In a moving and heartfelt ceremony the New Zealand AIDS Memorial Quilt was this afternoon passed into the hands of Te Papa for its future care and conservation.
Just over two hundred people, including many gay men, friends and families of those who died in the first phase of the HIV and AIDS epidemic, gathered in St Matthew’s Church in downtown Auckland to witness the handover and to acknowledge the deep symbolism of the quilt panels.
Amongst the crowd were the Patron of the Quilt Project, Dame Cath Tizard, the first NZ infectious diseases specialist to have to grapple with the onslaught of the terrifying virus, Dr Rod Ellis-Pegler, plus representatives of the NZ AIDS Foundation including its formative executive director, Warren Lindberg.
Many who supported and nursed some of the hundreds of the gay community’s dying men of all ages in their final weeks also attended including people who had taken part in the creation of some of the memorial panels. An early champion of the rights of New Zelanders infected with HIV – almost all have been gay men – to be treated humanely by the health profession and undertakers, Bev Jellicich, was also amongst those with close connections to the quilt panels who were quietly present today.
Close friends of Peter Cuthbert, the Wellington gay man whose 1988 death from HIV/AIDS triggered the creation of the very first quilt panel, also attended to observe the hand-over.
Quilt Project Convenor Michael Bancroft acknowledged that the panels were a labour of love and commemoration and a way of dealing with the many hundreds of HIV-related deaths which traumatised the national gay community of the 1980s and 90s. In accepting the hundreds of panels Te Papa’s Dr Claudia Orange described them as messages of “love, grief, pain and remembrance.” She said Te Papa would store them “to the best of our ability and make them accessible whenever possible… we accept them on behalf of everyone in New Zealand and are proud to now be their kaitiake,” or guardian, she said.
Dame Cath Tizard personalised the significance of the panels by recalling her first realisation that close friend and neighbour, food writer Digby Law, was dying of AIDS-related infections and how her daughter Judith was one of those who also swung in to care for their dying family friend as the epidemic took hold. She urged the gathering to note the motto of the Quilt project: “Remember their names, Cherish their memory, Celebrate their lives.”
Soaring songs performed by GALS added to the mood of the occasion and the Quilt now begins its journey to Wellington where it will be formally welcomed into Te Papa on Thursday morning.