Mapping Loss and Compassion

Aids Quilt by Cocoabiscuit at Flickr

The Aids Quilt

In October of 1987, the AIDS Memorial Quilt was first displayed on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Conceived as a way for friends and families to remember loved ones lost to the disease, the original quilt contained just under two thousand individual panels, each three feet long by six feet wide. Some of the most spacious sites in Washington were used to display the entire memorial, not only in 1987, but also in 1988, 1989, 1992, and 1996.

This July, Washington hosted the XIX World AIDS Conference, and the quilt was again displayed on the Mall. In the twenty-five intervening years, AIDS has touched more and more people – and the outpouring of compassion that first inspired the quilt has continued. Both the compassion and the quilt have grown exponentially; today it contains over 48,000 panels recalling more than 94,000 individuals who have died of AIDS in the United States. It is also now too large to be displayed in any one place. Any place, that is, except the Internet.

Thanks to ongoing collaboration between the NAMES Project Foundation, which maintains the quilt, and Microsoft, the historic tapestry has been fully digitized and have been given a new home on the web. Each panel, and thus the name of each person memorialized by the quilt, can be seen in high resolution here. As new panels are added in coming years, they will be photographed and added to the living memorial online.

Even a quick visit to the online quilt gives a sense of how the tapestry – and the face of AIDS in the United States – has continued to change over time. Some of the panels are quite simple, adorned with little more than a name. Others are more ornate, and aim at conveying some of the personality of an individual taken too soon by the disease. Some are light-hearted and funny, while others clearly emerged out of a desire to make sense of grief and loss. All are moving, and well worth the time to visit.

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