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The AIDS Quilt panels at rest

Sun 18 May 2014 In: HIV View at Wayback View at NDHA

Deep in a Te Papa storage vault the lovingly crafted AIDS Memorial Quilt panels rest in specially made cloth bags. Lying flat on deep shelves near some of Carmen's mementoes and a selection of gay performer Paul Jenden's costume creations, protected from moisture and light they rest under the care of Te Papa staffers like Andrea Hearfield and Stephanie Gibson. There are sixteen blocks of eight panels sewn together and a further eleven individual panels. Several of the panels were on display for the Candlelight Memorial Service this afternoon at Te Papa, forming a tangible link to some of the hundreds of gay men who died tragic deaths in the first two decades of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in New Zealand. The quilt panels were looked after by gay and family volunteers until April 2012 when final arrangements were made with Te Papa for the increasingly delicate creations to be stored and protected in perpetuity, part of the huge collection of items the museum holds which illustrate our country's short but rich history. "The emergence of the HIV epidemic was one of the most significant public health issues of the late 20th century and the quilts show the incredibly devastating impact on the community," says Gibson. "They show that intense impact at a personal level, also at a family and community level." The strength of a national institution like Te Papa, she says, lies in human stories. "The panels can work as memorials, as craft, they have a very strong impact." Hearfield says it was quite moving to see the quilts. "It was quite emotional seeing how much care people had put in to these memorials to their friends and family." When they were welcomed into Te Papa they entered the textiles collection where Hearfield and a conservator did a basic surface clean. "We gave them a light vacuuming to remove a little bit of loose dirt... there were little bits of grass from where they had been displayed at the Big Gay Out and other outdoor events." Their condition was "surprisingly good... but you could see that they had been used." Unfortunately some of the materials used for the quilt decorations are unstable and are already deteriorating. "Things like latex will naturally deteriorate no matter how good our conditions are. For contemporary materials we haven't been able to see their whole life-cycle yet but we are aware that they will degrade," says Gibson. Glues are another problem, tending to yellow and crack or lose adhesiveness. Laminated papers use adhesive compounds which are not conservationally stable. The plastic goes cloudy, and it peels back. "They were clever to use the products that they had at hand but long-term they are not the best," Hearfield notes. "But these are problems that museums and conservators all around the world grapple with. Even fine artists use unstable products and museums just have to deal with that." Once cleaned the quilt blocks were carefully folded along the joints where individual panels had been stitched together "so they lie flat, at rest, so the fabrics are not stressed." Layers of Tyvek plastic building paper alternate with the layers of fabric "and one of our volunteers made nice cloth covering bags for each one." Further protection is provided by any materials coming into contact with the quilts being stable and acid-free and the surrounding environment carefully controlled for humidity and temperature which is maintained at a constant 21 degrees. They will rarely be handled, and even then by gloved hands under controlled conditions. Although the individual panels will be displayed from time to time, subject to careful checking that they will be safe, the completed blocks are more likely to remain predominantly in storage, save for the occasional special exhibition in the future. Will most of the panels and their materials now have a long life? "I can't tell you, we've only been here since 1865," Gibson laughs. But, with an eye on the unknown future, the panels have been minutely documented through very high resolution photography. Jay Bennie - 18th May 2014

Credit: Jay Bennie

First published: Sunday, 18th May 2014 - 3:48pm

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