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NLM Launches “Surviving and Thriving: AIDS, Politics, and Culture" - Traveling Banner Display and Online Exhibition

The National Library of Medicine has launched a traveling banner exhibition and online adaptation of Surviving and Thriving: AIDS, Politics, and Culture, an exploration of the rise of AIDS in the early 1980's and the evolving response to the epidemic over the last 30 years.

In 1981, a new disease appeared in the United States. Reactions to the disease, soon named AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome), varied. The exhibition illustrates an iconic history of AIDS alongside lesser-known examples of historical figures who changed the course of the pandemic. Utilizing a variety of historic photographs, pamphlets, and publications, Surviving and Thriving is divided into five historical investigations, each of which highlights how different groups responded to AIDS. Early responders cared for the sick, fought homophobia, and promoted new practices to keep people healthy. Scientists and public health officials struggled to understand the disease and how it spread. Politicians remained largely silent until the epidemic became too big to ignore. Activists demanded that people with AIDS be part of the solution.

The title Surviving and Thriving comes from a book written in 1987 by and for people with AIDS that insisted people could live with AIDS, not just die from it. Jennifer Brier, PhD (University of Illinois at Chicago), the exhibition's curator, explains that, "centering the experience of people with AIDS in the exhibition allows us to see how critical they were, and continue to be, in the political and medical fight against human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)/AIDS." This exhibition presents their stories alongside those of others involved in the national AIDS crisis.

The companion website includes an extensive selection of NLM's diverse poster collection about HIV/AIDS. This "Digital Gallery" displays 238 posters grouped into fifteen thematic clusters, providing viewers new historical avenues to explore beyond the exhibition. Brier sees these as invaluable resources for multiple audiences: "not only will these visual materials be incredibly useful for teachers interested in engaging students in historical thinking about HIV/AIDS, but they will also allow the general public to learn more about how public health efforts relied on graphic design and imagery to effect behavior change." The website is augmented by education resources that investigate the exhibition content, including two lesson plans for grades 10-12; three six-class higher education modules; and two online activities. In addition, a selection of published landmark HIV/AIDS articles are provided by NLM's PubMed Central, which freely provides access to over 2.8 million life science journal articles and modern day information is provided by AIDSInfo/InfoSIDA.

Early stops for the traveling banner exhibition include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Public Health Library Information Center, Atlanta, GA; Gay Men's Health Crisis, New York, NY; University of California, San Francisco, San Francisco, CA; University of Colorado, Denver, Aurora, CO, and the University of Illinois at Chicago Library of Health Sciences, Chicago, IL. For more information about Surviving and Thriving: AIDS, Politics, and Culture or to book the exhibition for your site, please visit the traveling exhibition services website.


Michael Callen (at typewriter) and Richard Berkowitz, 1984
Michael Callen (at typewriter) and Richard Berkowitz, 1984

Courtesy Richard Dworkin

In 1982, Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz, two gay men with AIDS living in New York, wrote How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach. The short manifesto described ways for men to be affectionate and sexual while dramatically lessening the risk of spreading and contracting AIDS. This booklet was one of the first times men were told to use condoms when having sex with other men.

Robert C. Gallo, MD, at the National Institutes of Health, early 1980s
Robert C. Gallo, MD, at the National Institutes of Health, early 1980s

Courtesy National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health

In April 1984, Dr. Robert Gallo of the National Cancer Institute at NIH isolated HTLV-III (human T-lymphotropic virus III) as the cause of AIDS. Scientists later determined it was the same virus identified as LAV (lymphadenopathy-associated virus) by Dr. Luc Montagnier and his team at the Pasteur Institute a year earlier. Despite disagreement over who made the initial discovery, French and American researchers eventually agreed to share the credit. In 1986, the virus was renamed HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). Identifying a viral cause enabled the scientific community to develop a test for HIV and better confront AIDS with treatment.

oster for Department of Health and Human Services demonstration designed by ACT UP/DC Women's Committee, 1990
Poster for Department of Health and Human Services demonstration designed by ACT UP/DC Women's Committee, 1990

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

In October 1990, ACT UP descended upon Washington and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, carrying signs that demanded the formal definition of AIDS change to include women. Excluded from the diagnosis of having AIDS, women could not access potentially lifesaving care and treatment, even as they died of the disease. By 1992, activists succeeded in their efforts: women were officially recognized as people who could have AIDS.

Ask for the Test" poster, 2012
"Ask for the Test" poster, 2012

Courtesy HAHSTA (HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD, TB Administration), District of Columbia Department of Health

In the 21st century, testing for HIV is the first line of defense in the battle against AIDS. But when the test was released in 1985, many people refused for fear that their names would go on a registry to deny them health care. Municipal unions in Washington, DC, are at the forefront of fighting this persistent myth and explaining how testing helps keep people healthy.