Quilty Table

Digital humanities enhances emotional experience of viewing AIDS Quilt

HUMANITIES, September/October 2012, Volume 33, Number 5

Saying you’re going to the Smithsonian while visiting Washington, D.C., is a little like saying you’re going to read the Bible over the weekend. So, when you hear somebody say that they viewed the AIDS Memorial Quilt on the National Mall this summer (implying that they laid their eyes on every one of the 91,000 names), you might well ask yourself, ‘The whole thing?’ The answer would probably be yes because for the first time, thanks to an interactive tabletop called Tilty Table, visitors could in fact take in the whole Quilt, every acre of its expanse up and down the Mall, without a single step.

The interactive browser, which displays the quilt on a Microsoft surface, was on hand in June as the actual AIDS Quilt was laid out in its entirety on the National Mall for the first time since 1996. Tilty Table can offer either a bird’s-eye view or filter a database of AIDS Quilt images and provide results according to specific parameters. If a visitor wished to view all the panels from, say, Georgia, submitted before 2000 for males age forty and younger, they were able to retrieve that particular grouping and examine it panel by panel in a few moments, something that would have taken many hours or days to accomplish on foot.

The digital archive of the Quilt materials is what Anne Balsamo, former director of Research in Public Interactives at the Annenburg School for Communication and Journalism, calls a “Big (Digital) Humanities Project,” akin to the “Big Science Project” of some years ago for sequencing the human genome. This technology, supported by an NEH Digital Start-Up grant, is a perfect example of how the digital humanities can augment a unique physical experience. After the Quilt’s appearance on the Mall, the AIDS Quilt Touch mobile web app will begin stitching together displays for people the world over.