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New York Historical Society AIDS Exhibits Pull No Punches
Photo by Lee Snider; courtesy of the Fales Library & Special Collections, NYU
First AIDS Memorial Service in New York City, June 13, 1983

The miraculous advances in the treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS shine a spotlight on the supreme relevance of two current exhibitions at New York Historical Society.
AIDS in New York: The First Five Years is the superbly authored and meticulously detailed curatorial triumph of Jean Ashton. The exhibition plunges each visitor into the epicenter of the waking nightmare which was HIV/AIDS from 1981 to 1985. This was the period before the disease had a name; the period when, suddenly, people were falling down dead in the street or simply disappearing from sight to die in their homes. In that time the number of confirmed diagnoses in New York City skyrocketed from 212 in 1981 to 752 in 1982; from 1,849 in 1983 to 3,690 in 1984; and to 6558 in 1985.
There was absolutely no treatment available in those years. The thousands who were diagnosed died within months or weeks, sometimes even within days, of their diagnosis. There are, of course, no figures available for the many who became ill and died without diagnosis. Because HIV/AIDS is now manageable, it easy to forget where and how it all began.
This exhibition earns both its profound significance and its lasting, inestimable value by not only documenting the earliest years of the AIDS crisis, but also by firmly reinforcing for the viewer the fact that, despite successful treatment of the illness, there is still no cure.
At the very entrance to the galleries, a masterfully concise and multi-pointed video merges the past with the present by stating with crystal clarity that current treatment “slows down the destruction of the immune system but cannot eradicate HIV from the body.” Giving a new and ringing voice to the profound grief of the surviving mourners, AIDS in New York is unprecedented as an encyclopedic digest of necessary information for those who were born after the crisis had peaked.
This exhibit is much more than an impartial narrative of human tragedy told by means of a chronologically ordered collection of documents, photographs, and videos. It is a densely textured, multi-layered atmosphere of inexpressible emotion. Highly suggestive and dramatically charged imagery serves as both foundation and counterpoint to historical objectivity. The remarkable and often unexpected combinations vividly communicate the dumbfounded stupefaction which was the greeting to this disease from all of those who had lived their entire lives in a world without AIDS.
Tracing the rapid response and increasingly organized support to people with AIDS from the scientific and medical communities, the political axis and newly-born LGBTQ activism, the religious left, the world of Arts and Entertainment, and society at large, the exhibit devotes equal time to the walls of stigmatization built by fear, ignorance, and ultimately, blind prejudice, which in those years and for years to come, posed a serious threat to the basic civil liberties of people with HIV/AIDS.
Letters, photos, posters, videos of news programs and interviews, and footage of theatrical productions swirl in a brilliant collage that is as informative as it is dazzling.
The thirtieth anniversary of the first identified case of AIDS was in 2011. The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) was the longest and most destructive war in modern history, and involved most of the countries of Western Europe. The war on HIV/AIDS has been going on for more than thirty years, and is not confined to Western Europe. It is a global conflict which is still far from having gained a decisive and final victory. The New York Historical Society is dedicated to “Making History Matter.” With this exhibit, the Society fulfills its mission in both letter and spirit. AIDS in New York: The First Five Years is a demonstration of living history.
The exhibition is partnered with Children With AIDS: Spirit and Memory, Photographs by Claire Yaffa, a collection of twenty shatteringly beautiful and heartbreaking images captured at Incarnation Children’s Center between 1990 and 2000.
Yaffa’s photos pinpoint an extended moment in time, and embrace babies at play, on oxygen, and in pain and confusion, beautiful children who would never grow up to be adolescents, babies and children each of whom had names and smiles. Pediatric AIDS is on the verge of being conquered. This is considered by many to be the greatest advance in modern medicine since the eradication of polio. The era of “Boarder Babies,” abandoned by their parents, shunned by the foster care system, neglected, abused, and living out their brief lives in city hospital wards, will soon be a thing of the past.
AIDS in New York is made possible in large part through the generous support of the Ford Foundation, the New York Community Trust, and the Keith Haring Foundation. Children With AIDS is supported by Jack and Susan Rudin. The vision and boldness of New York Historical Society and the discernment and skill of its curatorial department are eminently worthy of their support. They succeed so mightily on every count that more than one visit should be considered.
Both exhibitions are on view through September 15th. Prepare to be moved, informed, stunned, stimulated, and activated.

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