When Covid-19 hit and people spoke about their “first pandemic”, the queer community was painfully aware this wasn’t true for them. In fact, living and dying with HIV and AIDS is so prominent in the community’s history that the Schwules Museum (Gay Museum) has dedicated a new exhibition called “arcHIV. A search for traces” to the topic. It shows how the media and politicians stigmatised and criminalised HIV+ folks, and how the community stood together in solidarity.
The curators have grouped the exhibits along the topics of activism and law, faces and bodies, hope and death. One section is about the Schwules Museum itself, looking at the different ways it has presented the topic of HIV/AIDS over time.
Founded in 1985 and still relying heavily on volunteers, Schwules Museum is home to Germany’s biggest HIV-related archive. In the beginning, its exhibitions mostly showcased the art of gay cis men affected by AIDS. Over time, the tone has shifted to talking about the AIDS crisis as an event of the past. In a giant digital collage, Vincent Chevalier and Ian Bradley-Perrin contrast activist and commercial depictions of AIDS then and now and complain: “Your nostalgia is killing me!”
Alongside typewritten leaflets, handwritten letters and a quilt (a commemorative blanket decorated with photos, made by the sister of someone who died from AIDS), the exhibition also asks how can HIV be talked about in the future.
There are interviews from the museum’s Oral HIVstory project and a play made in cooperation with Theater X that details the experiences of young artists who encountered racism in the healthcare system. The relationship between queer AIDS history, drug use and suicide is also explored, including in diary entries from HIV+ photographer Jürgen Baldiga about his exhaustion from suffering. Baldiga ended his own life in 1993. His thoughts are presented in the form of tweets, reflecting the way modern media can be used for commemoration and exhibitions.
Schwules Museum has also been working on expanding the diversity of its protagonists in recent years, aiming to give more visibility to people who aren’t white, cis gay men. Its new exhibition is a reminder that, while Covid may have taken over the news, AIDS isn’t over for everyone.