Spurlock Museum honors AIDS deaths with quilt panels from the past


Photo courtesy of Beth Watkins

A display of memorial quilts at the Spurlock Museum for an exhibit dedicated to those who died of AIDS.

By Vivian La, Assistant Daytime Editor

A new exhibit at the Spurlock Museum displays memorial quilts honoring those who died of AIDS in the 1980s and 90s.

The exhibit, called “Sewn in Memory: AIDS Quilt Panels from Central Illinois,” was a collaboration between Spurlock Museum, the Greater Community AIDS Project, the University’s History Harvest course and University journalism students.

“Sometimes we just look at it as a person that was living with AIDS, but there’s so much more to their lives than just that,” said Mike Benner, executive director of GCAP. “It’s important to remember that each one of these people have their own stories.”

Beth Watkins, education and publications coordinator at the museum, said that in a time where the empathy for loss from disease is so high because of COVID-19, this exhibit reflects the humanity behind deaths that are more than just a statistic.

“I think we can understand and kind of see the humanity in some of these stories that we wouldn’t have been able to before,” she said.

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This year was the 40th anniversary of the first headlines and diagnoses of HIV and AIDS in the U.S.

The 19 quilt panels — created by central Illinois residents for the 1987 NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt that was displayed in Washington, D.C. — are personalized with symbols and visual representations of the individual who died. 

Exhibit organizers said the goal was to tell the stories of people beyond their death from AIDS while also involving community members and students.

“(The quilt panels) are just stunning in terms of their craftsmanship,” said Kathryn J. Oberdeck, a history professor who taught the History Harvest course. “What people tried to do with those, which is to really give images that represented the lives of people very close to them — I think that people kind of connect to that.”

For Benner, who said that because COVID-19 is on everyone’s minds, this exhibit is important for recognizing the strides that have been made in science and public health.

“It’s an age where HIV/AIDS is just considered chronic illness; it’s good for people to remember that it wasn’t always that way,” he said.

GCAP kept these panels since the 1980s, only displaying them for certain events. Benner said it was always a dream to formally exhibit them since it had been 30 years since they were last publicly displayed.

Led by Oberdeck, the History Harvest course wanted to digitize the quilt panels as part of their focus on the local LGBTQ+ community, as well as collect oral histories.

“To not only kind of learn about the community as history, but engage with people who were involved has been really, really important to (students),” Obderdeck said.

But they didn’t have the technology to capture the large panels in their entirety.

That’s when Watkins stepped in since the museum could both photograph the panels and display them in an exhibit.

Coincidentally, Watkins said Jerry Carden, founding chair of GCAP, was working with Illinois Public Media to put together student-made documentaries on the AIDS crisis in the local community. These documentaries will be part of the exhibit starting in January.

“It’s just so exciting to have different campus units, plus GCAP, all working together on this thing that is clearly really meaningful to people,” Watkins said.

This “community-curated exhibit,” as it’s called on the Spurlock website, is an approach that many museums are shifting towards, Watkins said.

“It’s a new way of thinking … it decenters institutional authority and curator authority,” she said.

Benner said it’s been a rewarding experience seeing this exhibit come together. Walking through it, he said he gets emotional.

“Not because these are people that I knew, but they represent people that I may have known,” Benner said.

Especially as his generation — with the clearest memories of this time period — gets older, Benner said it’s important to preserve this past.

“Whether people know it or not, everybody is touched by HIV/AIDS in some way, shape or form,” he said.

At the end of the exhibit, there’s a space where visitors can leave notes reflecting on their experience seeing the quilt panels. Benner said the notes have been very meaningful.

Watkins said having a space to sit and cry while reflecting on whole lives is a very human experience.

“It’s really important to have spaces where we, as a culture, talk about loss and grief and the love that persists through those things,” she said.


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