Like many others, School of Business & Social Sciences Professor Randy Hanson has a personal connection to the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. When he first started bringing sections of the quilt to Colby-Sawyer, he did it with the hope of honoring the memory of a partner he lost to the AIDS virus in 1994. However, over time, the display has emerged as a powerful educational tool, demonstrating the nexus of the personal and the political, animating the relationship between the past and the present, and combining aspects of the instructional and the experiential. Hanson’s classes now host the display, and he expects it will become an annual event on campus.
Since the quilt’s conception in 1985 by human rights activist Cleve Jones, it has grown to such a size that it can no longer be shown in its entirety. While the full quilt can be explored virtually, those who wish to have a real-world encounter with the quilt must visit a display like the one at Colby-Sawyer. And, each time the quilt arrives at the college, there are new panels to view.
“When you make a request for the quilt, you can ask for panels of particular people,” Hanson said. We make a list of names of people that [the students] would be interested in. And last year, we did not get a single one of those people. But this year, we got pretty much every person we asked for.”
In Hanson’s course, students read Cleve Jones’ memoir, in which he describes two of the blocks received by the college this year. This year’s display also accommodated student requests for panels dedicated to famous victims of the AIDS pandemic, such as Freddie Mercury and Rock Hudson. “Of course, you know, some of the most powerful ones are the just the normal people, right?,” Hanson explained. “The regular people. One example, Hanson explained, was a panel dedicated to a man who had worked as a waiter. The students seemed to take particular notice of the man’s flip flops, which had been incorporated into the quilt. Hanson also mentioned that this year’s panels exhibited an unusual degree of artistry.
One student who was particularly involved in the project this year was Finn Husband ’23, who will graduate this spring with a degree in biology. Husband’s interest in the AIDS epidemic — and the quilt
, specifically — stems from the fusion of his humanities coursework, which contextualized the history of the AIDS epidemic from a social perspective, and his scientific understanding of the mechanics of the virus, which spurred him to experience greater sympathy for those who have been affected.
“It sounds weird to put it like this, but the virus is just so devastating, with how it hits your immune system—it’s kind of a perfect virus,” Husband said. And knowing how awful a virus can be made me feel so much more compassion for the people who are combatting it.”
This semester, Husband had the opportunity to work closely with Hanson on the quilt display, helping to set it up
, and even giving the inaugural remarks at the opening ceremony. He is currently writing a paper on the quilt and its cultural significance.
“It’s interesting because [the quilt] is more of a forum than a memorial,” Husband said. “There’s a kind of communication between the maker and the viewer, and there’s more of an interpretive aspect. It’s kind of up to the viewer to understand and engage.”
Husband plans to enter medical school and become a doctor, but he hopes that what he has learned from his work on the AIDS Quilt display will remain with him for the rest of his life.