Exhibit of AIDS posters at UR
Almost all schoolchildren learn about AIDS during health class now.
But 30 years ago, when scientists first identified Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrom and the HIV virus that causes it, misinformation was rampant. And public health officials wanted the word out.
Posters were on subways, on college campuses, anywhere where safe sex could be promoted.
Dr. Edward Atwater, a professor emeritus at the University of Rochester Medical Center, has collected these posters and other awareness information since 1990. So far, he has amassed more than 6,200 pieces.
“I’m a collector by nature,” Atwater says. “But I started to collect because of the history of medicine — and these are artifacts of medicine. But I do believe (the posters) are more social history.”
The University of Rochester now has the collection online and is exhibiting pieces from it through May 21 at the Rush Rhees Library.
Atwater, now 85, started his collection after boarding a subway car on Boston’s Red Line and finding himself staring at a poster of two hands, a condom wrapper and text reading “Prevent AIDS. Use One.” Intrigued by the poster, he started to track how different societies viewed and responded to the various ads and posters regarding the worldwide epidemic.
He collected posters by traveling, trading and networking. Now, the posters come from more than 100 countries, in more than 60 languages and date back to 1983 — two years after Dr. Michael Gottlieb broke the news about the AIDS epidemic.
“The thing that makes the posters particularly interesting is what they show about different groups in certain countries,” says Atwater, a Rochester resident. “One poster will show how groups in Germany are different from groups in England, which are different than Canada.”
But the posters also send many social, religious, civic and public health messages toward different audiences, where some of the posters take a dramatic approach to convey the message, while others feature humor or artistic content.
The collection was also on display at the Hartnett Gallery at UR in 1992 and 1994. Since then, it has also been at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, SUNY Geneseo, Nazareth College, Dartmouth College and the American Advertising Museum among others. They also have been featured in Salon, Atlantic Monthly and the PBS News Hour.
Atwater donated the collection to UR in 2007.
Melissa Mead, director of UR’s Digital Projects Research Center, stresses the significance of the collection.
“When there is a cure (for AIDS), this collection will be a historical piece,” says Mead.