The UK AIDS Memorial Quilt celebrates the lives of those tragically lost to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 90s. To mark World AIDS Day, the quilt is available online for the first time as it launches on Google Arts & Culture to ensure those who died are never forgotten.
The historic memorial quilt is made up of 42 large pieces each comprised of eight panels commemorating someone in the UK who died of an AIDS-related illness and lovingly made by their friends, lover or family. Memorial quilt making has continued over the years and new individual and large pieces have been added to the collection to form a living memorial with a focus on the person’s life, passions and interests – rather than their death.
Google Arts & Culture is an online platform of images and videos of artworks and cultural artefacts. Now visitors to the platforms can view each panel of the UK’s AIDS quilt in ultra-high resolution, read emotional testimonials and listen to new audio recordings from volunteers and some of the people who created the work.
The opportunity for a global audience to explore the quilt online is particularly poignant as for many years it lay in storage at risk of deterioration before a coalition of HIV charities (George House Trust, Terrence Higgins Trust, The Food Chain, Sahir House, Positively UK, Waverley Care and Positive East) decided to safeguard the quilt’s future and ensure it is seen by as many people as possible.
Frankie O’Reilly made a quilt for his partner Georgie shortly after he died of AIDS-related illnesses in October 1992. He said: 'I wanted to do something productive rather than sitting in the house staring at walls. Making the quilt not only helped me to process my grief, it’s allowed me to still share my life with Georgie and keep his name and story alive.
'I put a photo of him as a four year old on the panel to show he was someone’s son at a time when people living with HIV and gay men were so stigmatised.
'It’s fantastic that Georgie’s quilt will be online for the very first time thanks to Google Arts & Culture. He has family in Ireland who will now be able to look at his quilt whenever they want. It’s a huge comfort to know that long after I’ve gone, Georgie will be remembered.
'I’m very proud of him, all the friends I’ve lost, and the people that survived. Nobody will ever understand their bravery.'
Gill Brigg joined seven friends to make a panel for her childhood friend Vaughan Michael Williams after he died in 1990.
Gill said: 'Making the panel wasn’t about being part of the bigger picture. It was all about remembering and grieving for Vaughan. I can see now, all these years on, that he’s part of this gigantic jigsaw of people.
'For the last month of his life, Vaughan chose not to use his real name. When he was hospitalised he used a pseudonym Michael Williams. So we felt making the quilt using his name writ large – Vaughan Michael Williams – was a way of giving him his name back. Giving his voice back, his agency, his personality.'
Those remembered in the quilt include writer Bruce Chatwin, actors Ian Charleson and Denham Elliot, gay rights activist Mark Ashton and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. There are also tributes without a name due to the stigma surrounding HIV at the time.
Terry Higgins was the first named person to die of an AIDS-related illness in the UK in July 1982. His death sparked the creation of a charity in his name to raise awareness of the mysterious illness and ultimately saved lives.
But until now there was never a memorial quilt to remember Terry and celebrate his life.
The Terry Higgins Memorial Quilt, which was made to mark 40 years since his death, is also digitised on Google Arts & Culture and can be viewed alongside the panels from the 1980s and 90s.
Visitors to the online platform will get to know Terry better than ever before through each of the eight panels celebrating different aspects of his character, including as a Welshman, gay man and his time in the Royal Navy.
You can also learn about the Terry Higgins Memorial Quilt and view it in high definition on our site.
The Terry Higgins Memorial Quilt will also be on display to the public for the first time at Millennium Gallery in Sheffield from Friday 1 December.
Artist Sir Grayson Perry, said: 'Philippa and I were pleased to feature the UK AIDS Memorial Quilt on Grayson’s Art Club. It is a piece of social history that documents the losses of the UK’s AIDS crisis.
'Each panel remembers an individual with love and highlights the very human impact of the AIDS epidemic. It shows the power of art for those who create it as well as those in wider society.'
Siobhán Lanigan, from the UK AIDS Memorial Quilt Conservation Partnership, said: 'We are delighted that from today people will be able to view the UK AIDS Memorial Quilt online anywhere in the world. This moving collection of images and words captures the beauty of the physical Quilt in a new way. It helps us to honour the hundreds of people commemorated and ensure they are not forgotten.
'During their lives, many of the people remembered here lived with the fear of being known due to the stigma surrounding their HIV diagnosis.
'This platform celebrates every one of the lives lost at that time whether named or unknown, with pride and joy. It is a rich and vibrant collection of memories, full of wonderful images and stories to be cherished. Our thanks go to all the volunteers who have helped curate the collection, and to Google Arts & Culture for making it possible.'
Richard Angell, Chief Executive of Terrence Higgins Trust, said: 'We’re grateful to Google Arts & Culture for working with us to ensure those lost in the darkest days of the HIV epidemic are never forgotten, including our own Terry Higgins.
'The Terry Higgins Memorial Quilt has surpassed all of our expectations and I notice something new every time I see it. It is a fittingly stunning tribute to Terry as a friend, lover, Welshman, gay man, activist and to his incredible legacy through our charity Terrence Higgins Trust. I can’t wait for people across the world to see it and get to know Terry.'
Amit Sood, Director at Google Arts & Culture, said: 'We are incredibly honoured to partner with the UK AIDS Memorial Quilts Partnership to bring these powerful and moving quilts online for the first time.
'The Memorial Quilts are a poignant reminder of the lives lost to AIDS, and we hope that by making them more accessible to people around the world, we can celebrate and remember all those featured on the quilts, while helping to raise awareness and understanding of HIV/AIDS.'
The UK AIDS Memorial Quilt is being exhibited on Sunday 3 December in London at HIV charity Positive East (159 Mile End Road, London, E1 4AQ) from 10am-4pm.