Bil Browning

Photos: AIDS Exhibit at Smithsonian

Filed By Bil Browning | August 11, 2011 12:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living
Tags: gay history, HIV/AIDS, museum, Smithsonian

Big thanks to Jos Truitt and Viktor Kerney for filling in for me while I took a few vacation days. Didn't they do a good job? A woman from my building this morning told me in the elevator that she really enjoyed Jos's posts! How cool! (I didn't know she read the blog.)

While I go to a lot of conferences and such, those aren't really vacations. They're work related! Thanks to the ed team, Jos, and Viktor, I spent the past few days gloriously ignoring Bilerico and all of its attendant issues. I can't remember a time that I actually took a vacation from Bilerico Project since we launched.

Jerame and I explored DC a bit during our time off. (He's on vacation this week from work too, but he gets the entire week, the lucky dog!) One of my biggest complaints about moving here is that I haven't had a chance to go see everything yet because I'm always stuck behind the laptop. Determined to unplug, we hoofed it over to the Smithsonian Museum of American History and Mt. Vernon.

Our trip to the Smithsonian was originally planned for Monday, but we decided to goof off and spent the day playing video games instead. AIDS-quilt-panel-Smithsonian.jpgI'd checked their website and once we saw that they stayed open later in the summer, we decided to postpone the trip till Tuesday afternoon. After a super slow start on Tuesday morning, we arrived at the museum around 4:30. I should have read the website closer; at the bottom in small print it said "Exceptions: Aug 9." They closed at 5:30. Knowing we only had an hour to explore, we picked an exhibit at random and dove in.

The section we picked (by turning to the right in the lobby and saying, "Let's start here!") was called Science and Innovation. While this collection is right up Jerame's alley, I was a little dispirited that after finally getting to the museum, we only had time to see one section I had absolutely no interest in seeing. Still, I tagged along determined to find something that would interest me. Shortly after entering, I saw it.

The ongoing exhibit is called "HIV and AIDS Thirty Years Ago."

While this isn't a big exhibit by any means, it is spread around one of the first rooms you enter. The small cases contain magazine covers, pamphlets, protest buttons, and profiles of famous activists plus a copy of the Surgeon General's 1986 report, equipment that Dr. Jay Levy used to isolate the HIV virus in his lab at the University of California, and samples of the drugs AZT and Retrovir.


As I looked at the items from the 80s and early 90s, it took me back to a world I'd almost forgotten. I wore one of those black buttons with the pink triangle on it; I wore it for years. I cried my eyes out watching Philadelphia; I remember being upset I couldn't afford to see it in the theater. I gave out copies of the safe sex pamphlets at Evansville bars as part of the tiny local ACT UP chapter; someday I'll have to post video I've saved of the local TV news coverage of our condom pass-out (Hint: It's horrendous!).

Someday HIV/AIDS as a disease will be history. I hope I live to see it.


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Thanks for sharing this. The exhibit is the work primarily of Franklin Robinson of the Archives Center at the museum. The Archives Center has been working very hard to create queer collections at the museum. Joan E Biren has recently donated her collection of lesbian film and film ephemera. John-Manuel Andriote has donated his research and notes for Victory Deferred and, of course, some of the Mattachine Society of Washington picket signs are in the collection as well. More needs to be donated if the Archives Center's collecting goal is to be met.