Beginning Friday, summer tourists viewing inaugural ball gowns or a replica of Julia Child's kitchen at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., may run across a small exhibition on the 30th anniversary of AIDS. Described by a co-curator as an example of the museum's vital mission, the display nevertheless was subjected to careful internal scrutiny in light of controversy over the "Hide/Seek" exhibition last year at the National Portrait Gallery.
A cross section of political, social, and scientific stories of the crisis, "HIV and AIDS 30 Years Ago" and "Archiving the History of an Epidemic: HIV and AIDS, 1985-2009," reflects the many groups affected by the virus and shies away from overt sexual imagery. But the ephemera on display doesn't soft-pedal gay issues either, nor does it exclude the homophobic rhetoric that came from religious conservative groups at the time. There's a vintage ad for a Baltimore bathhouse, a signed copy of Richard Berkowitz and Michael Callen's 1982 book How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach, and a 1983 Moral Majority Report headlined "Homosexual Diseases Threaten American Families." The lead image features a family of four wearing surgical masks.
Though based on historic record, the display faced a curating process described as "gingerly" by co-curator Katherine Ott, who works in the Smithsonian's Institution's division of medicine and science.
"There was never any question that we were going to do this, but we had far more scrutiny, I think, because of 'Hide/Seek,'" Ott said during a recent walk-through at the museum.
"Every exhibit is a negotiation -- with our visitors, with our funders, because we represent the full spectrum," Ott continued. "But our mission is to educate people about historical events, and we made sure we could back up every single thing here, that it was accurate. Some people who visit may have lived through this. Other people don't want to hear about the topic or may want to rewrite the history in some way."
"Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," which ended its run at the National Portrait Gallery in February and will be on view at the Brooklyn Museum this fall, was the subject of scorn from social conservatives following a November article by CNSNews.com, which went into exhaustive detail in describing sexual themes, LGBT content, and nude or seminude images in the show. Though the exhibition continued through its scheduled end date, Smithsonian officials removed from the show David Wojnarowicz's A Fire in My Belly, a video work that includes a scene of ants crawling across a crucifix. Wojnarowicz died of AIDS complications in 1992.
"Fire in My Belly is an example of political engagement in artistic form with the AIDS epidemic by an artist deeply concerned with the exploration of our response to that medical and societal calamity," "Hide/Seek" co-curator David C. Ward told CNS News in defense of the work. "That it is violent, disturbing, and hallucinatory precisely replicates the impact of the disease itself on people and a society that could barely comprehend its magnitude."
One Republican lawmaker, House Appropriations Committee member Jack Kingston of Georgia, called for a congressional investigation into Smithsonian funds. "If they've got money to squander like this -- of a crucifix being eaten by ants, of Ellen DeGeneres grabbing her breasts, men in chains, naked brothers kissing -- then I think we should look at their budget," Kingston said of the Smithsonian during a December Fox News appearance. ("Hide/Seek" was funded by outside donations and organizations including the Calamus Foundation and the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.)
Asked about the HIV display at the National Museum of American History, a spokesman for Kingston said the congressman would likely not comment on an exhibit he has not seen, though exhibitions in government-funded institutions should be subject to scrutiny for their appropriateness.
Linda St. Thomas, chief spokeswoman for the Smithsonian, told The Advocate that lawmakers did not bring up the "Hide/Seek" controversy during a May 12 appropriations subcommittee meeting on the Smithsonian's fiscal year 2012 budget.
Thomas said Smithsonian officials are well aware of the content in the new HIV 30-year retrospective exhibit: "It's appropriate for the Smithsonian and important to show our own collection from the 1980s, to [show] the science and the social history" of HIV and AIDS, she said.
Ott said the political aspect of the display -- namely government inaction in the early years of the crisis -- proved to be a challenging component in creating the exhibition. "We know that the political times we live in are pretty fractured and charged, but our goal is to educate. ... Here you had people who were dying, watching their friends and lovers dying, and they wanted response from the government and they weren't getting it. So they were angry, they were pissed off, and for good reason. And we wanted to capture that outrage and anger, because lives were on the line."
Information on the display and accompanying online features can be found at the National Museum of American History's website. During the course of the exhibit's run, curators will be featuring online interviews with those affected by HIV and AIDS over the past three decades.