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Researchers Digitize AIDS Quilt to Make It a Research Tool

Image from Wikicommons

Anne Balsamo came of age in the 1980s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic that marked her generation.

“I was growing up when AIDS was a death sentence for a lot of young men,” she says. “Everyone knew a person who had lost someone, and you couldn’t not be affected.”

So when Ms. Balsamo, director of learning at the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California, decided to start a large-scale digital humanities project, she immediately thought of digitizing the AIDS Quilt, a piece of public art that has been growing for the past 25 years.

Since the quilt was first created in 1987, people have been sewing and sending panels—each panel honoring someone who died from the disease—to be added to the work. Now maintained by the NAMES Project Foundation, the quilt has 48,000 panels, sewn into blocks of eight panels each, and covers more than 1.3 million square feet.

Ms. Balsamo began digitizing the AIDS Quilt in 2010, after receiving a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The NAMES Project had collected photos of the blocks—though not of the individual panels—over two decades, but the photos were in varying resolutions and the attached data was stored in outdated formats, she says.

So Ms. Balsamo’s team at USC, along with researchers at Brown University and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, formatted and managed this information to create an updated digital database of the quilt, designed for a tabletop browser (a tabletlike, table-sized computer). Users could search a name to view the block with the relevant panel, and then add comments, or see where the panel is being displayed.

The team then collaborated with the University of Iowa Digital Studio for Public Humanities to build a version for regular browsers. Portions of the physical quilt and tabletop browsers were on display at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington last week, and the digital quilt is online at AIDS Quilt Touch.

The digital quilt makes the art more accessible now that people can find blocks easily and zoom in and out of different areas, says Dale MacDonald, technology manager for the Annenberg Innovation Lab and a member of Ms. Balsamo’s team.

“There’s a problem of scale: There is no space on the planet to see all of the quilt together at once,” he says. “So with the digital version we want to make it something manageable and comprehensible.”

Team members consider themselves “digital quilt archaeologists,” using the database to provide more information for those interested, Ms. Balsamo says. For example, someone went to the display during the Folklife Festival asking to see the panel with a Muppet on it, created for someone who had worked on the show.

“People over at the physical quilt were sending people to us to get information,” Ms. Balsamo said. “Someone wanted that Muppet panel, so we went to Google and searched the block for the person who worked with Jim Henson on the Muppets, who had died of AIDS. And in 48,000 panels, we found the needle in the haystack.”

Right now, users can search only by name. The team will apply for an NEH grant next spring to pay for programmers to expand the database and make it searchable by parameters such as city and birth and death dates.

These expanded capabilities would make the database a powerful research tool, says Shannon Brogdon-Grantham, a graduate student studying art conservation at the University of Delaware.

“One hundred years from now, when the textiles break down, you can still have the digital effort,” she says. “It will be the primary source, the historical document of visual cultural trends over the past half century.”

For that to happen, it will be necessary to crowdsource public help to categorize the various components in a block, Ms. Balsamo says. Volunteers would receive a block and then be prompted to label the different panels so that, in the future, the database is searchable by individual panel instead of block. They would next be asked to identify features such as materials, images, and dates to help create a more comprehensive database. Volunteers could also help sort through all the information that came with the submitted panels, such as letters of dedication or pictures.

“There’s a half-million pieces of ephemera in these file drawers that should be organized,” Ms. Balsamo says. “We are stewards of culture, and we want this to push not only the humanities and digital humanities, but computer scientists, hard sciences, to create this collaborative project.”

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