The NAMES Project’s AIDS Memorial Quilt consists of 48,000 3’ x 6’ panels and 94,000 names of individuals who died from the autoimmune disease; it is the largest community art project in the world.
The idea for the memorial quilt came to Cleve Jones, a gay rights activist, in 1985 following the annual candlelight vigil commemorating San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and the city’s first openly gay Supervisor, Harvey Milk, who both had been murdered. Marchers inscribed names of persons who died of AIDS on placards, which they taped to the old Federal Building in the city. To Jones, the cardboard pieces resembled a patchwork quilt. In 1987 Jones and several others founded The NAMES Project to collect memorial panels from across the country for the AIDS Memorial Quilt. In October 1987 they displayed the quilt, consisting of 1,920 panels, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., during the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.
AIDS, an incurable disease that the medical researchers knew relatively little about in the mid-1980s, had raised hysteria and led to fear, mistrust, and violence against those with AIDS. Jones and his team intended the quilt to humanize individuals suffering from AIDS and change Americans’ response to one of compassionate, humane action.
Many panels are not quilted and include materials not typically used in quilts. However, the NAMES Project’s use of the word “quilt,” the inscribed names, each panel’s human scale and rectangular shape, the format of a textile patchwork comprised of individual units combined into a larger whole, and the creation of each panel by loved ones all connect the AIDS quilt to historical commemorative quilts. For these reasons, and because 14 million people have viewed displays of the quilt worldwide, the AIDS Memorial Quilt has been effective in its activist goals of raising awareness, changing attitudes, supporting AIDS charities, and spurring government action in response to the seriousness of the AIDS epidemic.