Pain and Hope: 20 Years of HIV/AIDS in Vietnam


of an Exhibition

by Kathleen McLean

Published on March 06, 2011, Modified on December 19, 2013

  • Description:

    I recently had the privilege of visiting and working with the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology (VME) in Ha Noi. A temporary exhibition, “Pain and Hope: 20 Years of HIV/AIDS in Vietnam,” was on view while I was there, developed by in-house VME staff working with Vietnam’s Center for Community Health Research and Development. What I found so powerful about this thought provoking exhibition were the symbolic visual narratives created to support personal stories woven throughout:

    • A woman—the first person in Vietnam to be diagnosed as HIV-positive—overcomes her depression by buying beautiful dresses. At the entrance to the exhibition, a mannequin sits in a red space, wearing the first dress she bought. Text on the wall, in Vietnamese, French, and English reads, “Anyone can . . .”

    • Faced with shame and fear, a person with AIDS contemplates eating the poisonous leaves of a native tree. A branch with these leaves hangs in a display case above the person’s belongings.

    • After his brother dies of AIDS, a man carries his brother’s blankets to the funeral on his neighbor’s bicycle. The neighbor, fearing contamination, hangs the bike outside in the sun for one month, pouring boiling water on it every day. Above a simple platform and in front of a photo of a village with rice fields, a bicycle hangs upside down.

    • To overcome his heroin addiction, a young man with AIDS asks his father to restrain him and protect his wife. In a small cottage setting, chains lay attached to a Vietnamese bed.

    The exhibition also contains the requisite scientific animations of the virus, and descriptions of ongoing scientific research to find a cure. And interspersed among the scientific explanations and the personal stories are several evocative tableaus: an image of a nursery school with several real toys in front, juxtaposed with a cabinet of drugs and small funerary urns for ashes; and a medical office with AIDS information, free condoms, and a table with medical equipment where visitors can get professional counseling about HIV and AIDS.

    Towards the end of the exhibition, an unusual assortment of objects jolts us out of the meta narrative and into an untethered zone of energy. A dress made of condoms, an altar made of waste cans and bottles collected by a group of children who work as waste collectors, and a space for visitors to leave their comments and messages evoke a surprisingly hopeful spirit.

Latest Comments (1)

Narrative, information, and response

by Carey Tisdal - March 08, 2011

I am fascinated with the use of narrative as the overarching framework for this exhibition. To me, this is a most promising approach to let people make meaning and connections to information in a way that incorporates it into their lives. Can you think of examples of other exhibitions that use narrative are an overarching framework?

One of my first evaluations was of the Smithsonian’s Rain Forest exhibitions where a local adaption had been added to allow people to write postcards to their senators and congress people. Compared to the visitors at the original site, we found these visitors left with much more positive outlooks. Being invited to act and respond makes such a difference.

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