Roddy Williams of the NAMES Project pulls out a section of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. The quilt has traveled to Washington as part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

At Arena Stage in Southwest, panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt testify to a worldwide crisis that began nearly 30 years ago and a nationwide memorial project that turns 25 this year.

“Jimmy Hall Grier: 1945-1994, Augusta, Ga. Actor, director, playwright,” one panel reads. “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

“Ross A. Perry: 1964-1995,” reads another. “Director, choreographer, son, brother, uncle, friend.”

The full quilt is now too big to fit on the National Mall, where it was last unfolded in 1996. So, as part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s “Creativity and Crisis” program, organizers with the Atlanta, Ga.-based NAMES Project will rotate 1,000 panels every few days and display others in more than 50 locations around the city, such as Arena Stage.

Activist Cleve Jones started the NAMES Project in 1985, and the quilt first came to the Mall in 1987. Since its last visit to D.C., it has grown exponentially as new panels continue to be added to memorialize those who have died of AIDS. It is now considered the largest piece of community folk art in the world, weighing in at 54 tons.

For Julie Rhoad, president of the NAMES Project Foundation, this anniversary is bittersweet.

“It’s something to mark with pride, that we’ve endured for 25 years,” she says. “But it’s also a great sorrow that we’ve had to. In the early years of HIV and AIDS, we all thought we would create this quilt, lay it out on the Mall, and our work would be done and AIDS would be over in a matter of years. Not that three decades later we’d still be having this conversation.”

In those days, Rhoad was a volunteer with NAMES, and she remembers the urgency of those early efforts.

“It started out to transform what people were talking about: statistics and numbers,” she says. “But these numbers were real people with real lives. So, people jumped in a truck and traveled across the country and put the quilt out and said, ‘These are our people, these are our loved ones, you must pay attention.’”

The quilt might seem like a heavy subject for the Folklife Festival, but festival director Steve Kidd says that planning has been in the works for years.

“It’s an important place for this festival to be, grappling with community issues for which art and creativity can provide a guide,” he says. “The fact that quilting is such a long-lived tradition practiced by so many diverse communities around the U.S. played into it, too. It’s this interesting confluence of a long-standing tradition that’s harnessed to deal with the crisis of HIV/AIDS.”

After the festival concludes Sunday, 5,000 panels of the quilt will remain on view at satellite locations (go to Quilt2012.org for venues), and a large portion will be back on the Mall on July 21-25 for Quilt in the Capital, in conjunction with the AIDS2012 XIX International AIDS Conference.

The quilt is delicate, and each time it travels, volunteers must make repairs. But managing that risk is part of the NAMES Project’s mission to keep the quilt “alive,” Rhoad says. “In the beginning, we were sewing as fast as we could to end the disease,” she says. “Now we have this vast cultural repository we are the stewards of. We have to get it out there and we also have to preserve it. Because in the long run, when people want to learn about HIV and AIDS, they want to know the human story.”

In 2005, the NAMES Project received a federal grant to bolster long-term preservation efforts for the quilt. It has also been working with the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School and the University of Iowa Digital Studio for Public Humanities on developing an applike, interactive Web-based catalog of the quilt, now live in an alpha version at Aidsquilttouch.org. The project will also allow the complete quilt to be digitally displayed for the first time.

Kidd notes that preserving the quilt in a more traditional manner, such as within the Smithsonian, would sacrifice its power.

“One of the reasons it resonates with our festival is that it’s about living culture and interaction,” he says. “When things come into the Smithsonian, they can’t really go back out into the public. And the NAMES Project is committed to making the quilt available to communities.”

National Mall, 900 Ohio Drive SW; through Sun., free; 202-633-1000, Festival.si.edu. (Smithsonian)