“They Were Really Us”: The UCSF Community’s Early Response to AIDS — A New Exhibition on Calisphere

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By Polina Ilieva, Head of Archives and Special Collections

When HIV/AIDS first seized the nation’s attention in the early 1980s, it was a disease with no name, known cause, treatment, or cure. Beginning as a medical mystery, it turned into one of the most divisive social and political issues of the 20th century. The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) was at the forefront of medical institutions trying to understand the disease and effectively treat early AIDS patients.

Drawing on materials from the AIDS History Project collections preserved in UCSF’s Archives and Special Collections, the UCSF Library presents “They Were Really Us”: The UCSF Community’s Early Response to AIDS, a new digital exhibition on Calisphere that highlights the ways UCSF clinicians and staff addressed HIV/AIDS from its outbreak in the 1980s to the foundation of the AIDS Research Institute in 1996. 

From medical professionals defining the disease and developing a model of care, to activists calling for treatments and public education, this exhibition amplifies the resilience of a community not only responding to its local needs, but also breaking ground on a larger scale with efforts that continue to impact HIV/AIDS care and research today. 

The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt panels displayed at San Francisco City Hall during San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Freedom Day Parade, UCSF Library, Archives and Special Collections.

This exhibition, including the digitization of materials used in this exhibition, has been made possible in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (PW-253755-17) “The San Francisco Bay Area’s Response to the AIDS Epidemic: Digitizing, Reuniting, and Providing Universal Access to Historical AIDS Records,” awarded to the UCSF Library in 2017-2020.

About UCSF Archives and Special Collections

UCSF Archives and Special Collections identifies, collects, preserves, and maintains rare and unique materials to support research and teaching of the health sciences and medical humanities and to preserve UCSF institutional memory. The Archives serve as the official repository for the preservation of selected records, print and born-digital materials, and realia generated by or about the UCSF, including all four schools, the Graduate Division, and the UCSF Medical Center.

The Special Collections encompasses a Rare Book Collection that includes incunabula, early printed works, and modern secondary works. The East Asian Collection is especially strong in works related to the history of Western medicine in Japan.The Japanese Woodblock Print Collection consists of 400 prints and 100 scrolls, dating from 16th to the 20th century. The Special Collections also contains papers of health care providers and researchers from San Francisco and California; historical records of UCSF hospitals; administrative records of regional health institutions; photographs and slides; motion picture films and videotapes; and oral histories focusing on development of biotechnology; the practice and science of medicine; healthcare delivery, economics, and administration; tobacco control; anesthesiology;  homeopathy and alternative medicine; obstetrics and gynecology; high altitude physiology; occupational medicine; HIV/AIDS and global health.

About Calisphere

Calisphere provides free access to California’s remarkable digital collections, which include unique and historically important artifacts from the University of California and other educational and cultural heritage institutions across the state. Calisphere provides digital access to over one million photographs, documents, letters, artwork, diaries, oral histories, films, advertisements, musical recordings, and more.
Calisphere Exhibitions are curated sets of items with scholarly interpretation that contribute to historical understanding. Exhibitions tell a story by adding context to selected digital primary sources in Calisphere, thereby bringing the digital content to life. Calisphere Exhibitions are curated by contributing institutions and undergo editorial review. We are currently refining these processes, which are outlined in the Contributor Help Center. Please contact us if you’re interested in learning more about Calisphere Exhibitions.

New Online Exhibit – Shanti Projects: Histories of Shanti Project and the AIDS Crisis

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We are delighted to announce a launch of an online exhibit, Shanti Projects: Histories of Shanti Project and the AIDS Crisis curated by University of Minnesota American Studies graduate student Brendan McHugh. It documents Shanti Project’s AIDS care work during the early decades of the AIDS crisis. Since 1974 Shanti has provided psychosocial peer support counseling to people with life-threatening illnesses and their loved ones in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. During the early years of the AIDS crisis, Shanti rose to the challenge by creating groundbreaking services for people living with AIDS/HIV. For much of the 1980s and 1990s Shanti was one of the largest AIDS organizations in the U.S. The plurality of the exhibit’s title reflects the vast array of people’s experiences at Shanti during that time period, as well as those who work with Shanti today. Visit the exhibit at https://shantiprojects.dash.umn.edu

Shanti Projects online exhibit homepage
Shanti Projects online exhibit homepage

Shanti Projects is organized to reflect the process of becoming involved with Shanti as a volunteer. Alongside the main exhibit are three multimedia pages showcasing the work of photographers Judi Iranyi, Mariella Poli, and Jim Wigler and their portraits of people with AIDS/HIV who played important roles with Shanti. In the future, the final page Active Listening will provide audio clips from oral histories conducted for this project with accompanying transcripts to follow. Additional materials and sources have been provided by The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Historical Society, University of California, San Francisco, and generous interviewees personal materials.

A Shanti Support Group, circa 1985. Photo by Judi Iranyi
A Shanti Support Group, circa 1985. Photo by Judi Iranyi

There will also be a newsletter published monthly to announce updates on new material and events connected to the exhibit. Please sign up through the link on the exhibit website. For more information contact Brendan McHugh at mchug103@umn.edu.

[This press release was provided by Brendan McHugh]

They Were Really Us, AIDS History Exhibit, Opens on October 1

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This is a guest post by exhibit curator Sabrina Oliveros 

When HIV/AIDS first seized the nation’s attention in the early 1980s, it was a disease with no name, known cause, treatment, or cure. Beginning as a medical mystery, it turned into one of the most divisive social and political issues of the 20th century.

On October 1, 2019, UCSF Archives & Special Collections is opening the exhibit They Were Really Us: The UCSF Community’s Early Response to AIDS. Featuring materials from the Archives’ extensive AIDS History Project Collections, the show highlights ways individual professionals affiliated with UCSF acted to address HIV/AIDS following its outbreak. Their responses included working in and with the larger San Francisco community – and continue to impact HIV/AIDS care and research today.

The exhibit title comes from a statement by Dr. Paul Volberding, who co-founded the country’s first dedicated AIDS Clinic in 1983; he now serves as the Director of UCSF’s AIDS Research Institute:

“The patients were exactly our age… all those other ways that we tend to separate ourselves meant very little when you realize that the patients had gone to the same schools, they listened to the same music, they went to the same restaurants. So they were really us… which added to the commitment that I think all of us had.”

Early milestones

The first proofs of that commitment are traced through displays on the main lobby (third floor) of the UCSF Library.

Here, papers, slides, photographs, and artifacts help outline early milestones in HIV/AIDS research and care. These include the foundation of the Kaposi’s Sarcoma Clinic at UCSF, which sought to understand the mysterious “cancer” that turned out to be AIDS; the discovery of the HIV virus in 1983 by Dr. Jay Levy; the establishment of the outpatient and inpatient AIDS clinics at San Francisco General Hospital; and the development of the holistic San Francisco Model of AIDS Care.

Pioneering and compassionate, this model treated people with AIDS not simply as patients requiring medical attention, but as complex individuals also in need of psychological, social, economic, and political support.

Excerpts from the diary of Bobbi Campbell – a UCSF nursing student who championed the People With AIDS Self-Empowerment Movement – help tell some of these individual stories. So do a selection of newsletters and other materials that lend voices to persons with AIDS.

A loaned section of the AIDS Memorial Quilt caps off the displays.

Community voices

The outbreak of HIV/AIDS devastated the city of San Francisco; it also mobilized the community. Exhibits on the first floor of the library showcase the work done by community organizations that, beyond the medical front, fought HIV/AIDS.

Reproductions of posters – mostly from UCSF’s longest-running partners, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Shanti Project – represent outreach and educational campaigns necessary to combat the disease. Materials from Mobilization Against AIDS and the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP) speak to the political battle that AIDS became.

How much of an impact did these advocacy groups make? A selection of letters, written to the leaders of Mobilization Against AIDS and AIDS Treatment News, offer an idea.  

Continuing care

On the fifth floor of the library, displays touch on two more milestones following the 1980s.

The first, UCSF’s sponsoring of the 6th International Conference on AIDS, is one of the many examples of how physicians and researchers have expanded their work on a global scale. Revisiting this 1990 conference is timely, as the 23rd International Conference on AIDS will take place in Oakland and San Francisco in July next year – the first time the conference will be in the Bay Area in nearly three decades.

The second milestone, the founding of the AIDS Research Institute in 1996, puts a focus on the UCSF’s continuing efforts to find a cure, and end HIV/AIDS once and for all.

They Were Really Us will be on view until September 2020: https://www.library.ucsf.edu/archives/lectures-exhibits/