The New-York Historical Society Mounts a New Exhibition that Looks at AIDS in New York
by Alina Oswald
A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history,” Mahatma Gandhi once said. Over the years, AIDS has had its own determined spirits. They were the AIDS activists. Perhaps it comes to no surprise that when talking about AIDS activism today, many refer to the beginning of the epidemic and the very first AIDS activists to fight for their lives, demonstrating, demanding treatments, thus breaking the deadly silence surrounding the disease at the time. The question is: Where are the determined spirits, the AIDS activists of today?
The last three decades have slightly changed the way we look at and approach topics surrounding the pandemic. AIDS is not an “immediate death sentence,” but rather a “manageable illness.” Patients don’t always die from AIDS-related complications; they live active lives, while living with the virus. Even more, lately there’s been a lot of talk about “the end of AIDS” and an “AIDS-free generation” being within our reach.
And yet, looking at the modern-day AIDS awareness—or lack thereof—some may question the necessity of AIDS advocacy altogether, while others may feel the need to re-enable the early AIDS activism to help, yet again, break down the present complacency associated with the epidemic.
AIDS in New York: The First Five Years, a new exhibit opening June 7 at the New-York Historical Society, revisits the first five years of the
epidemic, focusing on the impact of AIDS in New York City during the eighties and, subsequently, the nineties. “We are very aware that just at a point when AIDS is in the paper nearly every day and there’s a possibility of a vaccine, many people simply do not remember the beginnings of the disease,” curator Jean Ashton explains. She is the Executive Vice President and Library Director of the New-York Historical Society.
In the past several years, the Society has focused several exhibitions on the relationship between disease and society. “It’s the historical interest,” Ashton comments. “The disease changes the culture and politics of the city, [which, in turn] have a lot to do with how we treat diseases. So we did shows on cholera, smallpox, and now AIDS, which is a logical successor.”
AIDS in New York: The First Five Years includes photographs, newspaper clippings, and also film and TV footage, and oral history. “We had our story,” Ashton says, explaining the process behind choosing the art and artifacts to be included in the exhibit, “and we wanted to see what we could find [to] most effectively convey the story, the narrative. Part of it was the availability [of the artwork] and [the other] part was what we thought were the most powerful images. We tried to make the narrative by using whatever we could to illustrate the story. We’re not focusing on the art, [although] there are beautiful pictures and they tell the story.”
The photographs speak for themselves. They create a powerful visual composite through which they tell—or retell—the story of AIDS and its reality as it unfolded at the time. With that, the exhibit offers some individuals, especially today’s young generation, an opportunity to reconsider its attitude toward AIDS, while giving others a chance to revisit tucked-away memories, relive events, and commemorate those lost to the epidemic.
Ashton doesn’t have a favorite image. Not quite. “I think the picture of the first AIDS memorial service,” she finally says, “I think it captures very well the sense of mourning that people were beginning to have as they realized that their friends were dying around them.” The First AIDS Memorial in New York City, Central Park Bandshell image was taken at the first big AIDS vigil in 1983. It captures the despair that was sinking in at the time. “It went on for many years,” Ashton adds, “but this was at the beginning.”
Images may speak to the audience in different ways, of different aspects of the pandemic. One of the photographs shows a group of parents protesting at the Board of Education in 1985, because a few children with AIDS had been enrolled in a public school, in Queens, New York. That caused an uproar among parents who, in turn, called for a boycott of the school. “It really demonstrates the degree of hysteria and fear that was present in these early days,” Ashton notes about the Parents Protesting Board of Education photograph.
Also included in the exhibit is a newspaper clipping showing a picture of New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch at a press conference, in 1983. “There was and still remains a good deal of controversy about the mayor’s role in the crisis over AIDS,” Ashton says, talking about the image. “He was criticized for not acting fast enough. He himself said that he acted as fast as he could. In this particular press conference he explains what he did to establish his mission.”
Another image shows a poster advertising the opening of Larry Kramer’s play, The Normal Heart. “It comes toward the conclusion of our exhibit,” Ashton explains. “It illustrates the way in which AIDS became part of the mainstream, when it was no longer a hidden secret.”
AIDS in New York focuses on the impact of people with AIDS on their community, but also on the desperate energy of the doctors and research scientists to find a treatment or a cure, while suddenly seeing people, who otherwise were apparently healthy, begin to die, and not being able to do anything to save them. “There was a good deal of intensity in terms of trying to solve the problem,” Ashton says. “And, you know, [researchers and doctors] would run into problems even in their labs and hospitals because [AIDS] was not a popular disease. I don’t think it would happen again in exactly the same way, but you know, it’s really unpredictable. And people act sometimes heroically and sometimes badly when they are afraid.”
Ashton hopes that the exhibit will show people how serious the disease still is. Physicians and healthcare professionals treating AIDS today believe that AIDS has not gone away, but rather underground. People don’t talk about it anymore, yet according to recent statistics infection rates are still high, especially among individuals twenty-nine or younger. Stigma and taboos are still present in many communities even now because AIDS is a sexual disease. In addition, because AIDS is not an immediate death sentence anymore, people don’t take it seriously anymore. They get careless, and they get infected.
“Many people today think that AIDS is a chronic disease,” Ashton says, “and that it can be controlled by drugs. Yet, they fail to realize that AIDS is a serious disease, and that the related stigma, anger, and discrimination impede the effects of treating the disease.” She adds, “Many people may remember ACT UP and its role in fighting for people’s lives. This was a period that [only] gradually filtered into people’s consciousness. It’s a story that could be about any disease blamed on bad habits or immorality, such as how cholera in the nineteenth century was blamed on the ‘filthy habits’ of the Irish. The social prejudices really are aroused when people are afraid of disease, and I thought it was a story worth telling again.”
AIDS in New York: The First Five Years opens on June 7 at the New-York Historical Society in New York City, and it runs through September 15. Other events are planned as well. For more information, log on to www.nyhistory.org.
Alina Oswald is a writer, photographer, and the author of Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS. Contact her at www.alinaoswald.com.