Smithsonian chronicles early years of AIDS

The display case at the National Museum of American History holds a section of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, a tactile reminder of the individual lives lost to the virus.

The display on the first floor of the museum also serves as an entry into two exhibits that mark the 30th anniversary of the first government report on AIDS by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


A section of the AIDS Memorial Quilt panel honoring Roger Lyon who died of complications from AIDS in 1984. (Courtesy National Museum of American History)

The images in both exhibits immediately bring to mind the passions and anxieties of the 1980s, as the gay and medical communities grappled with the unknown illness. The government acknowledged the beginnings of the epidemic in June and July 1981, when the CDC reported five cases of pneumonia in Los Angeles and 26 cases of Kaposi’s sarcoma in Los Angeles and New York.

In the “American Life” exhibition, a giant poster shows a 1987 candlelight vigil, held on the Mall at the time of the AIDS quilt unveiling, the grimness of the occasion captured by Smithsonian photographer Jeff Tinsley. Other artifacts include a glass flask and a cell-counting device used by Jay Levy to isolate the virus in 1983 in a laboratory at the University of California at San Francisco.

“The 30th anniversary is resonating more because we are two generations later. And in HIV years, that’s five generations,” said Katherine Ott, a curator with the museum’s science and medicine division, who has been collecting items since the beginning of the epidemic. The incentive for the show came partly from visitors to the museum’s history-of-polio show in 2005. “We had a lot of comment cards with people saying ‘AIDS is now,’ ” Ott said.

The museum’s Archives Center has collected such totems of the crisis as the Hub Cutter, the mailboxlike receptacle for needles that is now commonplace, education panels that Planned Parenthood used for lectures in schools and anti-gay articles that called AIDS a “gay plague.”

Material has come from others as well. John-Manuel Andriote donated interview tapes for his book “Victory Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life in America.” Carol Burch Brown donated photographs and interviews from her documentation of the Shamrock Bar, a working-class gay bar in Bluefield, W. Va.

The display includes posters from the movies “Long Time Companion” (1990) and “Philadelphia” (1993), and a videotaped discussion with basketball star Magic Johnson and television host Arsenio Hall.

“We wanted to answer the question: How does popular culture reflect the moment?” said Franklin A. Robinson Jr., a curator with the Archives Center.

Bob Witeck, an activist and co-founder of a communications firm specializing in gay issues, said the Smithsonian observation is timely. ”Right now 9/11 has to be explained to younger people--HIV and AIDS far more so,” Witeck said.

The Archives material will be on view until Oct. 2, and the “Science in American Life” display at least until Nov. 6. The section of the AIDS quilt is part of the museum’s permanent collection.

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