World AIDS Museum Coming to South Florida

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Organizers seek to increase awareness and decrease stigma

It’s a story that is unfolding as we go, but for its principle characters one thing remains clear.

“This can’t happen again,” Hugh Beswick said.

What Beswick is referring to is the AIDS crisis, which exploded during the 1980s and has since claimed the lives of 26 million people worldwide. To memorialize those lost and educate the masses, Beswick has joined forces with a host of community leaders in South Florida to open the World AIDS Museum and Educational Center.

The museum’s purpose is to document, remember, educate, enlighten and empower, said Beswick, chairman of the museum’s board of directors. Located at 1201 NE 26th Street, Suite 111, the museum will be the first of its kind dedicated to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

One question Beswick hears a lot is “why is this in South Florida?”

“This is ground zero for HIV conversion rate,” Beswick said. Indeed, statistics show Broward and Miami-Dade counties with the highest new infection rates per capita of anywhere in the country. With such a large population affected by HIV, Beswick said there’s a natural interest in what the museum has to offer.

Those plans include a virtual quilt to remember those lost to HIV/AIDS along with an interactive multimedia experience that allow visitors to the museum to share their stories and experiences. Beswick said he realizes the museum will eventually outgrow its Wilton Station suite, but this is a good problem to have.

“You have to keep start-up costs in mind,” he said. “If we had done this in New York or San Francisco those costs would have been much higher. We are very fortunate to have such strong support from the community here in South Florida.”

Such support was bolstered by the recent appearance of basketball legend and longtime HIV/AIDS advocate, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who attended a dedication ceremony for the museum. Johnson, who has been very open during the course of his 21-year journey with HIV, said there is still a long way to go in eradicating the disease and a museum will definitely help with that mission.

Johnson donated one of his No. 32 Los Angeles Lakers jerseys to be displayed at the museum. Beswick said there will be other exhibits that make stops at the museum, some national in scope such as a photography collection of the AIDS crisis in New York during the 1980s; while others feature local people like Edward Sparan. Sparan, a Fort Lauderdale actor/director, created a 10-foot, 50-pound AIDS ribbon out of his medicine bottles.

Above all, the goal of the museum is to memorialize the epidemic in a similar way to that of memorials to the 9/11 victims in New York and the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Fighting stigma is also of chief concern.

“The world cannot isolate groups and fail to help because this group may not represent everyone,” said museum CEO Steve Stagon. “By addressing the disease with research and technology, AIDS can not only be controlled, but it is on the brink of eradication. We should have been at this point years ago.”

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