The 1980s in New York City were an unforgettable time. For some, it was a decade of revolutionary music like rock and roll and underground hip-hop, for others it was 10 years filled with Cold War-related political controversy and activism. And yet for others, the first half of the 1980s was a time of fear, uncertainty and resentment as AIDS laid down its first footprints on the concrete jungle.
These debut years, from 1981-85 have typically only been well known to those who experienced the effects of the disease first hand, as it tore apart their families and left them to be picked apart by prejudices and assumptions. But now, the New-York Historical Society, using archives from the New York Public Library, New York University and the National Archive of LGBT History is seeking to change this, by launching a new exhibit entitled AIDS in New York: The First Five Years, which takes viewers on a truth-revealing journey through the early years of the disease.
The exhibition begins by setting the scene during the late 1970s. It contains photographs featuring hot spots in the city that reflected the values and culture of the times such as the sex or Swinger’s club Plato’s Retreat as well as documents that depict the general acceptance of differing sexualities at the time.
The exhibition then takes a turn with the birth and proliferation of the disease with artifacts that display the rising death tolls and confusion among the press and populace as the new disease spread, with no known and available cure or treatment. Photographs, videos, and other documents give viewers an insight into the social groups that were most suspected of carrying the disease, the Four H’s (homosexuals, heroin addicts, hemophiliacs and Haitians) and the struggles and challenges those diagnosed faced as the people of New York tried to make sense of the virus and the changes it was eliciting.
The exhibition moves on to feature the brief moment of clarity as the virus was first identified. One of the most capturing artifacts of this part of the exhibition is a yellow case containing eight small plastic bottles. It is a 1985 Abbott Human Lymphotropic Virus Type III EIA Kit, the first test that could screen for the virus and it’s creation marked the end of the period of complete uncertainty as to what the disease was.
The exhibition is comprised of shocking and insightful original documents and files such as original doctor’s memos, poignant diary entries, protest posters, and audio and visual clips, such as a video excerpt from the 1985 premiere of Larry Kramer‘s caustic play about the time entitled The Normal Heart.
The rise of AIDS in New York City was not just the birth of an unidentified disease, which had no known cure or treatment. It was the arrival of social stigmas, altered political beliefs, desperate moments in medical history, which all transformed New York City and its inhabitants, regardless of whether they were diagnosed or not. The exhibition outlines the sheer power of fear and prejudice and highlights the changes that our beloved city went through as the identities and sexual licenses of many of its citizens were challenged.
The exhibition ends with artifacts depicting the death of adored actor Rock Hudson in October 1985, when “knowledge of the epidemic moved from the margins of society to a wider world.” AIDS in New York: The First Five Years is currently on display and will continue to be on display until September 15 at the New York Historical Society.
WHEN: June 7 2013 – September 15 2013
The New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY, 10024