Chris Hayward: Spending time in the company of truly courageous people

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Striking exhibition on HIV/AIDS pandemic opening at London Metropolitan Archives

Five minutes’ walk from Sadlers Wells in Islington is London Metropolitan Archives – an institution that, for Londoners with a keen interest in the capital’s history, has a special place in their hearts.

LMA, which is owned by the City of London Corporation, is London’s archive and in essence, its memory. It describes itself as a public research centre, but it is also an absolute treasure trove open to all.

Whether you are a City resident or worker researching your family tree or checking statistics for a presentation or a local historian consulting an old map of your borough, LMA’s doors are open to you, offering a fascinating range of exhibitions and events. Contained within its walls and basements are over 100km of shelving and strongrooms that house hundreds of thousands of items not found anywhere else in the world. Most of them unique, many of them ancient, some handwritten, or beautifully illustrated: books, documents, maps, photographs, and films – from businesses, schools, hospitals, charities, and many other organisations.

The oldest document in LMA’s collections is the William Charter, dating from 1067, while the newest may have been purchased or loaned to the archives a few weeks ago.

NOW READ: Striking collection of HIV/AIDS pandemic interviews to be available at London Metropolitan Archives

One of the most recent additions to the archives is of particular significance, thanks to a major new initiative between LMA, the City Corporation, and the National HIV Story Trust. Over the last six years, LMA and the charity have worked together to record, collate, and archive over 100 filmed interviews with people affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic of the 1980s and 1990s.

Pandemic is a word that few of us heard or used regularly until a few years ago, and older readers will remember how the HIV/AIDS pandemic caused untold misery and suffering in the UK. And now, 150 hours of personal testimony about this pandemic are publicly available to view at LMA.

Members of the LGBTQ+ community and heterosexual people with HIV or AIDS, and haemophiliacs infected with contaminated blood, as well as doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals, waived their anonymity and volunteered to tell their stories. Hospital bedsheets incinerated. Trays of food left to go cold outside patients’ doors on wards. People sacked from their jobs. Breathtakingly homophobic media coverage of the virus, and those dying of it. Coffins buried, encased in concrete.

Despite the desperately sad themes running through the interviews, there is a positive note to strike about completing this work successfully, because this archive will benefit researchers, social historians, medical staff, educators, documentary makers, and the public for many years to come.

When this collection of interviews was launched, the chair and co-founder of the National HIV Story Trust remarked that the history of HIV and AIDS now spans 40 years and yet, without recorded personal testimony, it was in danger of being forgotten. I am very proud that we are playing our part to ensure that this will not happen.

I commend this archive to you, and I hope that you will want to spend time in the company of some of these courageous people.

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