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The National Museum of American History Recognizes 30 Years of AIDS

By David Crapo

June 29, 2011

Recently, I learned of two complementary exhibits at the National Museum of American History entitled, HIV and AIDS Thirty Years Ago and Archiving the History of an Epidemic: HIV and AIDS, 1985-2009. As one passionate about the fight against AIDS, but who wasn't aware of HIV/AIDS in the early years, I was interested to learn about the history of HIV/AIDS. What were the attitudes in the early years? How has communication about the disease changed?

I caught up with the Curator of the Division of Medicine and Science, Katherine Ott, and Franklin Robinson Jr., Archives Specialist, to view and discuss the exhibits firsthand. HIV and AIDS Thirty Years Ago examines the earliest years of the now global pandemic. Though the exhibit chronicles the entire history of AIDS, it highlights the scientific, political, and social reactions to the disease from 1981 to 1987 using a display of carefully selected articles, pamphlets, and a single panel from an AIDS memorial quilt.

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Archiving the History of an Epidemic: HIV and AIDS, 1985-2009 shows the change in cultural attitudes in our nation from an unknown, socially ostracizing disease to prominence in social advocacy. The exhibit includes many early, and sometimes controversial, educational tools ranging from medically focused pamphlets on the risks of HIV to comic book-style pamphlets about safe sex. Seeing these artifacts, my mind raced back to the events in my own life that were happening in the '80s and '90s, and how I was unaware of the prejudice and hardships experienced by persons living with HIV.

"We wanted to create something that everyone could relate to," said Mr. Robinson. The exhibit doesn't disappoint: each magazine article and pamphlet is displayed side by side with dozens of emotionally-charged quotes about the disease, and especially about those living with it, from a myriad of different perspectives.

Ms. Ott told me "all the reports we've heard back on the exhibit have been from people [who are] very positive and very grateful." As I reflected on my visit, I realized I too was grateful to learn about a history I never knew.

HIV and AIDS Thirty Years Ago and Archiving the History of an Epidemic: HIV and AIDS, 1985-2009 are located in the Science in American Life and the Archive Center respectively, in Washington DC. They are expected to last until October 2, 2011. To learn more, visit the online exhibit and read the news release about the exhibit. I encourage each of you to visit the National Museum of American History blog for related posts.

David Crapo is an AIDS.gov intern.




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