Covid curios: Recording the Coronavirus pandemic

By: |
September 27, 2020 2:30 AM

From masks, letters and test kits to ventilators and grocery lists, museums across the world are collecting coronavirus artefacts to give future generations a glimpse of how the crisis affected people

Masks at factory in Shanghai (Reuters Image)Masks at factory in Shanghai (Reuters Image)

How will future generations know what coronavirus meant for the world? Perhaps it is this question that has made museums collect artefacts reflecting the pandemic and the virus as official records for future generations.

Take, for instance, Washington DC’s Smithsonian, collectively called the Smithsonian Institution. Its curators are working on a project that would keep a record of the pandemic. This includes collecting personal protective gear, test kits, letters from patients, ventilators and grocery lists. The Smithsonian has also launched a new storytelling initiative called Moments of Resilience, where they will hear stories of how communities are supporting each other during this time.

The Anacostia Community Museum in Anacostia, Washington, DC, is one of the 20 museums under the umbrella of the Smithsonian Institution and was the first federally funded community museum in the US. It collects documents of urban communities relating to lives of urban residents, from home life and everyday activities to community-building efforts of artists, activists and others. The holdings reflect a tremendous diversity of experiences, perspectives and achievements in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area and other cities across the US.

In a recent podcast, Melanie Adams, director, Anacostia Community Museum, explains how the new normal is preventing her from engaging in everyday activities. “The word ‘community’ is more important than ever, as individuals are finding support from their communities. These communities could be your family, friends, religious institutions, school or local barber shop or hair salon. The museum’s mission is to amplify the collective power of the community and comfort each other in this time of need. We want to hear the stories of how community members are supporting each other on a day-to-day basis. Some stories will be shared on our social media channels, while others may become part of the museum’s collection,” Adams said.

Throughout its 53-year history, the Anacostia Community Museum has focussed on telling stories of individuals and events of the Washington, DC, region left out of the history books, with stories of conflict resilience and, most importantly, community action that led to a better future for all.

Then curators at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a Smithsonian Institution museum located in Washington, DC, are collecting objects that tell the stories of black Americans during the pandemic. For the pilot programme, they have asked residents of Baltimore, Chicago, Denver and New Orleans to upload oral histories, images and short videos on an online platform.

The Wien Museum (the Vienna Museum) in Austria has also launched an appeal to collect references to objects that tell of the changed private or professional lives in the times of corona. Over 1,800 photos of masks, signs and other objects have already been received by the Vienna Museum.

London’s Victoria and Albert Museum has also started a project called Pandemic Objects. It’s an editorial project that compiles and reflects on objects that have taken on new meaning and purpose during the coronavirus outbreak. During times of a pandemic, a host of everyday often-overlooked ‘objects’ (in the widest possible sense of the term) are suddenly charged with new urgency. Toilet paper becomes a symbol of public panic, a forehead thermometer a tool for social control, convention centres become hospitals, while parks become contested public commodities. By compiling these objects and reflecting on their changing purpose and meaning, this space aims to paint a unique picture of the pandemic and the pivotal role objects play within it.

At the Historical Museum of Urahoro in Hokkaido, northern Japan, curator Makoto Mochida showcases a list of food items, directions for attending a funeral, a note to cancel summer celebrations, as well as everyday objects of life in the pandemic.

Germany’s Cologne City Museum, too, aims to collect as many objects as possible to give future generations a glimpse of how the pandemic affected people.

According to The New York Times, the National Museum of Finland has enlisted its curators and researchers to keep tabs on the pandemic in hopes of launching future exhibitions on the health crisis. Moreover, institutions in Denmark, Slovenia and Switzerland have already launched their own methods to preserve information such as requesting memoirs of citizens and acquiring physical objects that touch on different aspects of the outbreak.

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