The UK Governments ‘Don’t die of ignorance’ campaign
The Aids memorial quilt at the Washington Monument

I was ten years old when the UK government launched it’s ‘don’t die of ignorance’ campaign in 1987 in response to a rise of HIV/AIDS cases in the UK. Although I was pretty much shielded by my parents about the virus, the haunting advert still sticks in my memory even now.

In the same year as the UK governments campaign, on October 11th, the AIDS memorial quilt was unfolded at the second National March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian rights. The quilt had 1,920 individual panels, each representing someone who had died from AIDS. This was, however, only a tiny fraction of the 20,000 who had already died in the US.

The AIDS memorial quilt was first conceived by San Francisco gay rights activist Cleve Jones in 1985. Over 1,000 San Franciscans had lost their lives to AIDS and he wanted to find a way to remember them. At a candlelight march to remember Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, he asked fellow marchers to carry placards with the names of those who had died. At the end of the march the placards were taped to the walls of the San Francisco Federal Building. This sparked the concept of turning those placards into patches that could be sewn into a quilt

Those that died from AIDS were often rejected by their families and so their friends would create a lasting memorial in the form of a quilt. Cleve created the first panel for the AIDS Memorial Quilt in memory of his friend Marvin Feldman. In an interview for BBC World News Cleve Jones said that the quilts ‘provided good therapy for people deep in grief’ and that ‘the quilts were also used as a tool for the media to understand that behind all the horrendous statistics there were actual human beings that were part of families, communities and neighbourhoods’.

After the unveiling of the quilt  in 1987 it was taken on a twenty city tour around the US. As the quilt was taken to major cities people presented the organisers with quilt panels that had been sewn by friends and family members of those who had also died.

By the time the quilt returned to Washington for the National March in 1988, the number of panels had increased to more than 8,000.

The quilt now contains 48,000 panels, dedicated to more than 100,000 individuals who have died from this devastating disease. 

In the UK, a similar quilt, inspired by the US one, was created with the first panels produced in 1988. In total there are 48 twelve foot by twelve foot panels, each comprising up to 8 smaller panels. Each panel is approximately 4m sq. Personal objects like wedding rings, photos and badges are sewn in and they tell the story of the person behind the panel

The US quilt is now the world’s largest piece of community folk art and all 1.2 million square feet of it is now available to view in its entirety online at the National AIDS memorial website. The UK AIDS memorial quilt can also be viewed online and represents approximately 384 people from all around the UK who died of AIDS.

There are currently over 103,800 people living with HIV in the UK. Advancement in medicine means that people living with HIV can now lead longer and healthy lives. HIV has not gone away, and there is still a need to increase awareness, fight prejudice and improve education. World AIDS Day is an opportunity to show solidarity with the millions of people living with HIV worldwide, you can show your support by wearing a red ribbon.

AIDS Memorial Quilt co-founders Cleve Jones and Mike Smith stand with John B. Cunningham, National AIDS Memorial Executive Director, on World AIDS Day 2019. Photo: Pax Ahimsa Gethen
A panal from the UK AIDS Memorial Quilt

For more information;

AIDS Quilt UK
National AIDS Memorial
World AIDS Day