The 32-year-old AIDS Memorial Quilt, all 50,000+ panels of it, will be returning home to San Francisco in December, apparently for good.
The Quilt, conceived in 1985 by local activist Cleve Jones and begun officially in 1987, consists of 3-foot-by-6-foot panels — meant to be the size of the average grave — that commemorate the lives of people lost to HIV/AIDS in the first decade of the epidemic. And now its caretaker, the Atlanta-based NAMES Project Foundation, is transferring the 54-tons of quilt panels back to San Francisco, where the Quilt can live beside the National AIDS Memorial in Golden Gate Park. As the New York Times reports, an associated archive of documentation and 200,000 personal items will move to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
The Quilt is intended to become a major component of a new Center for Social Conscience that the National AIDS Memorial is planning to build in the coming years, which according to a release "will be grounded in the story of the AIDS epidemic, social justice, action and change."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Representatives John Lewis and Barbara Lee, and National AIDS Memorial Executive Director John Cunningham gave a press conference in Washington Wednesday morning to announce the move. In a statement, Cunningham says, "This announcement honors the stewardship by the NAMES Project Foundation over the past three decades in passionately caring for the quilt and ensures its permanent home will continue to forever honor its history, the lives, struggles, despair, inequity and hope that it represents."
"This is the culmination of decades of work that achieves a vision long held by the NAMES Project leadership who, armed with an unwavering commitment to the Quilt, were determined to see that the AIDS Memorial Quilt would stand the test of time,” says Julie Rhoad, President & CEO of the NAMES Project Foundation. "With this set of new caretakers, we are confident that the legacy of the Quilt and the NAMES Project is secure."
Jones says he was inspired to create the quilt after a vigil and march in 1985 honoring the lives of slain supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. Jones had told attendees to bring signs bearing the names of loved ones lost to AIDS, and after the procession people taped these signs to the side of the Federal Building near San Francisco's Civic Center — which Jones then thought looked like a quilt. The beginnings of the actual Quilt were made by Jones, Mike Smith, and volunteers Joseph Durant, Jack Caster, Gert McMullin, Ron Cordova, Larkin Mayo, Steve Kirchner, and Gary Yuschalk about two years later. In addition to become a powerful visual statement about the impact of the AIDS epidemic, the Quilt's panels served as replacements for gravesites, after many funeral homes around the country refused to handle the remains of AIDS victims.
The Quilt has resided with the NAMES Project in Atlanta since 2001, while portions of it have traveled around to be be displayed in the ensuing years.
As Rhoad says of the Quilt, "This is perhaps one of the most democratic memorials in existence because it’s literally made by the people for the people they love."