Too Big for Any Museum, AIDS Quilt Goes Digital Thanks to Microsoft

Twen­ty-five years ago a group of friends gath­ered in a San Fran­cis­co apart­ment to memo­ri­al­ize com­pan­ions who had died of AIDS. They used one of the old­est tech­niques around to hon­or their loved ones: they made a quilt, the now-famous AIDS Memo­r­i­al Quilt, with unique pan­els for each per­son felled by the dis­ease. Now includ­ing some 48,000 pan­els, the quilt has grown into a mas­sive, pub­lic expres­sion of grief. Its pan­els come from around the world. It was even nom­i­nat­ed for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. (Find more on the his­to­ry of the quilt here.)

Like any good archive—and the quilt is an archive of life and loss—the AIDS Memo­r­i­al Quilt serves as a his­tor­i­cal repos­i­to­ry, a store­house of sen­ti­men­tal infor­ma­tion for scores of peo­ple. But beyond that the quilt is a piece of polit­i­cal folk art. AIDS, after all, is a unique­ly polit­i­cal dis­ease, at least in the Unit­ed States. The idea for the quilt was con­ceived dur­ing a can­dle­light march for assas­si­nat­ed San Fran­cis­co May­or George Moscone and Super­vi­sor Har­vey Milk. Efforts to lift the stig­ma of AIDS are close­ly linked to gay rights activism.

While the quilt is on view in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. this sum­mer, Microsoft offers the world up close and per­son­al access. Even if the Mall is too small to hold the entire quilt, the Inter­net isn’t. All 48,000 pan­els are new­ly dig­i­tized through a col­lab­o­ra­tion between Microsoft and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa, the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and the Names Quilt Foun­da­tion.

You can fly like a bird over the whole, beau­ti­ful piece. You can zoom in to read the thou­sands of names—some in block let­ters, oth­ers stitched in cur­sive. You can count the rain­bows, too.

You can also search the quilt by name or, if you know it, by the block num­ber of a par­tic­u­lar pan­el through the AIDS Quilt Touch inter­face. The site allows unique search­es for each time the quilt has been dis­played. This is impor­tant because the quilt is so mas­sive that the Mall in Wash­ing­ton can’t hold it all. It’s always dis­played in sec­tions, so if you want to know where a spe­cial pan­el has been on view, recent­ly, it’s now pos­si­ble to find out.

Kate Rix is a free­lance writer based in Oak­land. See more of her work at .

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  • Wm C Eging says:

    Look­ing for the quilt we made for our dear friend and broth­er Herb Var­go. We his friends made this for him here in Cleve­land OH. He was a beau­ti­ful man with a beau­ti­ful soul.
    His laugh and his life touched so many of us. I was just a twink so to speak back then. Herb was pro­tec­tive and wise. He to many of us family.…I after all these years cry remem­ber­ing our good byes to this 6 foot Ohio farm boy.

  • Paul Le says:

    I need help please

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