Sydney’s LGBT Museum QTOPIA Will Re-create Australia’s First HIV/AIDS Unit – Ward 17

Sydney’s LGBT Museum QTOPIA Will Re-create Australia’s First HIV/AIDS Unit – Ward 17
Image: Qtopia Board members. Photo: Shibu Thomas

Sydney’s new LGBTQI museum Qtopia has announced its very first exhibition – a restaging of Ward 17 South, Australia’s first dedicated HIV/AIDS unit that was located at St Vincent’s hospital. 

On Wednesday, Qtopia signed  a lease with the City of Sydney for a temporary venue at the Bandstand in Green Park, Darlinghurst. For Sydney WorldPride, from February 17 – March 5, 2023, Qtopia will have two exhibition spaces – Green Park Bandstand and the National Art School, according to CEO Greg Fisher. 

The Ward 17 installation will be set up at the National Art School premises. David Polson, Chairman of Qtopia Sydney, said Ward 17 holds a special place in Sydney’s LGBTQI history. 

“Between 1984 and 2000, the first dedicated HIV/AIDS unit in Australia – Ward 17 – was a haven for people who were infected with HIV/ AIDS, people who were very sick, who were dying and who were challenged with a situation that until most recently, no one had ever envisaged,” said Polson. 

Ward 17 Was Special To Sydney’s LGBTQI Community

Bandstand in Green Park, Darlinghurst will be Qtopia’s inaugural venue.

In an interaction with the media on Wednesday, Polson explained his vision for the exhibition. The installation will include videos of survivors, doctors and nurses from that period as well as a physical representation of the actual hospital ward. 

“Ward 17 in St Vincent’s Hospital is special to Sydney and it all started with the Sisters of Charity. They stood up to the Pope, to the Archbishop of Sydney, they stood up to everyone. They said it doesn’t matter who these people are, they need our support, they need our care. They made it a haven and if it wasn’t for the nuns it would never have been there,” Polson, an avowed atheist, said. 

“It did become a place of awful, terrible suffering. I have been asked this question before – why on earth are you reconstructing this?”  Poslon said he had a simple answer. 

“This ward was where people came and held the hands of dying friends. You people, who weren’t there, you didn’t know, you didn’t understand. It’s forgotten today,” said Polson. “Everyone thinks HIV/ AIDS is over. It’s not. it’s still very real. And we need to remind people about what happened back then.”

Stories Of LGBTQI Communities In Sydney

According to Polson, the exhibition will also showcase that the period was not only about suffering, but was also a pivotal moment that needs to be celebrated. 

“It was incredible. We have to remember it was a time of great celebration. Sydney reacted like nowhere else in the world. Everywhere else in the world, the reaction was punitive. The LGBTQI community in Sydney came together as a whole. I’ve never seen a community so full of love, support and care ever since. We’ve got to remember and celebrate that,” added Polson. 

In a statement, NAS Director and CEO Steven Alderton said that the institution was “thrilled to be in a position to support Qtopia Sydney”.

“We think this aligns beautifully not only with the goals and objectives of Sydney WorldPride 2023, but with the overarching vision of Qtopia Sydney and we are excited to be a part of their journey.”

“Our remarkable campus is imbued with so much history and is deeply embedded within many of the stories of this time. This partnership represents our ongoing commitment to our LGBTQIA+ communities, highlighting the many aspects of life in this city and in this instance, the trials and tribulations and the vibrant achievements of Sydney’s Queer Community over decades,” added Alderton.

Qtopia Can Save Lives, Says Ian Roberts

While the museum will be temporarily located at the Green Park Bandstand, CEO Greg Fisher said the board’s choice for a permanent location for Qtopia was the Darlinghurst police station. 

Ian Roberts, who in 1995 became the first professional rugby player to come out as gay, is one of the board members of Qtopia. “We have big aspirations and Qtopia has the potential to save lives,” Roberts said. 

“When I came out, the thing that struck me most was the response I got, the letters from young LGBTQI people and families and the effect and the level of grief that was within those letters,” said Roberts.

According to the former rugby legend, Qtopia will conduct courses for schools, corporates and allies. “I really do believe that for our pride communities, education is our greatest shield. Qtopia has the potential to become a beacon of light and a beacon of hope for young LGBTQI people.”

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