An AIDS Museum: The Challenges Are Huge, but the Timing Is Right


So far, the grove has engaged consultants, some with a history of fund-raising for museums, to begin gauging the interest of wealthy donors, especially those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

It seems appropriate that this city, one of the hardest hit by AIDS in the country, would be the project’s home. This is where one of the first known reports of the disease was made public, in 1981. Robert Campbell, a public health nurse known as Bobbi, posted photos of his lesions from Kaposi’s sarcoma, a cancer often associated with AIDS, in the window of a pharmacy here, hoping to connect with others who might be suffering.

The city was also the original site of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which today has 48,000 panels, each paying tribute to a person who died of AIDS. Some 14 million people have viewed portions of the quilt.

The vision for the new project calls for something “architecturally significant,” according to a draft of an internal document shared with The New York Times. “More than a museum or memorial, it will be a center of social justice and conscience and a platform for action.”

The budget, if on the scale of those of similar projects, could be in the tens of millions of dollars — or higher. The Holocaust Museum, for instance, had cost nearly $200 million by the time it opened in 1993. The Sept. 11 museum, by its 2014 opening, had cost more than $700 million.

But fund-raising is only one of several challenges. American reactions to AIDS form one of the most contentious and divisive chapters in recent history. The disease’s first victims in the early 1980s were mostly gay men, and the White House initially responded with what has been described as a cruel lack of interest, an attitude that helped spread fear and discrimination. This has led to questions about how the AIDS story should be told, and who gets to tell it. There is also no precedent for a large-scale permanent exhibition dedicated to exploring a disease.

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The AIDS Quilt on the National Mall in Washington in 2012.

Credit
Karen Bleier/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Even more daunting, perhaps, is that museums tend to capture the past, and AIDS remains relentlessly present.

Worldwide, 39 million have died; an estimated 36.7 million are currently infected with H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, or have the disease; and more than two million become infected annually, according to the most recent statistics from the Joint United Nations Programme on H.I.V./AIDS. Anti-retroviral therapies can reduce the infection to a chronic but manageable condition, yet nearly half of those with H.I.V. are not receiving them.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the most affected region, but even in the United States, where AIDS prevention efforts and lifesaving drugs have existed for decades, an estimated 1.2 million people are H.I.V.-positive, with nearly 40,000 new cases diagnosed each year, according to the most recent figures from amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research.

When the New York Public Library, which has one of the nation’s largest archives on AIDS and the gay rights movement, presented “Why We Fight: Remembering AIDS Activism,” in 2013, the show drew both large crowds and a protest.

The day the show opened, activists disrupted the gallery. “They wanted to be sure that people knew that AIDS isn’t history,” a library spokesman said.

Communicating that message and the rest of the tragedy’s complexities is difficult with the grove alone, and organizers feel they have a mandate to go further.

“Our congressionally designated responsibility is to be the memorial,” said Mike Shriver, the grove’s board chairman. “And a natural hardscape and landscape feature has limitations.”

Despite all the challenges, though, it may be precisely the right time to pursue the idea, considering how museums based on other tragedies have evolved and become extraordinarily successful. The Sept. 11 and Holocaust museums often require timed-entry tickets.

“A comparison to the Holocaust is somewhat apt,” said Sean Strub, one of the earliest chroniclers of the AIDS epidemic, a New York activist who learned in 1985 that he was H.I.V.-positive.

Some memorials to Holocaust victims began to appear immediately after the end of World War II. Mr. Strub, who was also the founder and publisher of POZ magazine, which describes its audience as people living with, or affected by, H.I.V./AIDS, from 1994 to 2004, said the years that followed the war allowed people time to “process grief.” Then, during the 1960s and ’70s, depictions of the Holocaust became more prevalent in books and popular culture. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter established the commission that eventually led to the museum in Washington.

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A 1978 vigil in San Francisco for Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the city’s first openly gay officeholder, who were shot to death in their offices.

Credit
Associated Press

The movement to commemorate the AIDS pandemic could be seen as following a similar path, Mr. Strub said. In the early 1990s, the number of deaths peaked in the United States. “People were dying so fast you didn’t have time to cry,” he said.

Artists and writers captured the tragedy as it claimed lives, some with surprising commercial success, which helped breach mainstream American consciousness. The hit musical “Rent” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996, and the film “Philadelphia” won two Academy Awards after its premiere in 1993.

In the mid-1990s, as this battle for hearts and minds was waged, effective medical treatments arrived. In 1998, The Bay Area Reporter, a gay San Francisco newspaper, ran the headline “No Obits,” indicating that this was the first edition of the weekly since 1981 without a single AIDS-related obituary. It was a sign of a major turning point in the fight against the disease.

In recent years, a growing number of memorials have appeared. The New York City AIDS Memorial, an impressive metal canopy composed of triangles at the former site of St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village, was dedicated three months ago, on World AIDS Day, Dec. 1. Last month, the London Assembly voted to establish an AIDS memorial there.

West Hollywood, Calif., will soon begin construction of a $2.5 million AIDS Monument, consisting of a forest of soaring reflective pylons. Councilman John J. Duran, who is H.I.V.-positive, led the project and said that although the city had a population of only about 36,000, some 10,000 of its residents had died of AIDS between 1980 and 1995.

“Almost everybody here knew someone who got sick or died,” Mr. Duran said.

He called the monument “a tribute to the men and women who responded when the federal government did not.”

And if the timing is right, the material is also plentiful.

“AIDS is one of the most documented crises in history,” said Jason Baumann, coordinator of humanities and L.G.B.T. collections at the New York Public Library.

Beginning in the 1980s and spurred by outrage over the lack of response by government and health care institutions, a network of AIDS activism emerged that invigorated the gay rights movement and created ripples of societal change, including drug development.

“There was a drive to document,” Mr. Baumann said. “They knew what they were doing was significant.”

The center in San Francisco would use those archives for an even larger lesson. “How do you share that story so that in the future you don’t repeat it?” Mr. Cunningham said.

In other words, the message is the same as for remembrances of other disasters in our history: never again.

Correction: March 13, 2017

Because of an editing error, a caption in an earlier version of this article stated incorrectly the reason for the names included at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco. They are not just names of those who died from AIDS, the names also include those impacted by the disease.

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