By Yasmine Jumaa
VCU Capital News Service
The year was 1986. The place: Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York City. Food trays lined the corridors of the hospital’s inpatient care unit. Why? Because cafeteria workers wanted to avoid contact with certain patients for fear of contracting a mysterious disease.
That disease was AIDS, and the scene was from the early years of the epidemic that to date has infected more than 70 million people worldwide.
An upcoming exhibit at the Richmond Public Library will travel back 30 years to highlight how the epidemic transformed life in the United States.
Public historian Betsy Brinson and photographer Kathy Yost Benham will illustrate the hardships and despair faced by people who were affected by the HIV/AIDS virus in the chronological exhibit titled, “The Modern Plague: Voices and Images of the Early AIDS Epidemic.”
“We’re pulling some snippets of stories from oral history interviews that I’ve done that will go with the photos,” Brinson said. “Kathy writes poetry, too, that we’re going to use some lines from.”
The exhibit, which will be on display for most of August, will focus mainly on Richmond and Central Virginia; however, it will also feature stories of national experiences with the shared theme of fear, stigma and isolation. The exhibit is a story of transformation: from fear to courage; from isolation to community and connection; and from despair to hope.
“It was an era where people really didn’t know how the virus was transmitted. There was a lot of fear out there,” Brinson said.
The exhibit will include a collection of candles that bring to mind the candlelit vigils held by a local support group, the Richmond Zen Cats, which organized bicycle rides to raise money for HIV services.
“Especially during the early years of the AIDS epidemic in this country, candle-lighting and the reading of names became a tradition celebrating the people living with AIDS and commemorating those that have succumbed to the virus,” Benham said.
“The drumbeat of death during those early years required a village. From the drag queens doing benefits to the creation of multiple AIDS service organizations to a redefining of ‘family,’ RVA rose and responded.”
She noted that Dan Pallotta, who went on to become a renowned speaker about innovation and philanthropy, conceived of the AIDS bike rides in Richmond. Those events “raised more money in a shorter time than any other group has done around HIV research and services,” Benham said.
While the exhibit explores the past, it will provide current literature for free to educate the community about HIV testing.
Benham said the exhibit is a reminder “that HIV/AIDS is still very much in the Richmond community.” She said it will highlight the changing face of AIDS/HIV and honor what happened during the early years of the epidemic.
Above all, Benham said, the exhibit will be “a way to help us remember … help us prevent.”
Details on the ‘Modern Plague’ exhibit
- Where: the main branch of the Richmond Public Library, 101 E. Franklin St.
- When: Aug. 4-29
- Admission: Free