Museums serve many roles in a modern community, providing education, fun, wellbeing, a window into other worlds and more. But one of the key things that a museum can do is help people to understand moments in history. By documenting the pandemic that we are living through, museums can help us to make sense of it. Both in the short and the long term. This process puts together a collective memory of the event.
Why are museums documenting the pandemic?
Documenting current events is not new – museums have been collecting present-day items for years.
In 2014, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum introduced rapid response collecting as an ongoing part of its overall collecting strategy. While it perhaps wasn’t the first to do this type of collecting, it is one of the most well-known examples. The opening of its dedicated Rapid Response gallery means that the term is now familiar to many.
The Museum introduces the concept on its website by saying that it “represents a unique strand of the V&A’s collecting activity, with each new acquisition raising different questions about economic, political and social change, globalisation, technology and the law.”
Talking to the Guardian back in 2014 after the gallery opened, curator Corinna Gardner said, “The Rapid Response gallery is about the museum looking outwards and engaging with topics that are in the news. It’s an opportunity to think afresh and respond in a more agile way, rather than just buying more chairs.”
We are living through a key moment in history. Collecting objects and memories that show what life is like during a pandemic will help museums to create future exhibitions that tell the real story.
Objects such as face masks, home-schooling plans and even screenshots of Zoom meetings take on a new significance when looking at them in terms of the social and economic impact of the pandemic.
Previous examples of rapid response collecting
Through rapid response collecting, museums can provide a way for the public to reflect on and engage with current events.
For example, in 2016 The Migration Museum tackled the topic of the migration crisis with an exhibition called Call me by my name: stories from Calais and beyond.
This multimedia exhibition presented artwork that was made from materials found in the Calais camp, drawings of the camp and art & photography by the people living there. It also featured lifejackets, embedded with the stories of those who wore them.
Responding to moments in time
In the US, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has been collecting items in response to racial tensions. For instance, posters, buttons, clothing, gas masks and more. Many of these are collected from protests and rallies. The museum’s curators have been reaching out in person or through social media to ask for donations of such objects.
“Any moment when America is debating its identity, it’s crucial to collect it,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, the museum’s director, in an interview with the New York Times.
In 2018 Brenda Malone, a curator at the National Museum of Ireland, put out a call on social media for donations following the country’s abortion referendum. The museum now holds a collection of protest banners, campaign posters and even boarding passes of those who travelled back to Ireland specifically to vote. Together, these capture the mood of a nation at a key moment in its history.
I’m collecting for the National Museum – I’m looking for a banner that was out on the marches (or on display during the campaign) for the collection to record this moment – please get in touch if you have any banners to have preserved in the National Collections
— TheCricketBatThatDiedforIreland (@BrenMalone) May 27, 2018
How can museums document the pandemic?
Documenting our everyday experiences has never been easier. Unlike previous pandemics, most people have access to a camera, and social media is full of first-hand accounts and experiences.
This type of collection can consist of a wide range of materials. For example, personal stories, crafts and artwork made during the lockdown, items of PPE, screenshots of home meetings…the list is endless. So how do curators start tackling this mountain of content?
As they start to document the pandemic, museums have begun by putting out a call for submissions. Some have asked people to share how they have been feeling, or what they have been doing during the crisis. Others have asked for things like official signs and face masks, while some are collecting social media content.
Examples of COVID-19 collections
The New-York Historical Society is no stranger to rapid response collecting, having already collected items related to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This included scraps of the World Trade Center, public signs, letters and firefighter helmets.
Since then, it has also documented other key moments in the life of the city. From Occupy Wall Street to the Climate Strikes. Now, the museum is also documenting the pandemic.
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“This is a history that everyone will be looking back on,” said Margi Hofer, museum director, in an interview with The Guardian. “We hope people will be able to learn from it and be better prepared in an event like this in the future. To be better prepared to cope, as well.”
So far, it has a wide range of items, from closed shop signs to photographs of the empty streets. People who want to donate to the collection, which will become part of the Museum’s wider History Responds series, can fill in a form on its website.
“Our History Responds initiative collects history as it’s unfolding,” says a statement on the Museum’s website. “In an effort to preserve historically important moments for future generations, the New-York Historical Society seeks relevant materials during or immediately following major events like celebrations, protests, and natural disasters.”
A moment in time
Meanwhile, three Smithsonian museums in D.C. are also launching coronavirus collection projects. These museums aiming to document the pandemic are the National Museum of American History; the National Museum of African American History and Culture; and the Anacostia Community Museum.
“We’re thinking about test kits, ventilators,” said Alexandra Lord, the chair of the American History Museum’s medicine and science division in an interview. “But obviously those are objects we will not collect until the pandemic has really wound down. We don’t want to put pressure on supplies.”
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Like many other museums, Smithsonian staff are initially only calling for digital submissions. This is due to health concerns regarding objects changing hands during the COVID-19 outbreak. So far, these have included things like shopping lists and screenshots of virtual meetings.
But the museums are also looking for human stories to bring these to life. For instance, the Anacostia Community Museum has launched a project called Moments of Resilience. This asks locals to share stories of how communities have been supporting each other during the crisis.
European museums documenting the pandemic
In Europe, staff at Denmark’s Vesthimmerlands Museum have also been busy documenting the pandemic. Curator Maria Hagstrup and colleagues took to the streets during the country’s lockdown. They took pictures of the quiet streets and deserted shops. In addition to this, the museum is also collecting firsthand accounts from residents.
“Usually, we think of a museum as a place with objects behind solid glass,” said Hagstrup in an interview. “But right now, we have a chance to get people’s impressions in the moment, before they’ve even had time to reflect on them.”
The museum began the collection with images, stories and even poems. It will also add objects such as masks, drawings and signs.
Elsewhere in Europe, museums across Germany, many of which are now opening their doors again, are documenting the pandemic too. Here, museum staff have been putting out calls for submissions, asking the public not to discard objects from life under lockdown. Some have asked for photos, others have asked people to send in items.
For example, the Cologne City Museum has catalogued a leaflet from the local government with advice on dealing with coronavirus. It is also acquiring two protective face masks worn at the last council meeting in Cologne. One was worn by one of the city’s mayors.
Homelife under lockdown
In the UK, the Museum of the Home explores the history of the home and how people live together. People across the country have been urged to stay in their homes during the pandemic. So, it makes sense for the museum to document the impact this has had on people’s home lives.
On its website, the museum says: “How are you using your home? Does your living room now have multiple uses as a workplace, school or gym? If you have any outdoor space what are you using it for?
“Are you leaving home to carry out your role as a key worker? Separated from your family or loved ones? Spending considerably more time with your flatmates or family? Our homes have never been more important.”
To take part, people in the UK are being asked to answer seven questions about themselves and their homes, as well as submitting up to five photographs of their home. These will become part of the Museum’s Documenting Homes collection. This is a constantly expanding archive that represents homes from the 1900s up to the present day.
Ethical considerations of documenting the pandemic
It’s a difficult time to start a new collection. And in addition to the potential health risks of taking in objects during the pandemic, there are also some ethical considerations. Museums should think about these before they begin documenting.
The Museums Associations has released a statement looking at how museums can approach the collection of materials related to the COVID-19 outbreak with “sensitivity and respect” and act in an ethical way. An excerpt from this reads:
“We should consider how we engage the public in any contemporary collecting of Covid-19 material in a supportive and considered way,” the statement says. “We should be open about what we are collecting and why and should consider the interpretation and care of digital items including social media posts and other material.”
How are museums collecting the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown?
— Museums Association (@MuseumsAssoc) April 3, 2020
It also states: “We should be open about what we are doing, clear about our motivations and respectful of people’s emotions and feelings. This also applies to our support for staff and volunteers.”
One other key point is that the virus has disproportionately affected minorities and vulnerable people, as discussed at an #AAMvirtual session by Josh Sharfstein, M.D., from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. It is important for a collection that attempts to tell the story of this crisis to reflect this.
The London Transport Museum has also published a Contemporary Collecting Ethical Toolkit. This provides guides and case studies for this type of project. It also provides advice on collecting around potentially traumatic and distressing subjects.
On Twitter, one of the Museum’s curators, Ellie Miles, also warned against trying to do too much, too quickly. She spoke of the risk of burning out during such a stressful time.
Take time, breathe, and act as safely as you can. Don’t burn out racing to get a responsive project underway in a race against time. Curating means taking care. Do all you can to ensure you and others are as safe as they can be – physically and mentally.
— Ellie Miles (@ellie__miles) April 1, 2020
If done correctly, documenting the pandemic for future audiences could help people to understand and remember this unique moment in time and its impact on society.
Background image kind courtesy of the Museum of The Home