The exhibit is organized largely chronologically, from the first whisperings and diagnosed case in 1981 to 1985, when the number jumped to 6,558 on its continued upward spiral. (To put that number in perspective, 2,753 New Yorkers were killed on 9/11.)
Like elsewhere at the NYHS, the artifacts are the story and star here. While mere inanimate objects, they're remarkably powerful players in this unfolding drama, still unsolved. Each carries incredible weight and significance -- Vito Russo's handwritten diaries, Donna Mildvan's notebook from an AIDS summit in 1985, even a Keith Haring-designed condom, to name just a few.
They mark significant milestones: transcripts from the first time the medical community recognized the stigma inherent in language, changing the name from "GRID" (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) to AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), and the first mention of the disease in the New York Times -- buried on page A-20, one slim column next to a triumphant nearly full-page Fourth of July ad.
With each step further into the exhibit's several rooms, the sense of panic and dread deepens. The growing tension between a community's not wanting to panic and its increasing fear is tangible in the progression of spaces, all reading like a carefully-paced murder mystery sectioned off into clear and succinct chapters. And while we know what happens with this story, there is still suspense and surprise in its many revelations.
The spare and straightforward presentation does little to intentionally or overtly manipulate the visitor, instead letting emotion emerge primarily from the comprehensive content. And it's moving in ways that it seems to at first disguise or attempt to dissuade.
While it's all carefully culled and considered, the exhibit is neither heartless nor sanitized. There is grit, pathos, and passion, but the visitor connects the dots and brings their own experience and, no doubt for many New Yorkers, their own stories of loss. The exhibit itself addresses this, as one display reads, "These early years are remembered best by those who lived through the era." The rage, sadness and grief are left to the visitor to experience on their own terms, but there is ample fuel for those personal fires.
The exhibit largely steers clear of depictions of the deaths that began to overtake Manhattan with unbelievable speed and devastating brutality. There are but a few images of the dying -- men dotted with KS lesions, the vigorous turned frail almost overnight, the last photo taken of these men before they succumbed. A quote from the display is chilling in its simplicity and implication: "Friends and neighbors and business associates began to disappear from their neighborhoods or workplaces without explanation."
Emotion comes from unexpected places, too: a photo of the men who drafted the Denver Principles -- an ordinary photo of ordinary men bound together by panic, death and fear, with such a poised response and magnanimous and empathetic intent -- brought unexpected tears. Those tears come also from the realization that the recommendations which are still relevant today ("#2: Not scapegoat people with AIDS, blame us for the epidemic or generalize about our lifestyles." [sic]) have outlived these once life-filled men, most of whom were taken long ago by the very disease they fought to confront.
Duality and Balance
While the exhibit is compartmentalized in thematic sections, other greater threads run through it all, most notably that of a community struggling not only with death, but definition. On the close heels of Stonewall, early activism was complicated by closets that still contained many of those who were the first to be infected. "Embracing advocacy would reveal their sexual identities," one placard reads, and a newfound sexual freedom suddenly became fraught with deadly complication.
The themes of assimilation versus community are ever-present. This was a community wanting to break free of structure -- of social norms, rules, government -- while also realizing it would need some of that very structure to help cope with a growing epidemic and death toll.
That conflicted duality finds perfect illustration in a flyer for an early GMHC fundraising party, "Showers": sexually charged, an idealized and well-endowed male form on the cover, in that eternal push-pull between health threat and sexual liberation that still exists in the LGBT community.
Parts of the exhibit seem detached or clinical, with titles like "Bioethics" and "Blood Supply." But these sections contain one of the most chilling facts: during these years, the medical world was dealing with a true mystery just as the men of the West Village were. There are also the horrific reminders that a victim's dignity could be robbed from them even in death: some were delayed or even denied embalming, as though they were victims of the Black Plague in medieval times.
The NYHS presents a remarkably balanced perspective throughout, even crediting organized religion: while religious leaders may have spewed condemnation from their pulpits, religious caregivers were upholding their mission to attend to the sick and dying. This, despite the fact that one of the strongest misconceptions about AIDS during those early years is that it could be transmitted through shared communion wine.
The exhibit also acknowledges uglier, lesser-known moments, such as the stigma- and bigotry-fueled protests in elementary schools and by groups demanding patients be quarantined on an "AIDS Island," and the education work required to reassure people that they couldn't catch the disease on doorknobs or toilet seats. One of the most sensational headlines of that time came not from the New York Post, but from TIME Magazine: "Now No one is Safe from AIDS" (July 1985), as the disease crossed out of New York and beyond the LGBT community.
From an exhibition design standpoint, there's a lot done with just a little. The TV monitors interspersed throughout are actual vintage television sets, one of the few environmental details that give the exhibit a true context of time. The voice of Dan Rather emerges from one of those sets, playing on an eerie loop of newscasters making vague mention of plague, cancer, pneumonia and medical mystery. As it plays over and over, it becomes something like the revolving beam of a lighthouse beacon, warning of new dangers in the waters around us.
But even with the barest of theatrical or experiential devices, the exhibit still manages to place the visitor on the deck of the Titanic, positioned precisely to see the iceberg, both straight ahead and tearing brutally into the hull beneath, with no way to steer the ship away from the inevitable.
For its spare presentation, the set-up is not without its moments of design serendipity: In one corner, Larry Kramer and then-mayor Ed Koch silently face off. Kramer's seminal "1,112 and Counting" article is on one wall; Koch's first documented response to the epidemic, given months later, is on the other.
Many Heroes, Few Villains
The exhibit also honors those organizations born from, and individuals synonymous with, the epidemic: Kramer, GMHC, Lambda Legal, and early medical pioneers. One finds slightly more obscure names alongside more familiar ones: Cookie Mueller, a Warhol-esque celebutante of the day who helped give voice to a community struggling to come to terms with not only self-awareness, but physical self-preservation; and the earliest celebrity supporters, including Harvey Fierstein and Whoopi Goldberg.
For all the heroes, the exhibit steers clear of creating villains, whether individual or institutional. Reagan is mentioned only in the exhibit's introductory timeline, and since this five-year span predates the ensuing accusations against pharmaceutical companies for their speed of delivery of treatment, there are no real institutional or corporate bad guys here either. The NYHS manages to keep this historical timeline noble in a way that honors both the dead and the heroes that prevented there being far more.
And that's what this exhibit does, above all: it honors. It honors those who spoke up; those who documented; those who wondered aloud; those who used their voice, their words, their art, their science, their wealth, their celebrity or even their faith to effect change, even in the face of a deadly mystery.
One photo -- "Jerry Cirasulo, AIDS Home Attendant/Caretaker, St. Luke's," by Alon Reininer -- is perhaps the most moving in the whole exhibit, not solely for the near-skeleton of a man in the bed, but for the unlined, unworried, compassionate face of his caretaker, no doubt a member of the same community as the man for whom he cares.
The exhibit's impact lingers and resonates long after you leave the building, even if you've been lucky enough to not be bedside, at hospital or hospice or living room couch as another man faded away. I can only imagine the exhibit's impact if you had been.
Go when you have the time to engage with the pieces assembled. Go when you have time to read not just the placards, but the journal pages and ad copy. The written word, and what's between and around those lines, is where the remarkable power of this exhibit lies. Go when you have the capacity to grieve. Go to honor the staggering number of New Yorkers we lost. But please go. It's a remarkable encapsulation of a history that should be preserved but not repeated.
"AIDS In New York City: The First Five Years" runs through September 15th at the New York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, New York, and is presented with the assistance of NYCT, The Ford Foundation, and the Keith Haring Foundation