(USA TODAY written by Kim Paintero) It was on June 27, 1987, when a group of grieving friends and loved ones hung a 40-panel quilt from a balcony in San Francisco to memorialize 40 lives lost to AIDS.
Their act inspired thousands of mothers, brothers, friends and lovers to make and send in their own panels and, soon, that quilt became the world's biggest piece of folk art and the nation's most tangible symbol of the epidemic.
The AIDS Memorial Quilt will be shown in its entirety - in stages, in more than 50 different venues - from June 27 to July 25 in Washington, D.C.:
47,000+: Number of individual 3-foot-by-6-foot panels
93,000+: Number of names on panels
54 tons: Weight of entire quilt
1.3 million square feet: Size of quilt, if it was laid out in its entirety at one time
33 days: Time it would take to view the entire quilt, viewing each panel for one minute
Families and friends who sewed names, photos and mementos into the grave-size, 3-foot-by-6-foot rectangles, two decades or two months ago, still grieve and still hope to raise awareness and inspire action against the epidemic, she says.
Some things have changed, though. For one thing, the quilt has gone digital. Even as the physical blocks of fabric are laid out, visitors to the Smithsonian festival will be invited to explore the quilt through three digital tools :
•A 4-foot-long table with an interactive touchscreen where users can search for photos of the panels by name or see an aerial view of what the whole quilt would look like laid out at once.
•A 50-inch wall screen with an interactive time line of the quilt and the AIDS epidemic.
•A mobile app for a website (www.aidsquilttouch.org) where visitors can search, view, and comment upon photos of the panels.
Then, during the AIDS conference, visitors will be able to use the app to find the physical location of panels on display, says Anne Balsamo , a professor of interactive media and communication at the University of Southern California. She is coordinating the digital project, developed by teams at several universities and Microsoft.
Later, she says users will be able to track panels as they travel for smaller displays.
The digital tools are meant to augment, not replace, the fabric quilt, Balsamo says. "The quilt is a very important, but very fragile memorial," she says. The digital tools make it accessible to a larger audience, even as the Names Project continues to maintain, show and grow it.
Maintaining that physical quilt - formally named a national treasure in 2005 and still growing by about one panel per day - is a constant job for a small staff at the Atlanta headquarters, where the quilt is stored and where portions are shipped out for many smaller events each year, Rhoad says. But the trip to Washington is an especially monumental undertaking: Operations manager Roddy Williams says he just packed two 53-foot trucks and one 26-foot truck and will begin training the first of thousands of on-site volunteers Saturday.
On one truck: a panel Williams made just a few months ago for Andrew Lowery, a friend from Atlanta who died in 2006. The panel includes fabric from Lowery's favorite disco shirt - and a computer code viewers can swipe with a smartphone to see Lowery's artwork.
Also coming: a panel made in the mid-1990s for Patrick Leo Herndon, a Texas social worker who died of AIDS in 1988, at age 41.
Herndon's sister, Cindi Love, 57, of Abilene, Texas, will travel to Washington to see it.
"I will be reconnected with him again and that is precious to me," says Love, who also has a son with HIV.
She hopes Patrick's panel and all the others can send a message: "There is no cure. I believe that if we don't memorialize the people we lost, we may forget to continue to fight."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 1.2 million people in the United States are living with HIV and that more than 600,000 have died.
More on the Names Project and the Washington events is at Quilt2012.org.