When the AIDS Memorial Quilt was first displayed on the National Mall in 1987, it contained 1,920 panels commemorating people who had died of the disease. Twenty-five years later, when the quilt returned to the Mall as part of the 2012 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, it had grown so much in size that its 48,000 panels couldn’t be displayed simultaneously. Instead, organizers showcased smaller sets of 1,500 squares on each day of the two-week celebration.
Now, reports Billy Anania for Hyperallergic, the 1.2-million-square-foot quilt is available to view online in its entirety. Together, the panels—sewn into groups of eight—serve as a massive, searchable memorial to the more than 125,000 people who have died of HIV and AIDS since 1980.
“When we created the first Quilt panels it was to share with as many people possible lives tragically being lost to AIDS and to demand action from our government,” says quilt founder and gay rights activist Cleve Jones in a statement. “The Quilt has become a powerful educator and symbol for social justice. My hope is that through continued storytelling and making the panels available online, that more people will be drawn to its stories, its history and that we can continue to change hearts and minds.”
The quilt traces its origins to 1985, when Jones decided to commemorate the 1,000 San Francisco residents who had succumbed to AIDS to date by asking those attending a march to tape placards bearing lost loved ones’ names onto the San Francisco Federal Building. To Jones, the wall of names resembled a quilt.
Most of the quilt’s blocks are rectangles measuring 6 feet by 3 feet, or roughly the size of a grave. Many were individually crafted by people whose friends and family members succumbed to AIDS; this personal touch is evident in the panels’ designs, which range from abstract geometric patterns to intricate multimedia collages and stenciled lists of names.
As Katherine Ott, a curator in the division of medicine and science at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, told Smithsonian magazine’s Brian Wolly in 2010, the quilt “is the largest, most complicated example of folk art in the United States. Furthermore, it was a new kind of memorial; one that was collectively created and movable and shape-shifting, instead of the classic mausoleum sort of thing or sober mourning statue.”
Last November, the NAMES Project Foundation, which was established in 1987 to care for the quilt, announced plans to transfer an archive of more than 200,000 items associated with the project—including biographical records, photographs, news clippings and letters—to the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center. The Atlanta-based foundation also revealed plans to send the quilt home to San Francisco under the stewardship of the National AIDS Memorial.
Per Hyperallergic, the newly launched digitization commemorates the International AIDS Conference, which was held virtually this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the 40th anniversary of the first reported HIV cases in the United States. When viewing the interactive quilt, users can either appreciate the enormous mosaic in its entirety or zoom in on specific panels, which often include individuals’ names and messages of love. Additionally, virtual visitors can search the quilt for specific names, keywords or block numbers.
A new initiative dubbed 2020/40 accompanies the interactive quilt. Dedicated to sharing stories from the 40-year fight against AIDS, the platform includes interviews with such individuals as Al and Jane Nakatani, who lost two of their sons to AIDS, and Rayson Roldan, who was diagnosed with HIV in December 2016.
“As a person living with AIDS, I never thought I would have to live through two pandemics,” says John Cunningham, executive director of the National AIDS Memorial, in the statement. “While very different, there is a thread that pulls through connecting them together, rooted in stigma and discrimination. The Quilt and storytelling efforts can help us learn from the past to positively change the future.”