According to UNAIDS, 35 million people have died from AIDS since the start of the epidemic; and currently, there are 36.7 million people living with HIV/AIDS. Yet, with so many people affected by this epidemic, only one museum exists in the entire world devoted to it: The World AIDS Museum and Educational Center in Wilton Manors, Florida. The museum, which opened its doors on May 15, 2014, grew out of a Fort Lauderdale-based group, Pozitive Attitudes, a topic driven support group for people infected or affected by HIV. Around 2007, the facilitator of the group, Steve Stagon, began creating historical HIV/AIDS exhibits for discussion, which evolved into the museum that exists today.
“One of the questions I always get about the museum is why here?” says museum operations manager, Ed Sparan. “Because this is the epicenter of the epidemic. Miami-Dade County ranks number one, Broward number two, and Palm Beach County number six for all new HIV infections.”
A historical timeline forms the heart of museum. The timeline includes some surprising entries such as information on cases of people who died of “mysterious illnesses” decades before the recognized start of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and whose blood were tested from preserved blood samples and were posthumously determined to have died from AIDS.
In addition to the permanent exhibit, the World AIDS Museum also features rotating exhibits that travel elsewhere as part of the museum’s mission of “Documenting, Remembering, Educating, Enlightening and Empowering.” For instance, the last few months the museum has been showing the photo exhibit Unmasked: Real Faces of HIV (photo, at top). Today—for World AIDS Day—the exhibit moves to the Wynwood Art District in Miami. Other traveling exhibits the museum uses for education include “Saving Grace: HIV in the Black Community” and “Heels to Heaven” about the epidemic and its effects on the transgender community.
Next up, the museum will exhibit works from its AIDS Awareness Art contest in January 2018. The contest, which has run annually for several years, is open to all professional and amateur artists in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties.
“What I have noticed is that every single person that comes here has a ’wow!’ moment,” recounts Sparan. “They realize that it’s not a sad place, it’s an emotional place. And, no matter the place they come from when they arrive, it may make them look at how HIV/AIDS affects them personally, or evaluate their own sexual experiences and practices.”
The World AIDS Museum and Educational Center is located at 1201 NE 26th Street, Wilton Manors, Florida. For more information, visit WorldAIDSMusuem.org.