A screenshot of the virtual AIDS Memorial Quilt display.

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AIDS Memorial Quilt Virtual Exhibition

We’re living through more than one pandemic right now. Although COVID-19 is at the forefront of most people’s minds, Dec. 1 is World AIDS Day, a more-than-30-year-old occasion to raise awareness about the global reach of AIDS. Last year, UNAIDS estimated that 38 million people worldwide lived with HIV; an estimated 32.7 million people have died from AIDS-related illnesses since the beginning of the epidemic. COVID and AIDS are not the same, but since the beginning of 2020, scholars and activists have been pointing out their similarities—especially the racial and class disparities in their effects on different communities. World AIDS Day is an especially potent time to think about resilience, medicine, and memory. One of the best ways to do that is spending time with the Virtual AIDS Memorial Quilt, a digitized version of the physical memorial. The quilt was first displayed on the National Mall in 1987 with 1,920 panels commemorating the dead; when it was last stretched in its entirety across the Mall in 1996, it had more than 39,000. It’s now too large to be displayed fully in one place, but on World AIDS Day, much of it is typically exhibited across the country. COVID-19 made this year’s public display impossible. Instead, the quilt’s blocks can be seen online, categorized by state and curated by display hosts—D.C.’s include the Library of Congress and Whitman-Walker Health. The memorials are full of love, grief, and sometimes anger; some are deeply specific (“Bill Richmond; 1956–1987; Think of me as a bed of flowers where thoughts are planted and dreams are filled“) and others general (“For babies and young children“). They are a reminder of the past and a call to action for the present. The exhibition is available at aidsmemorial.org/quilt. Free.