There are all manner of museums in the world, from the heart-wrenching Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and renowned art galleries such as State Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, to the downright bizarre, such as the International UFO Museum in Roswell, N.M., and the Instant Ramen Museum in Osaka, Japan.
Yet, there has been no Museum of AIDS, no formal remembrance or commemoration of the worst public-health disaster in history, a modern-day plague that has infected an estimated 78 million people, 43 million of whom have died. (Those numbers are in dispute, but even if the estimates are off by a few million, the impact of AIDS is undeniable; it has scarred Africa as much as slavery did centuries ago.)
But that is about to change.
The Museum of AIDS in Africa is already a travelling exhibit, a pop-up museum that was on display most recently at the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia. Within a few years, it hopes to become a bricks-and-mortar institution, likely in Johannesburg or Durban, South Africa.
"It's an odd museum, because the pandemic is still on-going," said Deirdre Prins-Solani, past president of the International Council of African Museums and a board member of the AIDS museum. "But we think the time is right."
The time is right because, for the first time, AIDS deaths and new HIV infections are falling, so there may be a faint light at the end of the tunnel. Scientists are now talking seriously about ending the spread of the disease by 2020, and a world without AIDS in 2030.
The retrospection has begun, though history is already being lost as the elder statesmen of the AIDS movement age and die.
The Museum of AIDS in Africa will focus on that continent because it is, by far, the hardest-hit part of the world. The new institution will be in part a science museum that helps educate the public about the medical, social and political history of AIDS. The collection includes the first known sample of HIV, which was found in Leopoldville, Congo, in 1953; the field notes of Belgian researcher Dr. Peter Piot from his first expedition to find HIV in Africa in 1983; and the "HIV Positive" T-shirt sported by Nelson Mandela in 2002 in support of the Treatment Action Council. As well there's a sample of fabric called Juliana, which was brought to Tanzania by an itinerant trader in the 1970s. Many women who traded sex for the fabric later died of AIDS, a disease still known colloquially as "Juliana" in the region.
But the museum doesn't want to be a passive repository of artifacts in glass cases; it aims to be an interactive space for dialogue and, above all, remembrance.
"The pandemic has been brutal, and people need to grieve, individually and collectively," Prins-Solani said.
The centrepiece of the travelling exhibit – which will continue even after the museum is built – is a virtual memorial. Cards are distributed so people can write down the name of a loved one, and a memory.
"The virtual memorial gives people solace," said Carol Devine, a Canadian writer-researcher who used to work for Médecins sans frontières. "The memories people share are deeply personal and really touching."
Those stories will be catalogued and kept in digital form, a memorial to some of the millions of people who have died of AIDS.
The museum project actually has deep Canadian roots. It is the brainchild of Stephanie Nolen, a foreign correspondent at The Globe and Mail and author of the award-winning book 28 Stories of AIDS in Africa, and her close friend Ngaire Blankenberg, principal consultant with Lord Cultural Resources, a company that oversees museum projects worldwide.
Early funding and moral support has also come from the Stephen Lewis Foundation as well as the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa and Yusuf Khwaja Hamied, chairman of Cipla, the Indian generic-drug maker that famously brought the cost of antiretroviral treatments down to $350 a year from $10,000, opening the door for millions of Africans to get life-extending drug therapy.
As well, Lewis, the former United Nations special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa and co-founder of AIDS-Free World, is one of the project's most enthusiastic supporters.
"The museum will give the world in general, and Africa in particular, the kind of riveting presence that will honour those who have died, will embrace those living with the virus, and will stand as a formidable testament against the carnage of infectious disease," Lewis said. "It will be seen as a citadel of hope."