University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Heritage and Memory: The NAMES Project Quilt

Sophie Loftus, a second year History student at the University of Portsmouth, has written the following blog entry on Cleve Jones’ NAMES Project Quilt for the Introduction to Historical Research module. Sophie discusses how the quilt acts as an important memorial to the people who lost their lives to AIDS, while at the same time challenging social and cultural understandings of the disease. The module is co-ordinated by Dr Maria Cannon, Lecturer in Early Modern History at Portsmouth.

In 1989, activist Cleve Jones stood in front of the White House with a message. Jones stated: ‘We bring a quilt. We hope it will help people to remember. We hope it will teach our leaders to act.’ [1] In that year, with limited response or recognition from its government, the death toll from AIDS in the United States of America – not simply homosexual men, but also heterosexual women, children and men – already stood at almost 90,000. Some three years earlier, in 1986, Jones realised that the dead in San Francisco from HIV/AIDS had already reached 1000 people. At the annual march, held in honour of Harvey Milk on the anniversary of his assassination, Jones asked members of the march to put the names of those lost on placards as a form of remembrance. These were then hung on the side of the old federal building. The effect reminded Jones of a quilt, something familial, cosy, handed down through generations for warmth and memory. [2] Jones wanted to create a memorial to those who had died from AIDS. In the Quilt, Jones argued that he wanted to take AIDS from ‘a “gay disease” into a shared national tragedy.’ [3] By the time the NAMES Project Quilt was displayed on the Mall in Washington DC in October 1987, as part of the National March for Lesbian and Gay rights, there were almost 2000 panels. [4] As of June 2016, The AIDS Memorial quilt makes up more than 49,000 panels, each one to commemorate someone lost to HIV/AIDS. [5] This blog looks to examine the power of collective memory and remembrance and how historians can engage with these sources to understand the power of memory not just as a source, but also as a subject. [6]

The AIDS quilt. Image from Wikipedia.

Arthur Marwick argued that the definition of a primary document was one which ‘by its very existence records that some event took place.’ [7] However, it must be argued that when historians are looking at other types of sources for historical importance, by simply reducing an object to little more than evidence, this can remove any form of emotive understanding of an event. [8] Sarah Barber argued that each type of source has ‘its own history which overlaps and influences those of other sources.’ [9] Here, the AIDS memorial Quilt can be seen as a useful tool in the understanding of other forms of source doing the work of memorialisation. Elaine Showalter, argues that the Quilt is seen as a ‘metaphor of national identity.’ [10] Cleve Jones, in the Quilt, attempted to represent familial bonds. By creating a memorial to the sheer size of the AIDS problem in the United States, he wanted to create a ‘way for survivors to work through their grief in a positive, creative way.’ [11] By attempting to create a positive representation of the AIDS epidemic, Jones may not have realised that he was also tapping into the ways in which scholars had begun to understand that there was a violence to the 20th century, which meant that people attempting to understand and process grief would require new ways to do this. [12]

In the 1920s, Maurice Halbwach argued that collective memory was a ‘product of social frameworks.’ [13] He argued that history was the recording that remained once social memory faded away, and that ‘there is only one history.’ [14] However, this cannot be seen to be true; when understanding collective memory, one must understand that as a source, it is as unreliable as any other due to its potentially personal nature. The Quilt is a highly emotive piece, and some members of the LGBT community argued that it was too sanitised in its remembrance. Douglas Crimp argued that AIDS Activism hinged on how the gay community wished to be remembered, or how the crisis was intended to be seen: whether it was a disease ‘that has simply struck at this time and in this place – or as the result of gross political negligence.’ [15] Some members of the LGBT community argued that the Quilt was simply making the problem more palatable to heterosexual viewers. Thus, Marwick’s theory cannot be substantiated, collective memory cannot be seen as one history, for memory can be to some, a moment for grief and mourning, and for others a call to action and activism. [16]

Scholars such as Bill Niven have argued that collective memory can be fruitful in understanding the way in which states and governments have attempted to encourage groups to certain views. [17] The AIDS Memorial Quilt however, is a vital example of how collective memory can challenge this. At the time of its conception, the American government were doing everything in its power to ignore AIDS. President Ronald Reagan did not mention the word AIDS on television until 1986, by which point almost 15,000 people had died of the disease. It is here that it can be seen that collective memory, or what John Bodnar has called ‘vernacular culture’ is crucial in describing the way in which groups form ways which ‘reflect how they want to remember historical events’. [18] This can be important for underrepresented groups who wish to control the narrative surrounding the memory of their own. The Quilt can be seen as what Mary Fulbrook describes as a ‘remembering agent’, or as what Jennifer Power calls a ‘counter memorial’, a piece of history which can be seen as not only a political protest, but also arguably showcasing the human side of the AIDS crisis. [19] It is not as some memorials, including those also represented at the Mall where the first showing of the quilt was presented, are normally envisioned. It is not made of stone, it moves and grows. The Quilt travels the nation and the world, in an attempt to challenge social and cultural understandings of AIDS.

The Quilt was nominated in 1989 for a Nobel Peace Prize, and is the largest community art project in the world. [20] Cleve Jones created a memorial that grows every day, and can easily challenge historians regarding appropriate representations of remembrance. While some historians argue about the validity of collective memory as a source due to its potentially unreliable nature, the Quilt shows that counter memorials and representations of collective memory can be so important in understanding underrepresented history. They can place in the hands of historians and the world the ability to understand a past and a present which for some will never be memorialised in stone, but that people still require to grieve, to process, and to remember.


[1] Cleve Jones, When We Rise: My life in the Movement. (London: Constable, 2017). 194.

[2] Peter S. Hawkins, “Naming Names: The Art of Memory and the NAMES Project AIDS Quilt,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 19, No. 4 (Summer, 1993). 752-779.

[3] Hawkins, Naming. 752-779.

[4] Ibid.

[5] The NAMES Project, “AIDS Memorial Quilt FAQs”. https://www.aidsquilt.org/about/faqs, last accessed 11 April 2019.

[6] Joan Tumblety, “Introduction: working with memory as source and subject” in Memory and History: Understanding Memory as Source and Subject. ed. Joan Tumblety. (London: Routledge, 2013). 1-17.

[7] Sarah Barber and Corinna M. Peniston-Bird, “Introduction” in History beyond the text: A Students guide to approaching alternative sources. ed. Sarah Barber and Corinna M. Peniston-Bird. (London: Routledge, 2009). 1-13.

[8] Barber, Beyond. 1-13.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Elaine Showalter, Sister’s choice: tradition and change in American women’s writing. (Oxford: Clarendon Press,1991). 169.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Tublety, Memory. 1-17.

[13] Bill Niven and Stefan Berger, “Introduction” in Writing the History of Memory. ed Bill Niven and Stefan Berger, (London: Bloomsbury, 2014). 1-25.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Douglas Crimp, “Mourning and Militancy,” The MIT Press, Vol 51, (Winter 1989): 3-18.

[16] Jennifer Power, Movement, Knowledge, Emotion: Gay activism and HIV/AIDS in Australia. (Canberra: ANU Press, 2011). 157.

[17] Niven, Writing. 1-25.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Mary Fulbrook, “History Writing and ‘collective memory’” in Writing the History of Memory. ed Bill Niven and Stefan Berger, (London: Bloomsbury, 2014). 65-88; Power, Movement, 148.

[20] The NAMES Project, “AIDS Memorial Quilt Background.” https://www.aidsquilt.org/about/medianewsroom, last accessed 11 April 2019.

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