Back to the Beginning

The New York Historical Society examines the pre-ACT UP period of the HIV/AIDS epidemic with their new exhibit AIDS in New York: The First Five Years.
June 05, 2013
Artifacts from AIDS In New York: The First Five Years
As the revolutionary HIV/AIDS activism group ACT UP turned 25 last year, we saw a wave of documentaries focusing on the era of activism surrounding the epidemic. Films like Jeffrey Schwarz’s Vito, David France’s How to Survive a Plague, David Weissman’s We Were Here and Jim Hubbard’s United in Anger painted intricate and emotional portraits of the period spent petitioning the government—and in large part the general public—who had ignored the AIDS crisis, and they did so to chilling and moving effect.
But nearly six years passed between the disease’s first attacks on the gay community and the “silence = death” era. “We’re really talking about the period of silence,” says Jean Ashton, senior director of resources and programs at the New York Historical Society. For the past year, she’s been combing through records, making calls and interviewing HIV/AIDS researchers as the curator of NYHS’s two-month-long exhibit “AIDS in New York: The First Five Years,” which goes on view June 7. 
Though this exhibit will differ in scope from the recent slew of documentaries—“We’re looking at [the disease] from the minute the first cases appear”—Ashton also notes that those early years are just as important as the days when gays were literally in the streets shouting for their lives. “We’re trying to focus on what led to that outbreak of anger,” the former director of the New York Historical Society library says. “People had to do grassroots organization and they weren’t organized at first and nobody wanted to talk about it.”
Finding documents and artifacts on the epidemic from that more hushed time period was not as easy as Ashton had anticipated either. “Even people who’d lost close friends didn’t necessarily have documentation for it,” she admits. “I thought at first certainly that we’d be able to find a lot of armbands and posters and whatnot—and we did a lot of reaching out and research—but we found far less than we thought [we would].” Still, they’ve got some important—and impressive—vestiges of the period in the collection. Exhibit goers will find things like footage from NBC’s first report—in 1982—on the then-mysterious “cancer” that was triggered by “the lifestyle of some male homosexuals,” alongside dramatizations like excerpts from The Normal Heart, and scientific research like the slide from Luc Montagnier’s 1983 report for the Pasteur Institute that first illustrated the retrovirus.
Ashton also notes that she’s tried to adopt a slightly more removed, historical tone than last year’s documentaries. “I’m trying to remain, not neutral—it’s such an emotional issue—but at least trying to give some objectivity of the complexity of all of it,” she says. “I talked to [former mayor] Koch about two weeks before his death, I talked to Larry Kramer. The anger, the contentiousness is still there and nobody has really forgiven anybody else and a lot of it is a matter of perception. People saying, ‘Well, we did it as fast as we could,’ and others saying, ‘You didn’t do it fast at all!’”
Ashton says an important theme of the exhibit is the debt of experience and learning that many contemporary health initiatives—like breast cancer prevention and research, ALS fundraisers and the like—owe to organizations like ACT UP, without which they couldn’t achieve what they do today. Likewise, ACT UP wouldn’t have formed without the desperation of the first few horrific years of the health crisis. 
In a period of time when many feel the epidemic is all but over, despite some 10,000 new infections annually in New York alone, there are still lessons to be learned from this kind of gay history. “Something that we allude to, but don’t really deal with directly is that…the stigma is still out there,” Ashton clarifies. “You [shouldn’t] stigmatize a community, because that endangers everyone.” 
AIDS in New York: The First Five Years, at The New York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West (@ 77th St), open June 7 through September 15 from 10am–6pm; free (plus cost of museum admission). Visit for more info.