HHH Impact Award candidates: Mia Vrijens on the House of HIV project

This year, HHH inaugurated the first Antonie Luyendijk-Elshout Early Career Impact Award, which rewards an excellent translation of academic research into public outreach. The HHH board awarded the prize to Antje Van Kerckhove for outstanding outreach projects stemming from her research on the use of DES, a synthetic estrogen, in Belgium. Overall, the board was very impressed with the quality of the applications it received. We thought it would be a great opportunity to share some of these projects with the HHH community. This month, Mia Vrijens, researcher at the Florence Nightingale Institute, presents her work on the exhibition House of HIV.

Mia Vrijens

House of HIV

In August and September 2022, the Dutch exhibition House of HIV, initiated by Leo Schenk (Hello
Gorgeous) and curated by Hugo Schalkwijk and Bart Krieger was held in Amsterdam. In preparation
for this exhibition Mia Vrijens conducted research and collected oral history interviews with
representatives of various communities as input. The organizations which initiated this exhibition
and brought together by Leo Schenk were Mainline, Prostitutie Informatie Center (PIC), Hiv
Vereniging, TransUnited, Mainline, ILHIA and Black Queer Archives.

House of HIV aimed to profile and exhibit the stories of the various communities involved in the fight
against HIV/Aids. The fight against HIV/Aids is not merely the story of the (white) homosexual men
who were affected by this disease, but the story of various other communities as well. These
communities were targeted as potentially risk categories in the official health policy, but less visible
to the general public. Most of them organized themselves to provide information that suited more
the needs of their supporters. Policy advisors communicated officially, but informal strategies were
developed and therefore its display was and is less visible to the public eye.

People interviewed represented communities of drug users, sex workers, undocumented LHTBIQ+,
trans community, hemophiliacs, women infected with hiv-aids, black and queer community, but also
people working with those specific communities but not always affiliated with the organizations
initiating the exhibition. The stories about the informal strategies and cultural demonstration to
inform the (former) communities at risk were collected Winter 2021 and Spring 2022. In the
Netherlands, that specific moment of time, Winter 2021-2022, was the moment in which new, strict
corona measures took place. During the interviews references to the Aids outburst in the 1980s and
its following social impact of exclusion, stigma, uncertainty, but also of survival, community,
belonging and solidarity were mentioned regularly. To take these interviews (almost 20 interviews in
approximately 6 months) during the most strict corona lockdowns gave unintentionally an extra layer
to the interviews as the participants made several references to the – for them – similar situation.
This layer makes the interviews in itself unique for future research. Originally, this was not the aim of
neither the researcher, Mia Vrijens, nor of the initiators of the exhibition.

The collected stories were input for the selected themes of the exhibition Fighting, Care,
Remembering, Healing.

Collecting the stories, talking with the people opened the participation of the various other groups as
well. People felt heard and were involved in the stories to share material and refer to others to share
their stories. To collect the stories, gatekeepers were sometimes protective of the stories. As oral
history always challenges the participation of the interviewer as well, this research theme was not an
exception to the rule. Questions like what is the purpose of the interviews (will it be used for
academic research, we do not collaborate with academics), and why are you the person to collect the
interview (you as a ‘white, heterosexual CIS-woman, hiv-status negative’), were challenges on a
personal level for the interviewer. To overcome such challenges and bridge the gap between the
purpose of the exhibition, and to face the expectations of the interviewees usage of social skills of
the researcher was prerequisite.

The outreach of the product is not just measurable by the number of the visitors who attended the
(free accessible) exhibition at the different locations (>3000 people), but the future archive (House of
HIV 2.0) which is initiated afterwards. 2021 was the moment of communities that organized
themselves back in the 1980s and 1990s to remember that era, but were during the process
confronted with a new pandemic. HIV/Aids as a previous pandemic that was clearly still in the daily
lives of those affected, but not remembered as a pandemic anymore to the public. In the media
references and comparisons were made to pandemic as the Spanish flu of 1918 and not to hiv-aids
although the last one happened historically speaking just around the corner.

House of HIV is now the building block for a new archive and collecting of stories especially for the
long-term survivors who now enter the new phase of elderly care which is not always prepared and
social impact of stigma and exclusion still exist, medical challenges as the elderly bodies had so much
to endure with all trial therapies, and society is less aware of these challenges ahead. Therefore, the
impact of House of HIV is not only the exhibition itself, but it marks a new revival of interest in the
story of the fight against HIV/Aids and goes further beyond the exhibition held back in 2022!