Remembering & Witnessing: AIDS35 and the NLM Exhibition “Surviving and Thriving”

Circulating Now welcomes guest blogger Thomas Lawrence Long from University of Connecticut School of Nursing.  Drawn from a presentation given as part of a bimonthly webcast series hosted by the National Network of Libraries of Medicine called “NNLM Resource Picks,” this post is third in a series of four exploring how libraries around the country build programming around NLM traveling exhibitions.

ST bannersIn 2016, the 35th anniversary of the first published reports of what would come to be called “HIV” and “AIDS” (or “SIDA” in much of the world) provided the University of Connecticut’s School of Nursing with an opportunity to educate its students about the history of the epidemic and to reach out to the local community (on campus and off). Our program AIDS35 featured the National Library of Medicine’s traveling exhibition Surviving & Thriving: AIDS, Politics, and Culture—a visually engaging and informative exploration of the early days of HIV/AIDS, which we supplemented with archival and artifact material from the school’s Josephine Dolan Collection of Nursing History.

For most of today’s undergraduates, including nursing students, HIV is just a pharmaceutically-manageable infection and an AIDS diagnosis, a rare occurrence. The introduction of multi-drug antiretroviral therapy in 1996—before some students were born—curtailed the disease’s progression to AIDS, characterized by certain opportunistic infections and low T cell counts. Many students are oblivious to the social and political struggles surrounding HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. They need to be made aware that a health problem could be so insidiously ignored and politicized with disastrous effects on vulnerable populations.

Several years ago, the approach of the 35th anniversary gave us an occasion to prepare. First, we reserved the NLM exhibit for a month in the fall of 2016. Then, we began to recruit campus-wide and local stakeholders to develop broader programming. The NLM traveling exhibition and supporting materials, including an informational brochure and a large poster, provided a solid educational foundation for our AIDS35 exhibits.

The UConn School of Nursing’s Dolan Collection

Our nursing school’s new Widmer Wing features a large, well-lighted, and high-ceilinged atrium where the banners could be displayed easily. In addition, free-standing vitrines for nursing history artifacts and archival materials gave us an opportunity to focus on nursing’s role in the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

These Dolan Collection exhibits included early journals and indexes featuring nursing research on HIV and AIDS care. Ephemera, like safer sex pamphlets and condom and personal lubricant packs, were loaned by a doctoral student who has been an HIV clinician for most of the epidemic.

Recruiting Partners on Campus and in the Community

Finding other partners was more challenging. The term “broadcasting network” comes to mind because we had to invite over a dozen prospective partners in order to secure three: the UConn William Benton Museum of Art on the Storrs campus, the University Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections, and Connecticut’s public broadcasting, WNPR and CPTV.

The Benton Museum associate curator Jean Nihoul, working with the Dolan Collection curator Thomas Lawrence Long, identified graphics, photographs, and other visual arts from the 1980s and 1990s. Dr. Long supplemented these with material from his own collection of AIDS zines and demonstration graphics from the same period. Entitled Visual AIDS, the exhibit was open throughout the fall 2016 semester.

UConn’s Archives and Special Collections includes substantial holdings in alternative publications, many of which were produced during and in response to the worst years of the AIDS epidemic, between 1981 and 1996. Archivist Graham Stinnett assembled ephemera (brochures and flyers) and more traditional publications (novels and non-fiction books) that were displayed in the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center. (Read more about the display here.)

Finally, University Communications was instrumental in securing broader publicity for these exhibits. In addition to writing an article for UConn Today, Kenneth Best secured an interview on WNPR’s morning interview program, Where We Live. This interview was aired live, subsequently re-aired in “archive editions,” and afterward, excerpts were featured as cultural spots promoting the Benton exhibit.

Reflections on AIDS35 and NLM Traveling Exhibitions

Our collaboration in AIDS35 engaged a variety of resources, but the educational foundation was provided by the NLM’s traveling exhibition. Culture and education organizations small and large can benefit from NLM traveling exhibitions regardless of their locations and budgets. Advanced planning is essential, however. Identifying a significant anniversary as we did or connecting the exhibition with other local events or interests, and building partnerships that will leverage publicity take time and thoughtful effort. But the benefits to the organization and its constituents can be great.

In late 2016, the University of Washington, based in Seattle, Washington, which serves as the Pacific Northwest Region (PNR) National Network library, hosted a brief questionnaire, using Survey Monkey, asking librarians what they would want to learn about hosting a National Library of Medicine traveling banner exhibition. Over 250 representatives from libraries across the country responded with questions, ideas, and preferences. Their replies shaped this webinar.

Thomas Long headshotThomas Lawrence Long is associate professor in residence in the UConn School of Nursing, with a joint appointment on the faculty of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. He is the curator of the School of Nursing’s Josephine Dolan Nursing History Collection.

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