June 6, 2012 at 8:38 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
AIDS Memorial Quilt returning to D.C.
Gay News, Washington Blade, AIDS Quilt

The AIDS Memorial Quilt on the National Mall (Photo Courtesy of the NAMES Project Foundation)

The entire AIDS Memorial Quilt will return to Washington for the first time in more than 15 years over the course of four days next month.

Many of the 48,000 panels will remain on the National Mall from July 21-25 to coincide with the start of the International AIDS Conference. More than 40 locations throughout the D.C. metropolitan area will display portions of the quilt through July 27. The Washington Nationals will showcase some of the panels on the outfield during the July 7 game with some of the proceeds going to the NAMES Project Foundation, the Atlanta-based group that cares for the quilt, and Whitman-Walker Health.

The NAMES Project will also feature 8,000 panels at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival from June 27-July 1 and July 4-8. Julie Rhoad, the group’s president, said her organization will offer quilting workshops, a performance stage and interactive exhibits during the 10-day festival that draws an estimated one million people to the National Mall each year.

“”The partnership with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage is so important and this program–looking at creativity and crisis in the age of AIDS through the lens of the quilt — is quite extraordinary,” she told the Blade. “It’s very important for the quilt to return to the national stage with this festival program, which underscores the power of the arts as a tool for social, cultural and economic awareness and change.”

The NAMES Project has also worked with the University of Iowa to design a mobile app that will allow visitors to search for specific names, sign a digital guestbook and view the quilt from different angles. A 60” digital touch screen will allow people to access an interactive timeline of the history of both the AIDS epidemic and the quilt.

“This is an extraordinary kind of historical experience,” said Anne Balsamo, professor at the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California who coordinated these digital initiatives. “It’s been 16 years since the last time it was laid out. The quilt has grown significantly since then.”

Cleve Jones and a handful of others began to make the quilt in San Francisco in 1987 as a way to memorialize those who had succumbed to AIDS.  It was displayed on the National Mall for the first time later that year. The NAMES Project brought 8,000 panels to the Ellipse to commemorate National HIV Testing Day in 2004.

This year marks the first time the entire quilt will be on display in a specific location since 1996.

“It’s a pivotal time in HIV and AIDS,” said Rhoad. “It’s a pivotal time for the quilt. It was probably meant to be that we come back this year.”

Whitman-Walker Director of Development David Chalfant noted that he found a panel while the quilt was last in D.C. that had been made for a college friend whom he did not know had died. He said he was overcome with emotion.

“The wonderful thing about the quilt is that there are other people who are there to support you and let you know that it’s going to be OK,” said Chalfant.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is among those who have contributed to the quilt. She sewed a patch for the flower girl in her wedding who lost her battle to AIDS. Pelosi also participated in some of the quilt’s earliest planning meetings and helped secure the necessary permits from the National Parks Service to show it on the National Mall.

“The AIDS Quilt has brought healing and understanding to our country. Hundreds of thousands of people contributed to the quilt, millions have visited it and now it is coming back to Washington, D.C.,” Pelosi told the Blade. “We all pray for the day when we can say that AIDS is nothing but a terrible, terrible memory—a memory we will forever honor with the AIDS Quilt.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the first cases of what became known as AIDS in June 1981. More than 619,000 people have succumbed to the virus since the epidemic began. The CDC further estimates that 1.2 million people live with HIV in the United States.

“This is a time when science is identifying potential pathways to ending HIV and AIDS,” said Rhoad in reference to the International AIDS Conference. “It’s tremendously important for the quilt to be there to call on us all to take a look at this disease from a humanitarian perspective, to reach beyond the walls of science and say if we test and treat enough people we can begin to end this epidemic.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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