Q&A | ‘One of our aims is to educate the public about the HIV/Aids epidemic’ - Museums Association

Q&A | ‘One of our aims is to educate the public about the HIV/Aids epidemic’

Ruskin Collection curator Ashley Gallant on preparing to display the Terrence Higgins memorial quilt
Terrence Higgins memorial quilt
Terrence Higgins memorial quilt © Sheffield Millenium Gallery

A new memorial quilt to celebrate the life of the first named person to die of an Aids-related illness in the UK is on display for the first time at Sheffield's Millennium Gallery.

The quilt forms part of an exhibition in the institution's Ruskin Collection gallery exploring the power of handcraft to make positive change. It also features art from the Yorkshire Speak Their Name Suicide Memorial Quilt, Fine Cell Work, and Freeman College.

Ashley Gallant, curator of the Ruskin Collection, spoke to Museums Journal about how the display came to fruition.

What is the message behind the display?

The idea of the memorial quilt started in the 80s and 90s. Each section features eight panels representing those who have passed away from HIV/Aids. This memorial quilt is in honour of Terrence Higgins, the first named person in the UK to die from the illness, on the 40th anniversary of his death. It’s incredibly important that we share his story and the wonderful charity in his memory that supports people living with the illness. 

What is the aim of the exhibition?

We want this collection to be a teaching resource for the community. One of the aims of the display is to educate the public about the HIV/Aids epidemic. The same goes for other parts of the exhibition like the Speak Their Name quilt, which memorialises people lost to suicide. The loved ones who lost these people to suicide come together to make the quilt, building a support network with one another. Building community is at the centre of what we do. 

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What can visitors expect when they come to the museum?

It is a mix between the historic collection and contemporary artworks that show how craft making brings communities together. Ruskin believed that making things with your hands allowed you to express yourself in a way that gives meaning to life. So, we display Ruskin’s drawings alongside more contemporary works like textiles and metalwork. You can see everything from the memorial quilt to the 19th century drawings by John Ruskin. 

What steps do you take to ensure a safe space while managing the exhibition?

We want there to be an array of voices so it's not just my curatorial voice. We want it to be a polyvocal space for people to express their art in a way that is true to them.

When we started organising the display of the Aids memorial quilt, we approached the Terrence Higgins charity and spoke openly with them about our requests and intentions for the piece.

We asked them if they could recommend a quilt that would fit the exhibition and worked together to come to the best decision. It's about how we can help them bring attention to this cause in a way that is respectful to their stories. 

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How do you navigate exhibitions about sensitive topics as a curator?

With the Speak Their Name quilt, I made a point of discussing our loan forms with those involved. I discussed with them that there was a part of the form that asks for the financial value of the piece for insurance and assured them I would take care of this. We want to assure them that we don’t view the object in this way as it's a memorial. It's important to be mindful of what people want and make sure they’re comfortable. 

Ashley Gallant (left), curator, and Becky, a woman living with HIV, pictured in front of the Terrence Higgins Memorial Quilt © Andy Brown

How do you ensure there’s a good flow to the museum?

In the permanent exhibition room, we have a timeline of the collection to outline its purpose and history. The historic textiles sit in cases directly below the two big quilts that hang above them. This makes a very clear connection between the textile works despite their age difference.

The metalwork from the Freeman college, which is a special educational needs college, is displayed alongside historic metalwork so we are always linking it back to the historic collections. We often mix community work with our historical collection to show how, even though these pieces are 140 years apart, they are speaking to the same messages. 

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How important is equality, diversity, and inclusion to your decision-making?

It is always in the forefront of our minds, especially with pieces like the Higgins memorial quilt. We remind ourselves that we are a museum for the people of Sheffield and we should represent the voices of everyone.

The quilt is making this point about a community which is marginalised. Shame and stigma is at the heart of the story and placing that in the middle of this historic collection helps to dispel that. We are always working on improving our diversity of voice.

We have a community curator and other projects across the museum where we are working on long-form embedded curation with marginalised communities.

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