New library exhibit displays how looking back helps us move forward

A touching archive exhibit in the Trexler Library reminds Muhlenberg students, alumni and staff how a community can blossom amidst the confusion of an epidemic.

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The Lehigh Valley community's response to the AIDS epidemic. Photo by Keanna Pena '25.

Almost 40 years since the AIDS epidemic swept the United States, Susan Falciani Maldonado, Muhlenberg’s special collections and archives librarian, and the library team compiled an exhibit in the Trexler Library Rare Books Room called “HIV and AIDS Activism and Advocacy in the Lehigh Valley.”

Walking into the room feels almost like stepping into a page of history. The exhibit features artifacts, articles, pictures, memorabilia and a link to provide online access to students or staff who may not be able to attend in person. The caption cards surrounding different artifacts offer detailed information about the pieces presented and their significance.

It is a simple exhibit that is able to capture something unique and historical. Yet viewing the stories written by students in that era feels familiar. Hearing students’ voices from 40 years ago come together to unite and persevere despite a time of loss and confusion is both too familiar and simultaneously uplifting.

The first caption on display describes recent discussions with the Lehigh Valley LGBT Community Archive at the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center surrounding HIV/AIDS and COVID-19. The conversations centered around comparing the AIDS epidemic to the country’s current attitude toward the COVID-19 pandemic. Lehigh Valley community member Mitch Hemphill emphasized this, saying in one of the displays, “I say that the knowledge wasn’t there in the beginning and then it was a bit sketchy as we did get it. And a lot of us still carried on, thinking this won’t affect me.”

The exhibit displays the fear and hatred that the stigma surrounding the AIDS epidemic was directly rooted in. Fear and hatred of a disease no one understood resulted in discrimination and stereotypes that still affect the LGBTQ+ community today.

 “I say that the knowledge wasn’t there in the beginning and then it was a bit sketchy as we did get it. And a lot of us still carried on, thinking this won’t affect me.”

Mitch Hemphill, Lehigh Valley community member

For instance, no less than three weeks ago, acclaimed rapper DaBaby stated in a live concert that “[if] you didn’t show up today with HIV, AIDS, any of them deadly sexually transmitted diseases that’ll make you die in two or three weeks, put your cellphone light in the air.” This demonstrates that stigmatizing and stereotyping a marginalized community enables the spread of misinformation and judgment that can span weeks, decades and centuries.

Reflecting on the stigmas that have followed the LGBTQ+ community to the present day is important and necessary. The exhibit that is being showcased right now would have been pertinent regardless of when it was displayed. However, choosing to present it now is relevant  for a multitude of reasons.

 “HIV and AIDS Activism and Advocacy in the Lehigh Valley” is an exhibit that encourages the Muhlenberg community to look inward. To seek community in a time of darkness is difficult and can feel impossible. However, being given the opportunity to see ourselves mirrored in students from 40 years ago offers an insight many did not know existed.

“I really loved the HIV/AIDS display. As soon as I walked into the room, I knew that what I was looking at was important. All of the passages and pictures on display showed that the Allentown community was active in its support for proper research and information on this disease, which was really great to see.”

Keanna Pena ‘25

“I really loved the HIV/AIDS display. As soon as I walked into the room, I knew that what I was looking at was important. All of the passages and pictures on display showed that the Allentown community was active in its support for proper research and information on this disease, which was really great to see,” said Keanna Pena ‘25, who visited the exhibit upon its opening.

It allows the community to reflect on the similarities and differences between the past and present. The push for social justice, the constant spread of misinformation, the stigmas mirrored today with marginalized communities and COVID-19 and the feeling of being lonely while all together.


Looking back and learning through the “HIV and AIDS Activism and Advocacy in the Lehigh Valley” display in the Trexler Library may seem like a small thing. But to a student, staff member, or community member feeling confused or lost, looking back can truly make a positive post-pandemic future seem a little more achievable.

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