This provides an extraordinary chance to reach a million people who might not otherwise experience HIV/AIDS in their daily lives,'' Rhoad says, stressing the quilt's role in educating the public about the severity – and the persistence – of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. ''These are our dead. These were real people who had families and friends who loved them. Their lives had meaning.''

This year, the NAMES Project Foundation is also launching a mobile Web application, ''AIDS Quilt Touch,'' that will allow people to visit a website optimized for handheld devices to search for specific names or panels, explains Anne Balsamo, coordinator of the quilt's 2012 Digital Experience Project and a professor at the University of Southern California.

Balsamo says the application, at aidsquilttouch.org, will pinpoint where specific panels are laid out on the National Mall, and will offer a ''real-time digital guestbook.''

The quilt display will also feature a technology tent, where the NAMES Project, with Microsoft Research, will feature an interactive tabletop surface, while another feature will be an interactive timeline of HIV/AIDS and the history of the quilt. Both the mobile application and the technology tent will be operational during the Folklife Festival and when the quilt makes its second summer visit, July 21 to 25, for AIDS 2012.

During the AIDS 2012 installation, some portions of the quilt will be displayed on the National Mall, while others will be exhibited in buildings throughout the metro area.

''I think the most significant thing is that, wherever you go in D.C., you won't be far from the quilt,'' Rhoad says. ''Hopefully, people will be reminded of the priority that is HIV/AIDS – or what should be a priority.''

Rhoad says that the presence of the quilt, which serves as both ''the largest piece of ongoing community art in the world,'' and, more importantly, the ''conscience of the epidemic,'' will help accomplish the goal of the NAMES Project Foundation, which is to heighten awareness and prompt people to take action in the struggle against HIV/AIDS.

''We make the case that this is about people,'' Rhoad says. ''This is not about statistics. This is about who we are as a country, and how we will take care of our fellow people.''

For details of the AIDS Memorial Quilt's upcoming displays, visit aidsquilt.org.

This is the third in a series of articles leading up to the XIX International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2012), to be held in Washington July 22 to 27. For more information about the conference, visit aids2012.org.