A worn pair of nurse’s shoes. That coronavirus model Anthony Fauci used in public briefings. Oral histories, iconic photos and social media posts. All of us are curators now, and what we preserve — as well as what we don’t — will write the pandemic story.
By Karen Emslie
(30 Jul 2021, feed from Knowable Magazine) I know China is far away, but this virus is faster than you think, so maybe rethink your Saturday night plans.
— Urgent Messages from Italians in Coronavirus Quarantine, YouTube.
In March 2020, Italians in quarantine recorded video messages addressed to “themselves of 10 days ago,” before the country went into a national lockdown. The video went viral: a warning to the rest of Europe and the US of what was coming. These ordinary citizens, with names like Anna, Salvatore and Francesca, told us:
A huge mess is about to happen . . . A nice quarantine, the type you only see in movies . . . A whole nation stuck at home. Didn’t see that coming, uh?
I was in Spain, where one of the world’s strictest lockdowns had been enforced days earlier. There were police controls, harsh fines for leaving home without valid reason. No outdoor exercise was allowed; even the kids were shut in. I shared the Italian video with friends in the US and UK, urging them to prepare. “But surely they won’t close the schools,” said one.
That all seems so terribly long ago — a watershed moment captured from the pandemic’s early days. It is something that will help future generations to understand, something to be saved — a digital artifact, now.
As we started to realize that this was going to be a big deal, a collective feeling of living through history kicked in. Museums asked people to save objects of importance, like masks, PPE and gloves. National institutions — the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, the National Museum of Singapore and more — launched appeals for pandemic artifacts.
Other museums and community groups were also quick to act. The Vermont Historical Society started to document the outbreak of the virus in Vermont, the Historical Museum of Urahoro, in Hokkaido, Japan, began collecting everyday pandemic-themed objects, Vietnamese artists launched a virtual Covid museum on Facebook. In the UK, the National Archives web team started crawling the Internet for Covid-related terms to capture the government’s response to the pandemic.
Private citizens started to document, too — on social media, in journals and sketchbooks. Awareness that future generations would look back prompted many of us to save objects of everyday importance. They will be stashed in boxes, in attics, and shown to our descendants years later: the mask that Granny wore during the big pandemic, Great Uncle Jeff’s Covid vaccine card.
All around the world, we have been collecting historical relics in real time.
The tricky act of curation
The building blocks of collecting appear relatively simple. Artifacts — physical objects, such as tools and household items, that were made in the past — are gathered by curators.
But this simplicity is deceptive. As Alexandra Lord, chair of the division of medicine and science at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, told me, “Curators are tasked with collecting and documenting and caring for objects that can help us to understand the past.” It’s the assessing and choosing — which objects are relevant, and which are not — that makes curation very tricky. Museum mission statements and collections management policies guide curators as they select, edit, arrange and interpret.
Who collects and what is collected has changed over time. “The traditional museum was composed of collections that they inherited from donors who tended to be elites, who were into travel and collecting objects of curiosity, as they once called them, from the exotic colonial dominion,” says social scientist and curator Kali-Ahset Amen, associate director of the Billie Holiday Project for Liberation Arts at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Nowadays, issues-based museums, tackling topics such as genocide and human rights, have become more prolific, says Amen. They are often story-driven rather than collections-driven. Artifacts may also be digital — oral histories, videos and, of course, social media posts.
Whether a museum is focused on American history, contemporary art or even ice cream, curation is usually shaped by hindsight and knowledge of how a story pans out. But every so often, something so enormous happens that it demands to be documented in real time, collected without hindsight. Something like Covid-19.
Preparing to remember
Lord’s collecting strategy aims to capture the story of medicine and science in the American nation from the 18th century to the present day. Her team started to think about collecting around the pandemic in late January 2020. By March, it was clear that this was not just a medical story but a global health crisis affecting all aspects of society. Capturing the moment as it happened — collecting diaries, masks, medical scrubs — seemed crucial.
“When Covid hit, what struck me as a medical historian was how much we as a global community have forgotten what it is like to see disease, to see and experience a pandemic and an epidemic as a very real threat,” she says.
Although there have been multiple health crises in recent history, such as the ongoing global HIV/AIDS epidemic, the 2002-04 SARS outbreak and the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, many people — by chance, by privilege — have been in a position to detach themselves, to not feel personally threatened. And the very success of medicine in controlling disease over the last hundred or so years has allowed us to forget what life was like when sickness was ever-present.
But with Covid, “now, all of a sudden, all people were worrying about a disease in a way that people did in the 1880s,” says Lord. And since sooner or later it will happen again, “it is very important to remind people of how people in the past dealt with this.”
Real-time or rapid-response collecting is not easy for curators. The story hasn’t ended yet. And there are so many objects and digital artifacts that could be collected: masks, makeshift PPE, vaccine vials, testing kits, lockdown diaries, sourdough recipes, conspiracy videos, gloves, home-schooling resources.
What is relevant, what is not? What must be saved now? What can be collected later? What do museums have space for?
Read more from the original article here from Knowable Magazine.